I was both delighted and unsurprised that Denis Healey made it to 98. One day in the 1970s I took him to lunch at L’Epicure. As he encouraged the waiter to pile his plate higher and higher from the hors-d’oeuvre trolley, my astonishment must have been plain because he grinned and declared: ‘Don’t worry about me — both my parents lived into their nineties.’ Another time, Mrs Oakley and I were in a dusty square in Collioure in south-west France when music began blaring from a loudspeaker to advertise a nearby circus. We looked up to see — along with toothless old ladies in black and pipe-smoking locals playing a vicious game of boules — Denis Winston Healey, in the kind of baggy, knee-length khaki shorts worn in the 1960s by holidaying British males, dancing solo in the dust with a dreamy expression on his face. Denis Healey didn’t care what people thought of him and everything he did he did with confidence.
In racing it is remarkable what confidence can do for you. Just look at Frankie Dettori on Golden Horn in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. From a bad draw he went up the outside of the field well away from the others, ringing no alarm bells among his fellow riders, and then crossed at the right point to slot into second behind the pacemaker, perfectly poised for the thrust that finished the race. It was one of those rides that if you bring it off has you labelled a genius and if it fails has sporting trolls composing your professional obituary. Dettori had the courage to risk such tactics, but what gave him that courage was having ridden six previous Group One winners this season, five of them for John Gosden, before the Arc.
It works at all levels. At Newmarket last Saturday the Betfred Cesarewitch, the second half of the Autumn Double, was won in the last stride by the 50–1 Grumeti, better known as a hurdler and ridden by the little-known Adam Beschizza. To show how much faith connections had in his chances Grumeti’s trainer Alan King hadn’t bothered to attend and the horse’s owner Max McNeill had preferred to watch his son playing rugby. But Adam Beschizza had insisted to the owner’s brother Hugh that he was going to be in the first four of the 34-horse cavalry charge. In the race Grumeti had less than a clear passage as horses ran out of gas in front of him but Beschizza came wide and drove his mount up to the leaders in the last furlong, gaining victory over the gambled-on Oriental Fox by a short head. It wasn’t the kind of ride you expect from a journeyman jockey struggling to get on enough mounts to pay the gas bill but the 22-year-old had one thing going for him: it may have been only his 14th winner of the season but just a fortnight before, in an equally tight finish, he had won the first half of the Autumn Double, the Cambridgeshire, on the 14–1 shot Third Time Lucky. For a jockey like Beschizza his share of the £100,000 prize was, he admitted, ‘like gold dust’. Important, too, was the publicity attached to riding a big-race winner on Channel Four’s TV coverage. But it was the intangible benefit that really mattered, the boost to his self-belief. As one of his fellow riders told me recently, ‘When you are riding with confidence the gaps start opening for you.’ True. But as Dettori, too, has stressed you need confidence to go for those gaps and to communicate that will to win to your mount. That is hard to develop when you are riding mostly no-hopers on the all-weather at Wolverhampton and Chelmsford. Adam Beschizza is a realist. He told us at Newmarket that the first big win hadn’t hugely increased his bookings. ‘A Cambridgeshire can’t move mountains. There haven’t been any job offers and it is a fickle game, but it certainly can’t do any harm.’ Now that he had that Autumn Double in the book, though, you could see there was just that little bit more swagger in the way he strode back across the parade ring to the weighing room.
The confidence in the Coolmore team when Air Force Blue came out to contest the Group One Dewhurst Stakes was almost tangible. What Aidan O’Brien likes to refer to as ‘the Lads’ were out in force to watch the latest off their production line of champions simply blow away a quality field of rivals. Aidan couldn’t stop talking about him afterwards, revealing that even as a big raw unfurnished baby on soft ground in the spring Air Force Blue had been head and shoulders above the rest. He is, said his trainer, the best two-year-old he has ever handled who would even ‘blow away’ their hugely impressive Fillies’ Mile winner Minding. O’Brien has awarded that label before, but the bookies clearly believe him: Air Force Blue is already the shortest priced horse for the 2000 Guineas since Frankel. We have been warned.