The Inside Rail

Ben Bradlee has nothing on Tim Keefe.

“I looked Friday night, Saturday, looked Sunday, looked Monday,” Keefe said. “I said to myself, ‘Sean’s not going to write about this? I can’t believe it. Of all the things he’s written about…he’s not going to write about this?”

Editors.

Here goes.

Valdez lost jockey Wayne Hutchinson at the third fence in the Grand Annual at Cheltenham Friday.

There, I wrote it.

Yes, it’s taken me three days to type those 16 words, every key, heavy, like a toothpick against a rock.

The dream-that-became-a-debacle happened fast. Valdez broke slowly, 20th of 23 in the last race on the last day of Cheltenham. Not great, but OK, no problem, the Grand Annual is always a cavalry charge and maybe we’ll just let the charge charge. The first fence was ominous as Valdez leapt awkwardly, veering right like he can and landing slowly. Through my binoculars, through the fading light of a gray day at Cheltenham, it was surreal, slow motion. I wanted to scream, “Cut. Take two.” He ran down to the second and actually jumped it better, way back, but there was rhythm, at least compared to the first, but two horses splayed across in front of him, Valdez shot right to avoid the melee. It was getting worse. At the third, Valdez veered right and loosened Hutchinson before they left the ground, in mid-air, Hutchinson was going left and Valdez was going right, like a wind surfer in the wrong gust of wind.

It was over.

Oh, it couldn’t be that simple.

Valdez continued, slicing his way through the field, the thoughts of ‘well, it won’t take much out of him,’ fading as he hit the front. He nearly fell once, maybe twice, reins dangling, jinking to the right, flattening his back at his fences, I could barely watch, muttering words I didn’t think I knew as my comrades, Matt Coleman, Richard Hutchinson and George Baker tried to find words that they didn’t know. They’ve been there before, the utter helplessness when a plan goes up in smoke and then keeps catching on fire, just to make sure it burns, seers into your racing soul.

Valdez racked up the field a few times, before racing a loose horse on his right and eventual winner Le Prezien to his left, Valdez’s big, white face a beacon in the storm. It was comical, if it wasn’t your star who had somehow become the comic. Valdez hit the wire in front, to the applause of the crowd, continued to outrun the field, sliding to an awkward, rail-bending stop in the far left corner of the Cheltenham hill. At least he was caught.

I stomped off, disappointed, disgusted, despondent.

My pain is no different than anybody else’s pain when a plan goes asunder, when racing takes another chunk out of our once-impervious shell. And no, my pain isn’t anything close to the pain of the connections of the three horses who lost their lives in the Grand Annual, that’s pain. Racing cuts a fine line between elation and deflation. Sometimes the line becomes a chasm. I felt elation just having a runner at Cheltenham, the build-up, the energy, the opportunity, the what-could-be. As the horses pulled up after the sixth race, I walked by myself to the pre-parade ring, I took a deep breath and thought about what could happen, ‘Why not us?’ Yeah, why not us? Minutes later, I felt the deflation, the disbelief of another dream unfulfilled.

In a horse race, every horse race, you want one moment to feel like it can happen, just that one moment when the hand you’re holding might win, when it’s there in front of you, plausible, palpable. Valdez offered that in the 2014 Arkle, turning for home in the mix, the race in the balance. Sure, he finished fifth that day, but we had that moment, my father, my sister, my wife feet away, feeling the same thing. The fact he lost doesn’t matter, or at least doesn’t register, we had that moment. This year, there wasn’t that moment. Not even a semblance, a sniff, of that moment.

I wrote about it in 2014 and now I’ve written about it in 2018. Words, very different words.