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Now through the night come the horses. They come from obscure little villages like Lisaleen and Closutton, Coolagh and Moone, dozing and possibly dreaming on the long, dark ferry ride from Dun Laoghaire across the Irish Sea to Wales. They are Ireland’s pride, the finest jumpers in a country obsessed with jumping, with grand historical leaps over daunting obstacles, so they’ve been prepared for the trip with the utmost care. Some have IV drips to balance their electrolytes, others have been fed exotic Chinese herbs for an energy boost, and almost all have had their lungs checked for infections, their blood tested, and their weight recorded precisely, down to the last ounce, to be sure they have reached a peak of fitness for their annual tilt against the British at the Cheltenham Festival in England.
They’ve heard the word Cheltenham countless times, of course, uttered by their trainers in both delighted anticipation and utter despair, so it has some resonance for them. It might even have some meaning. Horses know more than they let on; after all, they’re in touch with elemental things. In the old days, farmers in rural Ireland believed their horses could see ghosts. Whenever one stopped dead and refused to budge, they reckoned a shade was nearby. If you looked between the horse’s ears, you could catch a glimpse of it, the farmers claimed. To prevent the fairies from stealing a good horse, they tied a red ribbon to it, or a hazel twig, or they spat on it. Folklore had it that a wild horse could be tamed by reciting the Creed in its right ear on Friday, and its left on Wednesday, until it came to hand.
So the legends go. In truth, horses do live by their instincts, and those on the ferry understand that because they’re traveling, they’ll probably be racing soon. Perhaps they can sense a few ghosts on the horizon, too, since the Cheltenham Festival has been around for a long while. Originally designed as a showcase for the National Hunt Steeplechase in 1904, it evolved into a three-day extravaganza that features twenty highly competitive races over fences and hurdles, ten of them Grade One championships. (The Festival expanded to four days in 2005.) More than fifty thousand people turn up each day, many of them ripe with drink and increasingly empty of pocket, and they would raise a mighty roar when Best Mate, the current wonder horse, shot for his third straight Gold Cup, hoping to equal a mark that Arkle, the greatest chaser ever, set in 1966.
There was a time when you couldn’t walk into an Irish pub without hearing Arkle’s name. The horse was an institution, a national treasure. Glasses were raised in his honor, and children around the world wrote letters addressed to “Arkle, Ireland” that were actually delivered by the grace of God. Trained in north County Dublin by Tom Dreaper, a self-styled “humble farmer,” he won twenty-seven of his thirty-five starts, often carrying twice the weight of his rivals. His fans cruised by the farm on weekends, eager for a snapshot or just a peek at him. They were loyal and devoted and could describe his favorite meal in detail—mash, dry oats, six raw eggs, and two bottles of Guinness stout mixed in a bucket. They even forgave his owner, Anne, Duchess of Westminster, for being British and holding a title.
Some experts thought Arkle’s feat would never be duplicated again, but now Best Mate was on the scene, and every newspaper on the ferry carried a story about his quest. The stories always mentioned his superb physical condition—the very picture of a racehorse in the full of his health, as impressive as any champion George Stubbs ever painted—and told how the bookies favored him odds-on in 2004, and how Henrietta Knight, his sweetly eccentric English trainer, had recently lost two stone on the Atkins diet and couldn’t bear to watch her darling run for fear she’d see him fall. Her husband, Terry Biddlecombe, a former jump jockey, also provided excellent copy with his jokes about Viagra and his gruff but emotional manner. He’d wept in public when Matey won the Gold Cup a second time.
A victory in the Gold Cup, where a horse must jump twenty-one fences over a distance of three and a quarter miles, requires speed, stamina, and faultless execution, but those qualities are worthless without some racing luck. Even a wonder horse can make a mistake, time a jump badly, hit a fence, and fall. Knight knew this, naturally, and so did the Irish trainers dreaming of an upset, such as the canny Michael Hourigan from County Limerick, who was sending Beef Or Salmon, his stable star, to the Festival again. A talented but awkward eight-year-old, Beef Or Salmon had run in the race last year and had fallen at the third fence, his challenge over before it began. But maybe the horse had improved. It could happen, couldn’t it? Fantasies have been built on less. The same might be true of Harbour Pilot from Noel Meade’s yard in County Meath, third to Best Mate in 2003, albeit by a whopping thirteen lengths.
Fortunately, the sea is calm tonight, so the horses can rest easy. In stormy weather, they get spooked at times and need constant attention, but now the grooms and van drivers can take a catnap, consult their dog-eared copies of the Racing Post, or stretch their legs on deck, looking up at a sprinkling of stars and studying the inky water for omens. They duck into the café for tea or coffee or a quick pint of beer, comparing notes and hot tips and gossiping about their employers, airing the dirty laundry while also sharing the lessons they’ve learned on the job. Some know more about horses than the boss, and many know less, but they still voice their opinions, regardless of their relative expertise.
They talk about the Festival, too, and how important it is, and how that translates into pressure, stress, and anxiety, all complicated by the hardships of travel and the brain-numbing effect of a three-day booze-up. Cheltenham always produces its fair share of basket cases, but every owner, trainer, and jockey longs to be there in March, if only once in a lifetime. The jumps season lasts virtually year-round in both the U.K. and Ireland, but no other event has the same cachet as the Festival, not even the Grand National, that brutal steeplechase featured in National Velvet, where little Mickey Rooney booted home a winner. The prize money is excellent, as well, with the Gold Cup worth close to four hundred thousand dollars, a sizable purse by the hunt’s lowly standards, plus the whole affair comes wrapped in bells-and-whistles—prime-time TV coverage, hype on the grand scale, and instant celebrity for the lucky few.
For the Irish the Festival has an extra dimension, though, a metaphoric value. In their familiar role as underdogs, they accept the disadvantage of shipping their horses to Cheltenham, glad for an opportunity to take on their colonizers on hallowed English ground. The contest is friendly and no blood has yet been shed except by accident, but every patriot in Ireland prays that the Hourigans and Meades will stick it to the Brits. The Irish have an extraordinary way with horses, after all. The earliest invaders from England remarked on how a rider and his mount appeared to be inseparable, a single creature with nothing between them, skin-to-skin. Often the rider lacked a saddle and used a mere snaffle for control, the lightest of bits. Respect for a horse, empathy with it, those were elemental concepts for the Celts, who believed that the Otherworld, a place beyond death, was bright and happy. In their myths, horses transport souls across the divide.
Around dawn, the ferry arrives at the Welsh port of Holyhead, north of Caernarfon Bay. The grooms and drivers may be grumpy and a little bedraggled after their hours at sea, but they click right into action and make certain each animal is comfortable, quiet, and suffering no ill-effects from the trip. In general, horses manage well on the ferry. They can stand upright and clear their lungs of mucus, something that’s more difficult to do on a plane. They don’t usually kick up a fuss, either, when the overland part of their journey resumes, with the vans following a route through Anglesey that crosses the border into England near Chirk, then cuts through the Severn Vale and skirts Birmingham’s suburban sprawl before dropping south toward Cheltenham and the western edge of the great limestone escarpment of the Cotswolds.
Eventually, the vans reach Cheltenham Racecourse, a huge complex at the foot of Cleve Hill. The dutiful grooms, even wearier now, lead their charges to the stable yard, where an official checks the horses’ passports to confirm their identities, and then to the barns. The horses are given some water (they don’t drink much on the ferry) and sniff out their new surroundings before they take a walk over the course. Today—a Monday—the weather is fairly warm and springlike, although the sky is overcast, and gradually they relax and lose any trace of stiffness. They look contented, returned to a world they know. They’re alert and enjoying the fresh air and the feel of the grass beneath them, all agreeably familiar sensations, and they recognize from the cameras and the buzz along the rail that what lies ahead is far more significant than a simple weekday meeting at home.
With the Festival scheduled to begin on Tuesday, the racecourse is besieged. Delivery trucks come and go, e-mails zip through hyperspace, and callers begging for last-minute tickets (at better than $150 a pop) jam the phone lines. Letheby & Christopher, caterers to the event since the 1920s, are laying in around eleven thousand pounds of beef, sixteen thousand pounds of potatoes, thirty-nine thousand chocolate bars, and forty-seven thousand sandwiches. Champagne is stacked in cases, the beer kegs are ready to be tapped. Groundsmen replace divots on the track and inspect the fences and hurdles for flaws. In the Tented Village, a bazaar of sorts, merchants are setting up the stalls where they’ll hawk their wares. Security guards patrol the entire five-hundred-acre site—no threat, however weird, can be discounted—while the police prepare for the traditional clash of merrymakers and pickpockets.
While the horses walk the course and get their bearings, fans all over Ireland are packing their bags and departing for the Cotswolds. The Irish crowd will be large, vocal, informed, and dying for a bet, their wallets stuffed with cash. Many are repeat visitors, among them diehards who’ve been staying at the dowager Queens Hotel downtown since Arkle’s last run, and they can remember rowdier times when fortunes changed hands at the all-night card games. But there are also plenty of newcomers pouring into Birmingham Airport, lawyers and plumbers, teachers and CEOs, all crazy about horses and often at the mercy of travel agents who broker package tours and must dispatch their clients to lodgings in faraway towns—to Stratford-upon-Avon, say, or Twigworth in the middle-of-nowhere.
There, in a single room at the Twigworth Hotel, you’ll find a gambler who doesn’t quite fit the mold, being an American—a Californian, to be precise—although he lives in Dublin now and is just as obsessed with the jumps as the lads from Kilkenny and Waterford in the rooms around him. He has a bag filled with form books and notebooks and a corkscrew should he manage to locate a palatable bottle of wine at the hotel—there are no stores nearby and no village, and he doesn’t have a car—and he is looking forward to the Festival in a major way since it marks the high point of his own journey, one that began back in October, when he joined the caravan of Irish horses, trainers, and jockeys to record its progress on the bumpy road to Cheltenham.
Or you could say that the journey really started when he sold his house near San Francisco and rented a flat in London to freshen himself, fully expecting to go home in a few months and buy a fishing cabin in the Sierra Nevada, where he’d rusticate from middle into old age. That was three years ago, but instead he had the good luck to fall in love with an Irish woman and the surprising bravery (given his usual shyness in these matters) to fly to Dublin and pursue her, and now he has a brand-new life. The move required a leap of faith, but no doubt love in any form, at any time or any age, demands such a gamble, and at odd moments he feels a sharp kinship with the horses who, when they take flight and leave the earth, hang for a half-second in a cloud of uncertainty before they know what the future will bring.
It was early autumn when I settled in Dublin to be closer to Imelda Healy, my new love. Apartments were scarce in the city, so I took what I could get, a tiny one-bedroom in a fancy gated complex, where the other tenants were all baby stockbrokers and Chinese students of English. The building was a tribute to Ireland’s booming economy and dwarfed the little Victorian cottages on the Dodder River nearby. Our porter was a fierce-eyed, black-haired rogue, and when he saw me parsing the Racing Post one afternoon, he gave me a tip on a horse running at Punchestown in County Kildare. That caused an odd stirring in me. I felt I belonged.
The horse lost, of course, but that was all right. I wasn’t in it for the money, not yet. In a way, the porter had opened a gate, and I saw how uninformed I was about Irish racing compared to the English scene. In London, I’d fallen into the habit of playing the televised races every Saturday, rising early and poring over the Post as diligently as a convict ransacking law books for a loophole to set him free. I liked the dense columns of statistics, the paper’s oddly poetic jargon, and the underlying assumption that the puzzle could be solved, and the brambly nature of existence untangled, if only for an instant.
While the English are fond of their racing, I discovered the Irish can’t live without it. Their embrace of the sport is passionate, a streak of lightning in the blood. Nothing grips them as powerfully as the sight of horses jumping over hurdles and steeplechase fences, maybe because it carries an echo of the country’s rural, agricultural heritage and has the power to touch people, and even move them. Whatever the case, this was new territory for me, and I took to it so readily that the flat races began to bore me. Devoted to speed, they were over in a flash, while a good chase unfolded as leisurely as a Hardy novel. The jump races were rich in subplots and dramatic reversals of fate, too, plus they had a pastoral aspect that was transcendent, and entirely beautiful.