The horses stand poised in the padded metal starting gates, tense in their utter awareness and anticipation of what is yet to come, their hooves shifting restlessly upon the ground, their bright eyes fixed upon the course ahead. The jockeys perch, precariously it may seem to some, atop the light racing saddle; their knees perpendicular to their slim, wiry bodies and their reins held short in their supple hands. Each of them knows what is to come, for they have done the same many times before, yet somehow each and every race is unique, and the tension that fills the body and mind as the jockeys crouch low over the withers never truly fades.
Ahead the smooth turf, not yet marred by any print of racing plate; lightly trodden in the yielding ground, flows endlessly ahead bounded by post and rail, gleaming white, and the seething crowd endlessly surges back and forth behind. The women are attired in various wisps of garish silk, plumed hats of yet more vibrant hues of colour and the men clad in suits of grey, navy and cream; a vast glittering multitude under a sky of palest blue.
The starter, arrayed in bowler hat and suit, slowly ascends his platform. He stands alone, silhouetted against the skyline; regal and ancient beyond imagination, still and majestic in his absolute authority. Untouchable in the blazing sunlight. The world becomes strangely silent; the roar of the crowd is heard as if from a great distance; the stamp of light hooves on the ground, the champ of bit between teeth and the harsh snort of breath from dilated nostrils reverberate through the heady silence.
Yet one sound pierces this intense stillness and resonates through the mind; and instantaneously the barred gates fly open with a clang, revealing the seemingly endless expanse of greenest grass beyond. Then, with exhilarating force unleashed, the great muscles beneath rise and surge, and the horse swiftly leaps from the starting stall with joyous abandon, flying through the air for a glorious moment which seems to last forever.
“And they’re off!” the distant commentator cries. A river of gleaming bodies thunders along the track; the countless shades of lustrous bay, chestnut and grey stretching from fairest white to glossy sable each individualised by their own unique markings, yet outshone by far by the jockeys perched above, clad in many coloured silks of iridescent beauty. The relentless drumming of hoof beats on the soft turf resonates through the mind, body and soul of all, the horses galloping with that deep instinct that dominates the mind of all racehorses; to run, to run and never stop running until they can run no more.
Impossibly swiftly they race; sleek, sweat-slicked bodies stretched low, slender legs, hard as steel, rapidly pound the ground. The small, finely chiselled head moves in constant rhythm, the eyes bright and determined, the nostrils red and dilated with every heaving breath. Their long necks stretch out, rising and falling with every stride, their powerful haunches rippling with muscle as they thrust forward.
It is flight without wings, beauty in itself, every fibre of being thrilling to the thudding of metal-shod hooves on grass and the feeling of those powerful muscles bunching and straining beneath to propel you ever further along the green grass as the rails flash past in a blur. The cursing of the jockeys under sharply indrawn breath, the chink of metal stirrups and the snort of every horse’s breath drown out the commentator’s isolated voice as he proclaims the leader, and the sound of the spectators as the horses stream around the turn. Every jockey is watching, waiting, thinking and scheming, anticipating that final turn, those last furlongs, where the countless ingenious schemes designed by learned trainers shall be executed with military precision by the jockeys, as they channel the sheer power of roughly one thousand pounds of horse flesh, blood and bone into yet more speed.
Ahead looms the final turn, approaching with every lengthened stride and by now the field has divided, the solitary leader preceding the clustered field by five or so lengths, with the stragglers pursuing at varying distances. Improbably soon the turn is upon the swiftly running field, strung out now by several lengths, the frontrunners poised to snatch the lead from the tiring leader as he gamely holds as they round the turn.
The final furlongs stretch ahead; the distant winning post the focus of every jockey’s fervent intent, and now the horses are wholly unleashed. The jockeys crouch still lower over the withers; the slick rains, which carve the sweat from the neck into a white lather, held loosely in one hand, the other flicking the whip ceaselessly from forequarters to hindquarters to goad the horse to yet greater efforts. The horse’s strides lengthen still further, and come ever more swiftly over the ground; it runs with all the courage its heart can give, with all the speed it can marshal from its tiring body. It runs as it was born to run.
Scarce a furlong from the winning post, and by now the gallant leader has faded to the rear of the field, yet still every tiring horse strains to the utmost to extend their strides and gallop still faster over the churned up ground. Only one hundred yards left, and by now two horses have drawn lengths clear of the chasing field, and neck and neck they gallop on, striding closer and closer to the finish, trying their utmost to win a length, half a length, or extend a neck, a head, a nose beyond the horse running upsides of them. The jockeys desperately fan their whips, driving the horse to the line with a determination inconceivable to those who have never experienced the final surge for the line.
The moment seems to stretch into eternity, precious and infinitesimal, as two heads strain for the finish, nostrils flared to the utmost, red as blood, frenzied eyes fixed upon the adjacent head and ears with veins prominent, laid flat back along sweat-slicked necks. Yet for one this ultimate effort shall be a victory, for the other a loss. There is unutterable beauty in those few moments, the utmost exertion to run until they can run no longer, to fly without wings.