Sunday, November 21, 2010

Stories of lives

'Any human heart' fever is building in this household. We used to get excited enough on a Sunday evening by 'Downton Abbey', but this programme is taking anticipation to an altogether higher level. Which, of course, means that we are sure to be disappointing. Still, as I keep reminding itself, it could be a lot less good than the book (as it is sure to be) and still be very excellent.

Anyway, it's probably quite appropriate that 'Any human heart' is coming to our screens: as it is, as we know, a story of a life, by definition it takes the form of a narrative - and 'narrative', of course, is word of the year. Every cloud, we are told, has a silver lining, and the silver lining of the huge cloud cast by Racing for Change and its plans to (supposedly) create a narrative through revolutionizing the time-honoured fixture list is that this has proved the catalyst for some excellent writing in the 'Racing Post'. Laura Thompson has, predictably, written with great heart and eloquence on the subject in both that paper and the 'Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder', while Alastair Down's article shortly after Jim McGrath's departure from the BHA was also very good. There has followed a regular stream of well-put contributions on the subject, while it is worth remembering that Colin Russell had been airing his sensible views for quite a while prior to this thing coming to a head recently. John Francome's contributions have, typically, been both entertaining and irreverent, ranging from his rejoinder to Jim on Channel Four at Cheltenham last weekend ("No wonder the BHA got rid of you") to his words, as quoted in the paper yesterday, "I don't think they deserved him in the first place; he is too good for them, and that's always been my opinion." And, of course, each day the readers' letters page is full of some well-argued and passionately-put pieces - invariably in opposition to the plans. All that we are lacking, of course, is any properly argued case as to why the changes might prove a good exercise. But as, seemingly, the only people in favour of the plans are those who depend on them for self-enrichment, then it's understandable that the clamour in their favour isn't deafening.

Funnily enough, though, I don't think that we have read much about RFCgate from the Post's best writer, James Willoughby. That's understandable, as James has had his mind on higher matters recently, such as the death of Jean-Paul Sartre. Only James could have kicked off a Breeders' Cup preview with the sentence, "One of the tragedies of Jean-Paul Sartre's death in 1980 was not that it predated the first Breeders' Cup". That's just truly splendid! As was his assertion that, if I followed his line of thinking correctly, to get the best out of chapter seven of 'Ulysses', one needs to start at the beginning of the book, rather than at the beginning of chapter seven. That, on the face of it, makes sense - unless you've actually tried to read 'Ulysses', in which case you might have concluded (as I did) that to have any chance of getting anything out of chapter seven, you would have to start at chapter seven: start at the beginning and you'd be long odds-against to get as far as page seven, never mind chapter seven.

I've just finished a book much easier than 'Ulysses' to read (and whose narrative is much easier to spot, the book being a story of a life) and that is an excellent biography of the sixth Earl of Rosebery, written by Kenneth Young and published in 1974. When we refer to Lord Rosebery, that is the one to whom we refer (although older generations probably would have been referring to his father, the fifth earl, who had the distinction in 1894 of being the only Prime Minister to own a Derby winner while holding that office, courtesy of the victory of Ladas). This earl, of course, owned the 1939 Derby winner Blue Peter (whose stable is lovingly maintained and highlighted by James Eustace in Park Lodge and who would probably have been remembered as the 1939 Triple Crown winner had Hitler not invaded Poland) as well as the 1944 (substitute) Derby winner Ocean Swell (a son of Blue Peter) and the 1969 Oaks winner Sleeping Partner (whose dam Old Dutch was by the Ocean Swell stallion Fastnet Rock). I recently saw this book in Tindalls' second-hand department and, Lord Rosebery having just featured in the Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder's series recalling great owner/breeders, I bought it - and am delighted that I did so. It was a pleasure to read it and to learn about this great man who at different times captained Surrey and held a position in the Cabinet, and whose racing interests were merely one of his many parts. In these troubled times, racing could do with someone like Lord Rosebery at the helm, because at least then one could be happy that the sport was being run by someone who understood and loved horses, who understood the history which has made the sport special and who cared for the long-term interests of the sport rather than the short-term interests of himself.

The only sadness, of course, is that we no longer see the Rosebery colours of pink and primrose yellow hoops in action. I didn't start taking an interest in races which didn't involve Red Rum until 1977, so I can't remember Lord Rosebery's horses (as he died in 1974). However, I do recall his widow owning horses with Bruce Hobbs (presumably he became her trainer after the retirement of Doug Smith, who took on the role after the death in December 1968 of Jack Jarvis, described in the book as "his trainer and friend for forty-six years") into the '80s, including the 1984 Jockey Club Stakes winner Gay Lemur. I don't think that the colours have been seen in Britain since her death, although I have seen them in action more recently in Queensland: Fred Rickably's former apprentice John Gorton, rider of Sleeping Partner, used them as his stable colours when he was training at Eagle Farm (as in this picture, taken in November 1998) in the '90s, which I thought was a lovely way of honouring his former patron. I think that John went to train in China when racing briefly flourished there and do not know what he is up to now, although I suppose that retirement would be an obvious option. Let's hope that a future member of the Rosebery family will take to the turf and that we'll eventually see these historic colours again.

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