Brough Scott: Dropping the scales from racing’s eyes [H&H VIP]

  • For years, the Snaffles print of a point-to-point paddock some-time in the 1920s has hung in countless horsey homes across the country.

    “Oh, to be in England now that April’s there” reads the caption, the opening line of the homesick poem written by Robert Browning in Italy in the 1840s.

    It might not have been the immortality he intended, but last week its perfection rang truer than ever.

    On Wednesday it was the opening of the Craven Meeting at Newmarket, all thoroughbred promise on the hoof and Frankie Dettori returning to win the Classic trial on the filly Sandiva.

    On Thursday it was a farewell to the jumping season at Cheltenham, complete with a comeback by the failed chaser Kingsmere.

    His jumping has been reformed by hunting with the Quorn with his owner-breeder Joss Hanbury, to whom a five-bar gate is but a standard schooling obstacle.

    On Friday — well, it was Good Friday and at last the scales dropped from racing’s eyes. Of all the well-intentioned but muddled-thinking nonsenses, few have beaten the arguments against Good Friday racing.

    As was accepted with Sunday racing way back in 1992, the sport is part of the entertainment industry.

    But we are here to celebrate spring, not decry it and last week only the stone-hearted could fail to rejoice in the uplift that first stirred old Robert Browning’s pen 170 years ago.

    To match the mood, Newmarket on Wednesday was also the scene of the annual prize-giving of the Martin Wills Young Writers’ Awards, presided over by the ever youthful Jilly Cooper.

    Who knows where last week’s winners will end up. But the memory of four of them sitting spellbound as Jilly extolled the timeless virtues of the written word was proof, 20 years on, of how good a memorial such schemes will always remain.

    Frankie Dettori has not yet reached the professor stage, but at 43 he is into the sunset years — albeit that, for a Flat race jockey, they can be among the most rewarding of all.

    It is 29 years since he came over to join Luca Cumani at Newmarket and his life since has been something of a roller coaster, with its dazzling highs challenged by self-inflicted lows.

    But watching him close up, as he held Sandiva together over the last demanding, uphill yards to the winning post, was to marvel once again at his incredible toe-tip balance and his unique compressed mid-Atlantic technique.

    The thought, as Frankie made his obligatory flying dismount, was that this latest chance was his to lose. Self-destruction should be off the menu.

    The same applies to Kingsmere, whose fall first time out last season was followed by such a comprehensive loss of nerve that he failed to complete in all his remaining efforts over fences.

    It hardly sounds like the sort of conveyance that a 60-year-old should take to the front of the field with the Quorn, but then Joss Hanbury is not your ordinary 60-year-old.

    The best criterion of style and courage is that people should not brag about it. In his position after Kingsmere was led away in triumph, many of us would have regaled listeners with his prowess out hunting.

    With Joss, I had to drag it out of him. “Jumped a gate? Oh yes, I think so.” May his horses always have wings.

    Especially in April and before we leave, a final bow to Robert Browning. For although brought up in literary Camberwell rather than hunting Leicestershire, Robert was also responsible for How they Brought the Good News from Aix to Ghent, which remains one of the most exciting poems ever written about the galloping horse.

    If you haven’t read it lately you must, because the rhythm of the lines echoes the rhythm of the gallop.

    But be warned, it is not for the faint-hearted. Two of the three horses keel over mid-ride with exhaustion and the scene at the finish might have problems for the dope test.

    “And all I remember is friends flocking round
    As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees and the ground;
    And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine
    As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine.”