The sport of kings and the ruthless

By modern standards of correctness, the National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham, which celebrates its 100th year over four days this week, is something of a sporting throwback. It is an orgy of gambling, quite often stimulated by unacceptable levels of alcohol abuse. The idea of racing dumb animals over obstacles at reckless and occasionally fatal speeds raises fundamental questions of animal rights. There are serious health and safety issues for humans, too. In a country which likes to think of itself as classless, the very structure of horse-racing – owner, trainer, jockey, stable lad – exemplifies an outmoded social hierarchy.

Yet, against all the odds, steeplechasing can be the best and noblest of sports. It has not been hijacked by money. The combination of speed, stamina, courage, jumping ability and character required of a successful chaser or hurdler is so unpredictable that it provides the sport with an in-built levelling process. Over the next four days at Cheltenham, impeccably bred animals will be shown the way home by humbler, hairier rivals. Small trainers will compete on level terms with the grandees of Lambourn, Malton or Newmarket. Amateurs will ride against professionals.

Because jump racing takes place over the winter months and often on a scruffy, distant racecourse, it is virtually celebrity-proof. Only the foolish or desperate would go steeplechasing in the hope of being spotted by a gossip-column writer.

There was a time in my life when the Cheltenham Festival was one of the high points of the year. Now I watch the big races on TV with a certain ambivalence, not entirely comfortable with the memories they evoke of a time when I was on the outer fringes of the racing world.

Between the ages of seven and 22, I was hooked on the idea of being a jockey. As a child, part of a family in which horses were an important part of life, I would read the racing pages, keeping scrapbooks of photographs of the equine heroes of the time – Pas Seul, Kerstin, Saffron Tartan, Dunkirk, Mandarin. In the epic series of contests between Arkle and Mill House, resolved in the Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1964 (surely one of the greatest races of all time), my brother Philip and I supported our favourites as other children followed football teams.

Maybe if I had won more races when eventually I did ride as an amateur jockey, I would have fonder memories. As it is, I associate racing with the pain of keeping one’s weight down, aided by various disgusting (and now illegal) pills, with the sense that I was doing something less well than I should.

It represents not just early failure but the silly, deluded pursuit of a life for which I was clearly not suited. It shocks me to this day that, while at Cambridge, I ignored the astonishing opportunities all around me and spent most of my time thinking about my next ride in a novice chase at Uttoxeter.

Two years after I came down from university, I finally realised that there was more to life than racing. I escaped, and went abroad for a while.

Although I kept in touch with the racing world – Philip became a successful professional jockey – I am now cheerfully content to be the outsider I always was. Watching the racing at Cheltenham this week, I may remember what it was like to ride there, but it will be without much pleasure. During that rather odd period in my life, I discovered that I lack the deadly ruthlessness of the truly competitive, and I regret that I was so eager to succeed that I never really enjoyed what it was all about – the thrill of riding at racing speed over fences or hurdles.

In a memoir written near the end of his life, my father expressed gratitude to the many horses which had brought him so much fun and excitement throughout his life. I imagine that many of those at the 100th National Hunt Festival would agree with him. I am content to watch and admire from a distance.

Independent, Tuesday, 15 March 2011