It’s Better There

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Looking back at a return to Cheltenham after the last sips of champagne. Sean Clancy Photo.

Four years. Four long years.

Different this year. Very different. A tear or two welled into my eyes as I hugged Candida Baker. And then George Baker. Outside Terminal 2 at Heathrow on a beautiful sun-filled Sunday morning. Four beautiful days at Cheltenham in the books (the liver and the bank, too).

“You have made such a difference in my life…”

We squeezed a last it-will-be-another-year embrace and Candida turned to the passenger door of her Range Rover.

“You’re going to make me cry…”

We have made this journey for 20 years. Or so. Not consecutively. But thoroughly. Beach House. Whitsbury. Manton. Robins Farm. Friends’ houses, homes and a few verging on hostels, trying to fall asleep before the snorers (Toby!).

Four years ago, I hugged George and Candida in front of a different terminal, rain pelting off our shoulders as we hugged one last time. Wondering if it could be the last time, should we be hugging, should we have gone racing, should I be flying…? Covid – declared a pandemic during the 2020 Cheltenham Festival – was descending, had descended. I had a few tears that day, too. Tears of gloom. Tears of dread. Tears of fears.

The airports were somber, sad, chaotic and confused. A few wore masks, laughable, ludicrous, I thought. The world as we once knew it was over, at least for a while. I boarded a plane home, landed at Dulles Airport and was fed like scraps down a disposal into a line at customs. The man next to me had been to France and Italy. The woman behind me, Japan. Another guy, Germany, as he coughed, and we winced. I knew we were in trouble.

I called an Uber for the 45-minute drive home. We drove in silence; I wondered if I was giving him this crazy thing that none of us understood. I was hoping it wasn’t his last fare. I arrived to the farm, to my family, miffed that I went and manic that I was coming home. I stripped off my clothes on the porch, left my Cheltenham bags to air out and disinfect and bedded down in the guest bedroom with its own entrance. Annie slid meals to the door. We were strict. Like Catholic-School strict. Yeah, 14-day quarantine back then, the start of rules that changed quicker than goggles on heavy ground. Masks. Lockdowns. Quarantines. Sanitizers. Disinfectants. Eventually vaccines and boosters.

Four years. Four long years.

Sadly, we lost friends. Surely, we lost years.

Friday night, after four days of sport, we drank the last drops of champagne and talked about the years after Covid. Mandatory lockdowns and mindless quarantines. Life in Paris. Life in Rio. Life in London. Life on the farm. Ours sounded better than most. Even with my clothes on the porch.  

Four years. Four long years.

George and Candida, Adrian and Claire, Charlie and Muffy, Barney and Kit, Francis and Mark, Frank and J P, Harry and Dan, Rachael and Henry, Willie and Paul had been back to Cheltenham since that awful 2020. I had not.

I watched those on TV. So far away, so out of the game. When someone tells you it’s better on TV, trust me, it’s not better on TV.

It’s better there. When the first bittersweet taste of Guinness starts the first day and Guinness Village becomes a village. When the crowd roars for the first race; a year – four for some – has come and gone. When Trelawne puts his quivering hind leg down and walks off the course, a collective deep breath and minutes later David Bass kicks stablemate Chianti Classic for a couple of more. When State Man lowers and engages, Irish Point running his race but not matching State Man’s. Nah, nobody could do that this year. Constitution Hill back at Seven Barrows, missing his Festival. I know the feeling, brother.

It’s better there. When Ballyburn, head low and shoulders high, shows he’s as advertised. Fact To File, too. When Langer Dan, for better or worse, explains or at least summarizes the handicapping system. When El Fabiolo slithers on his belly and the Queen Mother script gets torn in two. When Rachael, everybody’s daughter, rises in her stirrups on the gallant Captain Guinness. I know Dad will have a winning day. When Patrick guides the 100th Festival winner for Willie, a Father’s Day present forever.

It’s better there. When Envoi Allen, Protektorat and Conflated – chaser’s chasers – throw their cards on the table coming down the hill. Best hand, best horse, wins. When Teahupoo takes the baton for all the stayers and Jack Kennedy, a tactician, wins his big one. When Paisley Park walks off the stage one last time and gets an encore from fans who understand. When Shakem Up’Arry powers up the hill to make the week – the year – for Harry Redknapp, Ben Pauling and high-flying Ben Jones. When Golden Ace puts Irish bankers on the back foot and wins one for the little guys. When Derek O’Connor does a paint-by-numbers in a firestorm of fences and foes.

It’s better there. When Paul Townend stands tall in his irons and raises both arms atop Galloping Des Champs, the crowd engulfing a two-time Gold Cup winner. Their two-time Gold Cup winner. A legend right there in front of us. When Limerick Lace, race in the balance, picks up and bascules over the second to last, race over, in the Mares’ Chase. When the rain bolts down late in the day Friday and the sun comes out just as fast, the left side of the track shining bright, the right side shrouding dark. Two flips of the crazy coin.

Four years. Four long years. No doubt, it’s better there.