Let me make this clear from the off – this title does not refer to The Wife, who remains devastatingly attractive and remarkably patient. We don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day anyway – not a casualty of almost twenty long years of marital bliss, you understand, more a natural consequence of our anniversary being earlier in February. However, Sunday 14th February was significant this year as it was only the third time I went racing since finishing my grand tour back in May of last year.
A big bunch of the usual suspects had congregated in Devon for our traditional half-term get-together, and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss to make the short trip (on a map, anyway) to Exeter racecourse for their Valentine’s Day meeting. Despite a rousing call-to-arms (and with my family already confirmed as conscientious objectors) there was dissent, or at least a significant lack of interest, in the ranks and it was just my faithful Passepar-two Simon that joined me on a somewhat chilly afternoon.
En route we had become distracted by a few pubs and places surrounding our alma mater, and so managed to arrive at the course as the first race was underway. It was very busy, the good people of Devon demonstrating that there was nowhere more romantic to take their sweetheart than a wet and windswept field, and the Racing Post seller had disappeared yet again. I was reminded of a question that shadowed my racecourse quest last summer – how much revenue is lost by Centurycomm Ltd through unfulfilled requests for their racing daily?
No matter, as betting was underway for the second and I already had the answer. As I entered the betting ring I was paralysed by a vision, though I could not place it as a dream, premonition or déjà vu. The neon letters of Ghost River struck an instant chord and summoned unexplained images of a dark, dramatic and foreboding landscape. Simon and I plunged in at 4/1 in the five-runner novice hurdle against the 2/9 Nicholls favourite Politologue.
And they were off. And it was hard work. The going was officially described as heavy, but as we know there are different types of heavy and this seemed to be bordering on a quagmire. Anyone attempting to gauge it accurately would have lost their GoingStick. The three outsiders quickly dropped away and by the home turn Politologue and Ghost River had only each other for company. And then, a slow-motion ghastly lurch of a jump at the second last flight and it was all over.
Not many in the crowd were interested in the winner, Politologue, as he toiled over the last and passed the post in splendid isolation. Attention was drawn to the green screens erected around the stricken Ghost River just after the penultimate hurdle. Simon was convinced our horse was dead, but I felt it was a tired and sideways flop of a fall and suggested plaintively that the six year old chestnut gelding could be okay. He may just be winded; he didn’t seem to land on his neck; sometimes they get up. As the minutes ticked by this seemed a more and more forlorn hope, like a child at Christmas desperately wanting the box in front of them to morph into a new bike.
I didn’t want to watch any more. We drifted down from the busy stand and were fighting our way through the crowd to an unspecified destination when the announcement came over the PA system: “Ghost River has got up.” Excellent commentator, that Richard Hoiles.
The non-runners started filtering through – two of them in the next (in which half of the remaining field was pulled up) and four in the Veterans Chase reducing the field to just six. I like these Veterans Chases, a relatively new initiative which summarises the essence of National Hunt racing, the old favourites reappearing year after year. Reserved for ten year olds and above, these battle-hardened chasers had seen it all and could cope with the increasingly atrocious conditions. Couldn’t they?
The winner, and only horse to complete the three miles, was Midnight Prayer. His later write-up in the results pages said “finished alone and very tired” but these stark words don’t describe the horror of the closing stages. I wondered whether jockey Richard Johnson thought of pulling him up before the final fence. If I was the owner I wouldn’t have blamed him. Midnight Prayer clambered over the final fence like a drunken reveller stumbling over a kerb, but even then it took all of Johnson’s urgings to maintain forward momentum to the finishing post.
I love horse racing, and in particular I love a test of stamina and courage, but this Valentine’s Day was ugly, and I’m not even talking about my companion Simon. I suspect that a significant portion of the eclectic audience was new to the sport, and I wondered what impression they took away down the A38. This had turned from a spectacle of endurance into a war of attrition, and I didn’t want to watch any more.
In the past the deaths of horses have affected me greatly, but somehow this held equal resonance despite them all coming back safe and sound. It was like watching a boxer being beaten into submission, but there was no referee to stop it. I’m sure it’s not an easy job being a clerk of the course and deciding whether conditions are raceable, and the same must apply to the trainers who allow their charges to take part and the jockeys who are duty bound to obtain the best finishing position. They all faced tricky decisions that day, but for Simon and me it was a relatively easy final choice, and our best of a short afternoon. We left.
As we got into the car the usual text came through from Tammy with her plethora of bets for the last three races. I just knew Chase The Spud would win the next, the 11/1 outsider of the remaining four brave combatants in the graduation chase, but I couldn’t bring myself to go back and place the bet.
I was quiet that evening in the jovial madness of a rented house full of friends and offspring. I struggled to justify what I had just witnessed. Not to the others, as they exchanged stories from their respective days at beaches and cafes and local attractions, but to myself. It was all just so ugly. My mood was lifted when Simon discovered the source of my Ghost River vision, and I laughed as I realised that my fateful selection was not only entirely fanciful, but also based on completely the wrong name.