I know that the main reason my boyfriend goes out with me is that I have cable television, and therefore he has permanent access to Attheraces. I don’t mind: he loves me for other reasons, but I’m pretty sure that it’s being able to watch low-grade American racing in the middle of the night that tips the balance in my favour.
I’ve always ridden horses and liked racing, but had no idea before I met Matt of the white-hot intensity of many people’s passion for the sport. It’s as though the industry takes on God-like proportions: let us pray at the altar of the turf.
I’ll read anything, from Kant to cornflake packets, and lose myself in the depths of each book, crying, raging and laughing my way through tube journeys and baths. Matt reads the Racing Post. Oh, and the Racing Post Weekender for a bit of variety. The only book he says he would really like to read is the autobiography of his hero, Sir Mark Prescott, and sadly this long-awaited classic is taking longer than the new Harry Potter. And yes, his favourite song at the moment is Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. Nothing to do with a certain ante-post bet struck last year at 40/1?
He honestly believed (or is very good at winding me up, which is entirely possible) that Nijinsky, Stravinsky and Diaghilev are just ex-Ballydoyle inmates — I don’t think the Ballets Russes ever made an appearance on a major racecourse. Of course he knows that Mozart was a composer, but while the name may conjure up a few bars of the Magic Flute for you or me, Matt will always associate it with that blistering sprint two years ago that left the other July Cup runners looking like Welsh cobs.
We went to see The Tempest recently at the Old Vic. Matt had been rather dreading going to the theatre with me. After all, there was a nice little claimer from Gulfstream Park he rather wanted to watch, but he brightened up considerably when I told him what we were going to watch.
"Tempest. Used to be trained by Sir Michael Stoute. Ran in Golan’s 2,000 Guineas, and was third in the Dewhurst. Are there any horses in this play?"
"I can’t really remember, darling. Maybe. In fact, I think there are…" I say, crossing my fingers and blushing guiltily.
Don’t get me wrong, he is charming, funny and bright with a great job — albeit one which allows him to live and breathe racing, spending a good part of the morning reading form and a good part of the afternoon watching his selections romp home (not necessarily in front).
We sound worlds apart, but I love the fact that we always have something to talk about: we went out for dinner not long ago and, after a couple of bottles of wine, he gave me a racing quiz on Cheltenham 2002. I had to reel off all last year’s winners in the correct order, giving the race name as well for a bonus. We did it twice and I got over 80% the second time, even remembering that Fadoudal Du Cochet won the Grand Annual. He was rather impressed, I think, although it’s been a long, hard road to forgiveness after I backed Blowing Wind at 25/1 during the Cheltenham Festival last year without telling him.
Insidiously, his ardour for the racing game has crept into me. I began to understand after watching Galileo and Fantastic Light duelling up the straight at Ascot in a Turner-esque storm of steam, light and speed, and watching the Wincanton crowd pour out their respect and affection for a supremely assured and masterful See More Business, cemented the relationship.
Other people have begun to appreciate this: my flat-mate was overheard saying, in tones of mock-despair, "they come in at 2.30 in the morning and they’re still arguing about the bloody betting for the Gold Cup."
I’m hooked. Like any addict who craves a hit, the rush of watching a magnificent horse and his brave jockey combine to achieve a supreme effort that neither could do alone makes my heart race and my head sing.
I do get too emotional about it all though. Watching the film Shergar on television last week, I cried solidly for 20 minutes, while my pragmatic boyfriend looked on quizzically, occasionally patting my arm in a rather perfunctory way. But at least he understands what it is that I am getting weepy about, and he gave me a huge hug after Bacchanal’s fatal fall. He doesn’t say, "it’s only a horse race," which has to be one of the most irritating things non-racing friends can say. Of course it’s just a horse race, I didn’t think it was a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. But it’s also so much more than just a bunch of quadrupeds running in a circle or straight line with one going faster than the others.
I realised not long ago that a great deal of my friends now either work in racing or follow the sport quite closely. Perhaps it’s the fact that the stomach-churning highs and lows everyone endures in racing, as a punter, participant or armchair expert, mean that they tend to face the rest of life with some equanimity and a sense of humour. Perhaps all that fresh air is good for them, although there’s nothing fresh about the Arkle Bar. Or perhaps it’s just that great minds think alike.
Poor Matt, there’s been a slight reversal in our roles. He now has to put up with endless questions about the chances of particular horses and, when someone lent me a copy of a book about the Magnier/Sangster alliance, I barely took any notice of him for a week because I was so engrossed.
All together now, "Like a rhinestone cowboy/ Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo…"