Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Special events

Oh dear: a week since my last post. I've obviously been either very slack or very busy. It's been the latter, I'm pleased to say: two trips to the races just, but plenty of other stuff going on. And now we've got Royal Ascot about to be going on, which shouldn't really be too much of a factor for me, except of course that it will be, because watching it, talking about it and thinking about it will be a real time-waster. Except it won't be time wasted, will it? We start with four tremendous races, with all eyes on the Aussies, all eyes on the umpteen horses from both Guineas plus Poule d'Essai des Poulains who are re-opposing in the St. James's Palace, and all eyes on Gorgeous George. You'd have thought that Ramonti would have the profile - recruited to Godolphin after a tremendous run in HK - to star in this event, but with Godolphin one can't take anything for granted nowadays. There's too much kicking Godolphin while they are down, but here's a thought which certainly isn't kicking Sheikh Mohammed when he's down: we've never been sure exactly who trains the Godolphin horses - whether it's Saeed, whether it was Jeremy Noseda, whether it was Tommy Albertrani, whether it is whoever has taken the latter's role, whether it's Simon Crisford, whether it's a committee - but doesn't it look as if the Sheikh himself holds the key role? While Godolphin were at their peak, the Sheikh was always there, visibly overseeing everything: as the stable expanded, the success per horse declined, which would be inevitable if one man were at the helm, but not really an issue if it were the work of a committee of however many staff were required; and now that his brother has died and he's running the country and inevitably has a lot less time to devote to the horses, the success has nose-dived. The evidence seems to point very clearly to the fact that the Sheikh himself provides the true horseman's brain necessary for a training operation to thrive. It's obvious really: I find it hard to keep on top of things if I've got more than twenty horses to worry about, so how many oversights would I commit if I had a country to run as well as training several hundred horses? It's hard enough combining training a tiny string with writing the odd grey panel and providing Winning Post with 1,200 words of waffle every week!

Which brings us nicely around to one of my two highlights of the past week (well, we'll get to it shortly). One highlight, obviously, was Brief's slashing run at Sandown. We so nearly got to stand on the podium and recite 'How we beat the favourite', which would have been a fair choice had he saluted, because we were racing against a very good horse and very solid favourite. Hellenic has bred, I think, five Stakes winners, four of whom (including Group One winners Islington and Greek Dance) are full-brothers to Greek Well and, although Greek Well might not become the sixth, he's still a really nice horse who'd been a very impressive winner over course and distance the previous week, and so it was a real thrill to see Brief push him all the way to the line, failing by only a neck. That would be as good a run as Brief has ever put in, and confirmation of what he'd been telling us during the previous week, ie that he's in great fettle just now. He's come home in rude health, so let's hope he can continue to run so creditably. Millyjean's run at Yarmouth the previous day had been a lot less good, I'm afraid, and for some reason she does not seem to be progressing. The soft ground probably made her look worse than she is, and it was her first run for a four months, but even so I think the obvious option now is to find the worst race we can find, and then re-assess the situation after that.

So Millyjean's run wasn't the other highlight of the week for me: that had taken place earlier the same day, when I'd spent an hour in the company of Gai Waterhouse, picking her brains on training-, racing- and bloodstock-related subjects. I'd been lucky enough to be asked to produce a feature on her for Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder, and I was bowled over by how helpful she and her husband Rob were in making themselves available to allow me to get whatever material I needed. I'd introduced myself to them - one of dozens of people to do so - at a press conference earlier in the week, and Rob had given me his number to make arrangements for us to have a chat. They'd found themselves tied up with other things and Rob had been very apologetic when I'd called him a couple of times, but last Thursday morning I saw them by the Severals and rode over to say G'day. Now this is the really impressive part. They were talking with Nash Rawiller, Brough Scott and Ed Whittaker when I rode up, and I was appearing so completely out of context - and they'd only met me very briefly previously, and at a time when they were meeting loads of strangers - that I wouldn't have been surprised if they had been completely bamboozled by who I was and what the hell I was talking about. Not so, and when I said that I'd ring them when I got home, Rob instead suggested I just headed round to the Bedford Lodge to join them for breakfast. So far, so good; and things just got better. Rob was so welcoming, and then he left me to interrogate Gai, and she couldn't have been more forthcoming, interesting or helpful. If the story ended there it would be good, but the really impressive part came about entirely by chance. As I've explained, I had just spoken to them briefly in passing and completely out of the blue on the Heath that morning, and I find in similar situations it's all one can do to put the person into context and hold the conversation, without paying any attention to his mount: you see either the person or the horse, and if someone greets you unexpectedly, in those few seconds you don't even take on board what colour the horse is, never mind its characteristics. Not so Gai: in explaining some aspect of her training theories and practices, she suddenly and completely naturally said, "Now, for instance, what I'd do with that grey horse you were riding this morning is ... ; because the thing is that that horse seems very ... and looks as if she ... , and so what I'd do is ... "!!! Now if you don't find that absolutely astonishing, then I haven't described the situation very well, because it was one of the most impressive, and completely unintentional, demonstrations of innate horse sense, intuition, observation that I've ever witnessed. As some of you might have realised, I am no respecter of persons as regards icons of this business, and I tend to be very sceptical of the claims of genius and worthiness made on behalf of the supposed stars of my profession - but after the hour I spent with her on Friday morning, I'd strongly contradict anyone who disputed Gai's position as a true great of the training profession, or who claimed that she doesn't fully deserve the huge success she has achieved. Within a couple of months, I've spent a morning with Martin Pipe and a morning with Gai Waterhouse: one doesn't get much more blessed than that.

And then, the following day, I had half-an-hour with Leonard Cohen, except this time it wasn't close up and personal, but via the radio alongside however many millions also chose to listen to Radio Two at 7pm on Friday evening. Driving around the M25 on a Friday afternoon tends to be a test of patience - Sandown and back is 210 miles, and they took me five and a half hours - but it became easy to be patient when a 30-minute interview with Leonard Cohen came on. We had a few minutes of clips of some of his most beautiful songs fitted in at various times, but basically it was just he and a sensible interviewer discussing his approach to writing songs. It's no suprise he comes up with some gems, because he certainly puts the time in: he said that he spent five years on 'Hallelujah' - "but that's no guarantee of excellence, because I've written some second-rate songs which have taken longer than that"! Part of the reason for the length of the song-writing process is, he said, that he never discards a verse until he has finished it - and as the verses he is most likely to discard are the ones he struggles most with, they can be the ones he takes longest to complete. We had a couple of minutes of his recording of 'Hallelujah', which was a particular treat, because I'd, believe it or not, never heard him sing it. That's an interesting song, because different versions seem to contain different verses: the most famous, and arguably the most beautiful - Jeff Buckley's recording - seems to be the shortest. As well as providing us with a taste of the beauty of the songs and an insight into the creative process, we also had some splendid instances of his droll wit, and he really opened up to the interviewer, giving probably the best and most entertaining interview I've heard from him. You don't mind being parked on the M25 when you've got things like that to listen to.

Less exquisitely crafted is the book I'm currently reading, 'The Byerley Turk', by Jeremy James. Ollie very kindly gave it to me for my birthday, and I'm enjoying it because it is a great tale inventively told by a man with a passion for the subject and I know that my appreciation of the founding of the thoroughbred breed will be enhanced by completing it, but it is marred by the butchering of the English language which it contains. I am aware that my sometimes ponderous and pedantic prose style, replete with dependent clauses, sometimes produces cumbersome sentences which contain too many commae - but, even knowing that, I have become aware recently of over-use of the comma by other people which makes my over-use of it look tame. Thoroughbredinternet has been known in recent weeks on occasions to exceed its comma quota, but even that pales into insignificance beside Jeremy James' extravagence. Just when I'm coming to terms with a comma appearing between the subject of the sentence and the main verb - eg "Weather, is ominous" and "The Whorl of the Spurs on a doru stallion, is ominous" (and those two are both complete sentences!) - and between the object of the sentence and the subject and verb - "The seyis had not realised until this minute, its power" (again, an entire sentence) - I'm starting to find commae coming between adjectives and the adjacent nouns to which they refer: "Once, here, stood a palace of giants, and these huge, columns of stone supported a roof so high it was lost in cloud". Even accepting that the other commae in that sentence are justifiable, why on earth do we have a comma between 'huge' and 'columns'? So that's our current quest, more urgent even than the quest for the rogue apostrope: the quest for the rogue comma. Examples, please, quoting chapter and verse; English is a beautiful language, as Leonard Cohen has so often demonstrated, and all that is required for it to fade away is that literate men do nothing, so we should name and shame the manglers!

But we can take a break from our language watch while Royal Ascot is on. (Although we can't really, because we know in advance that there's going to be some awful shite coming out of the mouths of some of the presenters). These races this afternoon are going to be tremendous: you'd be hard pressed ever to see three better races coming consecutively than races two, three and four today. The two horses who have most caught my eye on the Heath in the last couple of weeks are Bentley Biscuit and Cockney Rebel. Both are going there in top condition, physically and mentally. But it's just such good racing, and there are any amount of potential worthy winners. Like the Walrus, I share an admiration for Declaration Of War, but Aidan O'Brien's Coventry Stakes contenders are always worthy of close inspection, even if it is merely to decide, as was the case last year with Holy Roman Emperor, that he is running a really lovely horse who is still a long way short of full strength and fitness. So we'll watch, learn (we hope) and enjoy. And we mustn't miss the fashion segments, not only because James Sherwood is always a joy, but also because Gemma has gone there today, and she's sure to appear on screen at some stage - fingers crossed Sherwood won't utter his immortal "Oh dear!" when she appears! We've just got to hope that the BBC doesn't so carried away with the fashion segments that they forget to show the races. And keep your ears open for media-type nonsense-sentence of the week; last year it was (during a feature in the car park) "What can you give us in terms of advice picnic-wise?". I doubt even Jeremy James could have written that.

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