The more unctuous of vicars tend to assure us through December that ‘the true joy of Christmas lies in giving’. There are moments, however, when one’s faith in such advice is sorely tested. After trawling most of the West End, Mrs Oakley had this year secured the ultimate outfit for Grandchild No. 5. Unfortunately, when we moved house in early December, the package containing dress, blouse, headband, etc. disappeared.
Ultimately, there was no option but to search through the remaining 53 unopened boxes of books, which have been stowed in an icy cold, unlit outhouse until we build shelves to accommodate them. The removers, we felt, just might have tucked the item inside one. In box 52, and I kid you not, I found the precious parcel. And was virtue rewarded on Christmas Day? Was it, hell. Instead, we got the tantrum to end all tantrums from Grandchild No. 5 because she hadn’t been given the same outfit as her sister. Those of the female gender start early.
It was Grandchild No. 2, though, who reminded us how life moves on. On Christmas Eve she remembered that she had forgotten to ask Santa for something essential. ‘It’s a bit late,’ said her mother. ‘But you could try writing him a letter.’ ‘No worries,’ said Grandchild No. 2, coolly. ‘I’ll text him.’
At long last the weather has relented enough to allow racing to move on, and we saw a star of the future for sure at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day in Nicky Henderson’s Oscar Whisky. The ability to quicken is the mark of a really good horse and when Barry Geraghty asked Oscar Whisky to do that after the last hurdle he moved effortlessly into another gear and lost the others. Put him in your notebook for this year and the next.
Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day fixture was the perfect illustration of the ups and downs of the racing game, and how racing folk have to learn Kipling’s lesson about accommodating both triumph and tragedy with equal facility. Approaching West Country trainer Colin Tizzard, whose Hell’s Bay had just done me a favour by winning the Dipper Novices Chase and paying 23–1 on the Tote, I felt I was almost intruding into private grief.
In the race before, his fine old stable hero Joe Lively had been baulked by a faller and had to be put down after breaking a leg. His rider, son Joe Tizzard, had come back in tears at such an end for a horse who won nine of his 28 races, including the 2007 Feltham and earned more than £230,000 in prize money. Said a clearly still stunned Tizzard senior, ‘Sometimes racing takes a bit of sticking. The highs and lows drive you mad. Joe Lively has been a big player in our lives for years. We wouldn’t be here today with four runners if it weren’t for him, that’s for sure. No one will ever replace him.’
But then there they were with another smart prospect for the future. I had found it hard to believe that Hell’s Bay was being allowed to start at such a price (16–1 on the books, and I find I nearly always get better odds on the Tote for anything at more than 10–1). Perhaps it was because he was seen as something of a hoodoo horse, having given Choc Thornton the hideous fall at Newton Abbot back in July that had destroyed three of his four knee ligaments and kept him out of the saddle from then until December, an injury which would have left most ordinary mortals still on crutches. Potential owners, too, must have been looking at the hoodoo factor, because the Tizzards had managed to buy Hell’s Bay for just 3,000 guineas.
But the ironies did not end there, for who was the rider on the well-backed Medermit, the one other horse who emerged from the pack and engaged in an ultimately unsuccessful battle to the line with Hell’s Bay? None other than Choc Thornton. At least he had the consolation of a winning ride on another popular old favourite, Blazing Bailey, in the Raceodds Handicap Chase. Blazing Bailey, who has run some fine races at Cheltenham, notably in the Triumph Hurdle and World Hurdle, is now in the veteran class, New Year’s Day having made him a nine-year-old. He has not always looked as though he enjoyed running over the bigger obstacles, and trainer Alan King admitted that, as he went to saddle up both him and the 11-year-old Il Duce, he had been thinking he might be just ten minutes off retiring the pair of them. After that performance it won’t be paddocks time quite yet for Blazing Bailey.