Not quite nil humanum a me alienum, but I have always been interested in other people’s trades and worlds. That was one reason why I enjoyed the late Woodrow Wyatt’s invitations to the annual Tote board lunch. I always found myself on a table with racehorse owners and trainers. When they realised that I barely knew the difference between a fetlock and a bridle, they became politely distant, until they discovered that I was a political journalist, which made them barely politely suspicious. Politicians they disdained. As for hacks, they only took notice of the ones that they could ride.
That said, I am sure that they would have paid attention to Marcus Armytage, a delightful fellow who writes about equine matters in the Telegraph. I once met him at a dinner party and when the conversation moved to horses it was clear that he knew whereof he spoke. Just when I was on the point of asking him whether he had done much riding, someone said: ‘You know Marcus won the Grand National?’
Shock and awe among the non-horsey guests: ‘Talk us through the final stages,’ he was asked. He told us that approaching the last fence, he was in the lead. For fear of upsetting the horse, he had been strictly forbidden to turn round, but he could not hear any hoof-pounds behind. Over the fence, and it was wonderful. The horse was still full of horse. Indeed, it seemed to be enjoying itself. The winning post came closer and closer — and no sound of pursuit — he had won. From the rapt audience, there were congratulations, handshakes, requests for autographs to give to children; Marcus, modestly uneasy with celebrity status, tried to lighten the atmosphere, ‘The next year, I was on one of the favourites. Fell at the first fence.’
Then I came under attack. In the Times, I had written that because the National should be a supreme test of horse-ship and jockey-ship, a horse ought to be killed most years: a jockey once a decade. How could I be so cruel? I clearly had no idea about the gloom and tears that would descend on a stable when one of its horses was killed. As for jockeys, few of them got through the season without some minor injury, such as a broken collar-bone or stoved-in ribs. The banter and bravado of a jockeys’ dressing room has a purpose. It keeps anxiety at bay. When a jockey does suffer a crippling fall, his colleagues cannot help thinking: ‘That could have been me.’
I felt guilty and rapidly conceded that National Hunt racing must require as much courage as any sporting pursuit except bullfighting, which is only suitable for Spaniards. To wish to emulate Escamillo, you have to be as mad as Don José. These thoughts came to mind the other day, when I was watching the Grand National with Ranald Macdonald, of Boisdale fame. On such occasions, it is amusing to see how many people (though not me) become experts for the day, talking fluently about dams and sires and bloodlines.
But Ranald believes in making his guests work. The main course was a 40-day-aged Aberdeen Angus fillet on the bone, as good a piece of meat as anything, anywhere. It helped us to help him taste some ’08 clarets. There were four: all splendid. The gold medal went to a Pavillon Rouge de Château Margaux. Some second wines are reliable: Forts de Latour will never let you down, though the same is not true of Carruades de Lafite. The Margaux was so good that I initially thought we were drinking the first growth. Second place was a draw between a Léoville-Barton and a Lynch-Bages. The Léoville-Poyferré was a close fourth. Accessible now, all these wines will keep and by restaurant — and even club — standards, Ranald is selling them at a bargain rate. Drink early, drink often.