Sitting on a couch, an ocean away, it all unfolded slowly, you could actually see it happening. I might have been the only American watching the white silks, the white cheek pieces, the bay horse slicing and dicing, cutting and diving through the far pack, clearly in front of the near pack. I don't use surreal very often. This was surreal.
Even more surreal to watch my friend George Baker accept the trophy for the Royal Hunt Cup. My Cheltenham host, the cricketer that comes to Nashville, Baker doffed his top hat, smiled that nervous smile and giggled like a school boy who just kissed his first girl. For him, he had.
I'm sure it was more surreal for Baker. A former banker, journalist (wow, there is hope) and now trainer, Baker fulfilled every trainer's dream, winning his first race at Royal Ascot with the impossible longshot, Belgian Bill. If it seems like Belgian Bill came with the place, he did. He's been with Team Baker from the start, flying the flag, spanning the globe, giving them at least a toe to tap on the dance floor of big time.
With a brand new pair of cheek pieces, the 5-year-old overachiever provided Team Baker with the racing thrill of their lives, winning the $250,000 handicap by a clear margin in the end. Baker used to think he was thrilled by watching 2-mile chasers careen down to the third-to-last in the Queen Mother...
In this game, there are so many lows, that you learn to celebrate the highs of people you like, people you respect. It's those fleeting moments in time - when you're caught up in it, escaping to a better place - when the sport makes sense. For me, Shug's Derby, Graham's World Cup, Charlie's Breeders' Cup Mile, A.P.'s Grand National...Baker's Royal Ascot. You celebrate those moments, cherish those moments, appreciate those moments like they are your own. It was either Norman Wasserman, the father of my college roommate Paul, or Rudyard Kipling or perhaps Frost, but it goes something like, "In your experiences and travels through this world, if you meet a few people who make your life better, make life a little more fun, a little more nurturing, a little more enriched, then you have done well, you've made it. You have lived." Damon Runyon would have added, "In horse racing, when you can celebrate a win, simply for the joy of the win, then..." Yeah, something like that. I'm glad I met Team Baker (George, Candida, Pat and Val Murphy) somewhere back in the early 2000s, when I galloped Patricksnineteenth for Paul Webber and made friends for a lifetime. When it's all said and done, it's the friends you meet, the experiences you share, the stories you swap.
Perhaps, now, when someone sees the GB Racing sticker on my car or my GB Racing jacket, they won't ask, "What's GB?" Perhaps, or perhaps not.
Like Stuart Janney says in next month's Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, when we asked him what it feels like to win the Kentucky Derby.
"Pretty extraordinary. You're in this business for a long time and somebody comes up to you at a cocktail party that doesn't know anything and the only thing they want to know is if you've ever had anything run in the Derby or if you've ever won the Derby. Heretofore the answer's been 'No.' That's pretty much the only thing they want to know. You can tell them about all the other good horses you've had or races you've won, everything, but they've already kind of moved on to talk to the next person. After a long time of having that treatment I guess it's very nice to now at least be able to say something that will interest somebody that isn't in the horse business. I knew it was a big deal, obviously, but it has struck me as being a bigger deal now that I've seen it."
Baker goes to a lot of cocktail parties.
"So, George, have you ever won a race at Royal Ascot?"
For more on Baker's achievement, he said it better than I ever could. Click here to read it from the man himself.