Bittersweet Gold Cup memories

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The doors swing open with the breeze. The butter and eggs sit on the counter. The horses rustle from below and beyond thick windows. The birds wake you, different songs, but the same tunes. The dogs lounge like they were here first, the house built around them. The Racing Post is open on the table. The racing show is on the background. That’s life here. Racing life.

Birthdays used to mark the passage of time for me, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s changed, now the passage of time is marked when I arrive in Saratoga every summer, when I come to Cheltenham every March. It’s opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, our pilgrimage complete. We’ve made it another year of our lives, some haven’t. 

Today will be a brilliant day for most and a brutal day for a few. The family and friends of JT McNamara have actually lived through worse days, I guess. The day Galaxy Rock fell and changed everything. The day, last summer, when McNamara died after a three-year battle with immobility and the inevitable. Today, Cheltenham immortalizes McNamara with the first running of the JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup. Well, the race, for amateurs on novice chasers going 4 miles, has been run for years. This year, it carries a new name and a higher meaning.

I wrote the following on the morning of Gold Cup Day in 2013. Edited slightly, it summed up the mood then and the mood now.

We pull out the tweed. Analyze the card. We stuff handkerchiefs in lapel pockets. We shine our shoes. Check our badges. Buy the Racing Post. A Cheltenham radio. Souvenirs for home. Play the Place Pot. We meet at Guinness Village. We bemoan a tough trip. Celebrate a crafty ride. Gather at the winner’s enclosure. Cheer for the winners. Turn the page, 27 times in four days. Loving every moment. Celebrating the brilliance of the occasion. We conjure up words like bliss, ethereal, scintillating, cauldron, Mecca.

There is an empty stall and a full hospital bed tonight.

Ten-year-old chaser Matuhi fell heavily at the last fence in the Byrne Plate. The screens went up. Stayed up. A good servant for many people, many spheres. He won three flat races, two hurdle races and three chases. Gone. I try to scribble comments for every horse, every race. With upwards of 24 horses circling past, I’ve learned to be fast. “OK,” means great. “UK chaser,” means great for here. “US hurdler,” means great for home. Upward slash means good. Downward slash, means bad. I gave Matuhi a downward slash. That’s it. He deserved better.

Leading amateur rider JT McNamara and Galaxy Rock fell at the first fence in the Kim Muir yesterday. Watching, it was bad one, in traffic, going fast. The 37-year-old rider suffered a serious neck injury, McNamara is a Festival standby, winning four races there over a long and respected career. He’s ridden 602 point-to-point winners. Being an amateur rider in Europe is more of a business than it is at home, but he’s a sportsman. A man who does it because he loves it. Tall and lean, he rides with a long leg, light hold, a foxhunter in a jockey’s role. You could always count on him. His rides on Spot The difference were legendary, coddling and cajoling the old timer through miles and miles of fences and wins.

Thursday, he was airlifted to a spinal unit at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol. In an induced coma, a serious neck injury was reported on Twitter. On the way home from the races, in a back of a Land Rover, over the hills, past the stone walls, through villages of Britain, I read the updates from news agencies, the good wishes from comrades in the jocks’ room, the thoughts and prayers sent out. People somehow thinking they could make a difference. Good thoughts, prayers I guess, are all we have.

Today is Gold Cup Day. I’ll be thinking about Matuhi and JT McNamara.

Reading that, four years later, it’s as raw now as it was then. I’ll never forget the realization, the enormity. Riding a horse in a race is the definition of freedom, until it isn’t. So, for a moment today, think about the horses and the jockeys who have come and gone, the friends and family who have come and gone. Raise a glass, tip a hat, say a sweet word.