At the opening of the grand Sha Tin racecourse in central Hong Kong, Lester Piggott was asked which English course Sha Tin most resembled. His inquisitors beamed in anticipation. Ascot perhaps, Goodwood, maybe, Newmarket. "Folkestone," replied Piggott deadpan. Not one of the desultory crowd who dribbled into the course on a windswept Friday would have mistaken that for a compliment, even in a post-Cheltenham Festival haze.
Though Noel Chance saddled two runners, in between interviews, and Tony McCoy pushed home the faithful Out Ranking in the opener for his 219th winner of the season, no one's heart was truly in the day job. Thoughts were only of a race barely 24 hours earlier which had produced a bright new champion in Chance's Looks Like Trouble and ended the life of the brilliant young Gloria Victis.
McCoy's morning had begun like so many others. But Luke Harvey, the former jockey, now television commentator, his chauffeur for the day, knew the journey from Lambourn would not be talkative. The previous evening, McCoy had been forcibly lassooed by a coterie of weighing-room friends, Norman Williamson, Mick Fitzgerald, and taken out on the town. It was a good idea at the time, the only idea at the time, but it did not help the champion's colour, or mood, in the grey aftermath of the most shattering blow to a seemingly irresistible spirit.
"I don't even want to talk about it," he said of Gloria Victis's death. "I was in floods of tears for an hour afterwards, then the lads just took me away and we had a good night. Took my mind off it because they knew how much that horse meant to me. You know, to lose any horse is terrible. We lost Too Deep at Liverpool last year, but somehow this wasdifferent."
In the car on the way down, he had dozed, surfacing only to look at his mobile, which buzzed constantly. Mostly he ignored the calls. Sympathy was not what he wanted. Harvey, who had a better understanding than most of what his friend was feeling, wanted to say something too.
"Horses are just like people," Harvey reflected later. "Some just can't wait to kick you, some are great characters. You remember the champions but you also love the triers. You like the horses who are like you. A P loves horses that are aggressive and daredevils, horses that give their all for him, just as he does for them. There are no half-measures with him, that's why Gloria Victis got to him so much. They were just the same."
Respect for McCoy stretches deep into the folds of racing, as far as the stable canteen at the furthest end of the course. "Yeah, A P is one of the few who really cares," said Jo Waites, sipping tea from a polystyrene cup. It is the same game down here, just a different world. Waites was born in West Ham and saved £60 from herpocket money to buy a pony when she was six. She knew that would be her life and had never really wanted any other.
But when she was approached by Noel Chance to be his travelling head lass last summer, she was considering an offer to work in Dubai. She was unsure, but one morning as she was making up her mind, she rode out a horse called Ready to Rumble and recognised a feisty, streetwise quality which made them fellow travellers.
She decided there and then to forsake the sun of the Middle East for frozen early mornings in Lambourn. Her reward was to be a central figure in the drama of the Gold Cup, caught unknowingly on camera shrieking encouragement to Looks Like Trouble, as if he needed any, and leaping unrestrainedly into the arms of the lass of Ever Blessed as the stable star swept home. Some 24 hours later, a plate of sausage, egg and beans lies untouched on the table. Unlike Trouble, her appetite has yet to return.
Jo is first into the yard at 5.30 every morning when horses, like humans, are at their most revealing. It is one of the perks of the job, she says, and one of the invisible threads which binds this secretive little world together. Waites had been so understandably entranced by the success of her own horse, she only found out about Gloria Victis back at the Cheltenham stables. By then, it was too late to seek out the lass. "I felt so..."
Unable to think of the right word, she starts again. "Everyone's experienced it at some point and my heart goes out to her. It's unspoken really. I had an old point-to-pointer once called Marshlander. Nothing special, but I'd ridden two winners on him. He died of a heart attack in my arms. It's like losing part of your body. Even now, when I think of him it brings a lump to my throat."
After that, Waites vowed never to get too close to a horse again, and she just about kept her word until Looks Like Trouble entered her life. Trouble reflects her moods, she says. "If I'm a bit grumpy, he'll be quiet and good as gold, but if I'm hyper, he'll be buzzing too." For two weeks before the Gold Cup, she stayed in a caravan outside his box in a yard which once housed Fulke Walwyn's battalions of Festival winners. One night, the electricity and the heating packed up and she had to hug the dog for warmth.
She laughs at the madness of it. "I woke up one morning because I heard someone say: 'Go on, boy', you know as you do when you're trying to move a horse out of the way. I jumped up and I was out the door. I was going to kill whoever it was in there. But no one was there. I swear it was Fulke."
Standing on the lawn at Cheltenham, the familiar sweep of the course in front of him, John Hales trained his binoculars on the green screens which had been erected around the stricken Gloria Victis. He saw the horse get up and offered up the silent prayer of someone who has been there. Hales's love affair with racing survived the death of his own One Man at Aintree, ironically, just a few weeks after the grey had found true peace at the Festival with a thrilling victory in the Champion Chase.
"There's not a day goes by that I don't think of him and there were times I thought: "I don't want to be involved with this any more," Hales says. "I know how the connections of Gloria Victis will be feeling and my heart goes out to them. It was a terrible moment, that fall, because all the memories of my old horse came flooding back."
There was something almost obscene about the haste with which racing went back to business at Folkestone on Friday, except that it is racing's way.
Triumph or disaster, get up and get on with it. The feelings need no expression because everyone knows. Two months ago, Noel Chance lost a horse, a nice horse too, right here at Folkestone. They had just persuaded him to relax and enjoy his racing, then he relaxed too much. All part of racing, they say, and move on. But that trite and comforting phrase was not much use to the deathly pale young champion.
"You know, the saddest thing is we will never know how good Gloria Victis was," McCoy said. The one consolation is that the same cannot be said of his jockey.Reuse content