I didn’t watch it until Sunday night. Busy weekend, you see. But my wife had told me the previous evening; she’d heard it somewhere on the news. I couldn’t work out whether that was good or not, that a person whose only interest in the sport was through her obsessed husband, could name a famous horse that had died but not who had won the race.
Of course, whatever Bill Shankly said, death shows the winning and losing of a sporting contest for what it is – an irrelevant frivolity – but I fear that if we are not careful the sports pages shall mirror so many other media streams as predominantly vehicles for grief and sadness. Perhaps now, in a world of increasing grief and sadness, we need sport more than ever to remain irrelevant and frivolous.
So I knew what was coming, I thought. Perhaps Many Clouds would suffer a ghastly fall, or be pulled up following a recurrence of his ataxia that had worried us all after his finest hour at Aintree. I was wrong.
It was a thrilling race that epitomised the best of National Hunt racing, two brave and honest horses locked together over the final two fences and giving everything in the final thrust for the line. My prediction of the eventual winner changed a thousand times in the frantic ebb and flow of the famous Cheltenham hill, and briefly I was caught in the moment and had forgotten what was to follow. I felt like a teenager again, discovering the raw beauty of the racehorse afresh and without the accumulated weight of all those mental scars. Somehow, Many Clouds rolled back the years and the mileage on the clock to repel the much-vaunted young pretender Thistlecrack.
I studied the TV as he pulled up at the top of the hill. No wobble, he looked alright, perhaps my wife had got it wrong? For one small, delicate, beautiful speck in time, there was hope. And then it was dashed – the news came through that he had collapsed. Clever camera angles became tainted by staff running with green screens to erect around the horror, and the faces of the crowd could not hide the despair. Ruby Walsh thought he would get up. He didn’t.
Oliver Sherwood was brave and eloquent in the aftermath, wanting us to remember his horse as the champion that he was. They were words of supreme grace and fortitude that I doubt I would have managed in similar circumstances. Perhaps when you have been so closely associated with many horses, such as a trainer or jockey, you gain a perspective on these things not afforded to the armchair fan.
I knew when I lost my One Man almost 20 years ago that the lure of ownership had died along with the dashing grey. I simply couldn’t bear to see a horse I own die; it’s hard enough to watch from a distance. I wouldn’t have been as brave as Sherwood. I would have blubbed and wailed at the grotesque unfairness. No happy memories would have balanced the pain.
Of course we should celebrate the life and achievements of an incredible animal, one who would “go through a brick wall for you” as Sherwood said. And in time I am sure I and others will get there. But for the moment I have circled the wagons and hunkered down in a dark, brooding malaise over my love for a sport that at times seems so impossibly cruel.
A post-mortem on Monday revealed that it was not ataxia that had claimed Many Clouds but a severe pulmonary haemorrhage. There was no underlying health issue; nobody could have spotted the signs or pre-empted the episode. The fatality rate in jumps horses for this is 0.048%. Since the Horserace Betting Levy Board started investing tens of millions in research at the start of the millennium, the overall fatality rate in British racing has fallen by a third.
But for me, no brave words or persuasive statistics will help. Not at the moment. No uplifting memories of glories past will bring him back. Many Clouds is dead. If the silver lining is that we can remember his Grand National win, it is a tarnished and desolate one.