Friday, April 04, 2008
Less than 36 hours to go before the greatest horse race in the world.
Here's my 2004 Guardian piece on the enduring appeal of the Grand National and how horse racing is the last bastion of democracy in Britain. As to who's going to win tomorrow's race, watch this space!
Clan Royal or Bindaree? Joss Naylor or Bear on Board? The late Lord Wyatt, confidant of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, once described betting on horses as the "only uninfluenced democratic decision" millions of people ever take. This positive view of horse-racing and gambling is not shared by many on the left, who see the sport as a corrupt anachronism. But as an unreconstructed horse-race-loving leftie, I'm with Wyatt.
First, there's the sportsmanship, unrivalled in any sport. The most beautiful sporting gesture I have ever witnessed was at the end of the 1989 Gold Cup, when jockey Tom Morgan, who had finished second, rode over to give the victorious Desert Orchid (who had just deprived him of a place in racing history) a loving pat. The racing world can teach us much about human qualities that used to be more abundant.
Remember loyalty? In an age in which all relationships seem freely tradeable, it's refreshing to consider the most enduring partnership in British sport - the 30-year-old association of trainer Sir Mark Prescott and jockey George Duffield. "I may have looked at other women, but never at another jockey," Prescott once remarked. When Duffield was involved in fisticuffs with millionaire owner Peter Savill, the furious Savill rang up Prescott and asked what the trainer was going to do about it. Prescott stood by his jockey, even though it meant losing his wealthy patron.
Riding a dodgy jumping horse over the 30 fences of the Grand National requires real courage, too. Most jump jockeys fall once every 10 rides: last year, two died from injuries. While 6 million Britons pop Prozac, jump jockeys just go out and do it.
Linked to the physical courage is the camaraderie the sport engenders. Neo-liberalism put an end to camaraderie in society at large - but in the jockeys' weighing room it still exists. Mark Brisbourne combines training a string of over 100 horses with co-managing a 500-acre farm. Up at dawn, he works a 16-hour day. Yet morning, noon or night he is unfailingly helpful whenever a journalist calls, eager for copy. Brisbourne is typical of the people racing attracts: hard-working, honest, unfailingly decent.
Finally, in making the case for the defence, let us never forget the unadulterated, life-enhancing excitement. The glorious uncertainty of racing is a magical antidote to our increasingly predictable, McDonaldised age. We know that US multinational corporations will still be ruling the world one year from now. We know that whenever you pull off a ring road you will see a Tesco's. But nobody really knows who will win tomorrow's Grand National.
"We would have had a revolution a long time ago had it not been for horseracing," bemoaned Harry Pollitt, leader of the British Communist party until 1956. But would a revolution that denied us the wonder of horse-racing really be one worth having?