In October, not four months after losing Campbell Gillies, they won his memorial race at Hexham. A horse named Lucky Sunny, of all things. There were tears then, of course, the raw scab of their grief rupturing afresh. The commiseration of others, as ever, could only seem trite – but so, too, did the consolations they had always trusted in the past. "It means nothing," Lucinda Russell found herself thinking. "Horseracing is nothing in life. And we get ourselves so excited about it."
Last week, the woman who has established Scotland's premier racing stable ended a frustrating sequence of results with a winner at Newcastle. But the tide of relief quickly broke upon a redoubt of self-reproach: "What are we playing at?" she asked herself. "It's only a game."
Her partner, Peter Scudamore, once redrew the map for jump jockeys with his intensity. Eschewing the larky irreverence of previous generations, he set record after record through fitness, professionalism and sheer drive, accumulating eight championships. But listen to him now, at the beginning of the most important week in their calendar.
"I felt champion jockey was the meaning of life," he says. "And it's not. That's not belittling it. That's life's experience. But the trouble with horseracing is that we take it so seriously. And it's so unimportant."
How could they know that so sweet an elixir might contain this unpalatable sediment? A year ago they brought two luminous young talents down from Kinross and delivered a stunning rebuke to any who still patronised Scottish trainers as mere reivers, far out of their range at the Cheltenham Festival. Brindisi Breeze and Gillies thwarted the gamble of the week – Boston Bob, ridden by the great Ruby Walsh – in a championship for novice hurdlers. It was the sort of race that might well announce a Gold Cup winner of the future. Young Gillies rode a dauntless, dashing race from the front, and his partner proved no less a braveheart as he came bounding up the hill.
Barely two months later, in some aberration of that exuberance, Brindisi Breeze jumped out of his summer paddock in the middle of the night. Wandering on to the road, he was killed by a lorry. Someone called Russell and Scudamore, told them one of their horses had been in an accident. They were filled with an immediate, dreadful certainty.
It was a ghastly blow to the whole stable, not least the 21-year-old jockey who had viewed this horse as his ticket to the big time.
But Gillies was full of the resilience of youth. A month later he joined three other young jockeys and Russell's head lad, Mark Ellwood, on holiday in Greece. Returning from a night out drinking, Gillies got it into his head to dive into the swimming pool. It was the final, fatal flourish of his innocence.
"For Mark to be there and see that – it's wrong, isn't it?" Russell asks now. "You shouldn't have to see that happen to your best friend. And, in the yard, Campbell had this adopted family, almost all of them between 16 and 23 years old. They shouldn't know how to grieve. They shouldn't have to learn."
Not that a more seasoned perspective could make any sense of something like this. If they had lost horse or rider on the track, where a degree of risk is embraced daily, it would have been shocking enough. For each to be claimed by a fate of such haphazard violence is beyond all accounting.
"It's so million-to-one, so macabre, it's almost James Dean-ish," Scudamore says. Russell duly settled her first tenet of the crisis. "This is not bad luck," she insisted. "We are not cursed."
Scudamore is a proud father, and rightly so, his sons having borrowed his experience and intelligence in their respective careers as jockey and trainer. But Gillies had enabled him to adapt those paternal gifts to his new life with Russell. "Campbell was nearly a son," he says. "And therefore we set standards to him. And we have to live by that."
In other words, they have to see it through. They admit to feelings of anger, disorientation, guilt even. Yet they have rallied with 53 winners this season, and again return to the Festival with chances – none better, perhaps, than Tap Night in the silks of J P McManus. It has been Herculean, not least from Ellwood, and entitles them to freedom from all the intrusion and sanctimony that might otherwise be offered at Cheltenham.
"There's that great line of Springsteen's," Scudamore says. "'I don't want praise or pity.' There will be moments when it's difficult. But we have to cope. We have to be strong. Move on but not forget."
He is anxious that the same sense of dignity extends through the racecourse when a song in Gillies' memory is performed this week. "When we hear that song, we can't only grieve about Campbell," he says. "Let's think of people with sons shot in Afghanistan. Let's embrace everybody's sorrow. What if you've been to war, you've seen 20 Campbells?
"Perhaps I'm too deep or too moralistic or too thick, I don't know, but I go back to my grandfather's time riding. These people were coming out of Arnhem, out of POW camps. Remember Keith Miller when he went back to cricket, after being a fighter pilot? 'Cricket's not pressure,' he said. 'Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.' And that's it. We don't face death very often. It's dreadful for us. But it's life's realities." While Scudamore and Russell have had their professional cares placed in due perspective, it is not as if it could be any different in most other walks of life. And horses have offered their own small redemptions, even in their very inflexibility. Within half an hour of learning about the disaster, Russell and Scudamore had to go out into the yard and start rallying their stunned staff. After all, as they tell each other, what else were they supposed to do? Pack it all in, go off and run a beach bar?
"To be positive, racing does help you get over it," Russell says. "Well, that's the wrong expression, because you don't get over death. You have to live with it. But I suppose we're lucky that we're in racing, and it can pull you through it. We are very excited about Cheltenham, and don't want to belittle that."
"I don't want to put words into Campbell's mouth," Scudamore stresses. "But he did love Cheltenham and was very proud to be part of it. We have a way of life, let's celebrate it. Because I think that's what Campbell would want."
But if they profess no loss of determination, they also accept a daily bequest of perspective. Things that used to hurt have been rendered trivial. In turn, whatever pain they have felt themselves, Russell and Scudamore are humbled and inspired by the courage of Gillies' mother and siblings. Their shared memories are full of laughter: Campbell obsessively shining his riding boots, Campbell pursuing girls, Campbell hopelessly naïve about money.
"He was like John Francome," Scudamore says, evoking another past champion. "People worshipped him. He didn't push for it, he had presence and character. And he did live."
Russell nods. "Better to have loved and lost…" she says.
In his room Gillies had hung a print of the poem "If", handed down to him by an admired grandfather. Conceivably he had already sensed how, in the end, we can never cross the real finishing line – the only one that really matters – as winners or losers. Perhaps it is some such intimation that tends to lace even the greatest days, even Brindisi Breeze days, with an uneasy trace of anticlimax. Conversely, the very worst days can introduce new wisdoms, quiet comforts.
"And at least he's down in history, isn't he?" Russell says. "That's great."
"Imagine if he'd been second," Scudamore replies. "Imagine if Ruby had got up and beat him. That would have been dreadful. As it is, he had a moment in time. And he lived every moment."Reuse content