I’ll miss, I’ll miss, I’ll miss…

- -

I broke my neck.

Well, that sounds cooler than saying I’ve got an “acutely herniated C6-C7” disc in my neck.

Acupuncture, massage, two methylprednisone dose packs, corticosteroid injection, chiropractor, rest – nothing. Doctor’s visits, X-rays, MRI, CT scan – at least a diagnosis.

“See that there, it’s either bone or disc lying on your nerve,” Dr. Rush Fisher said as I squinted at what looked like a black jellybean in a cloud of smoke on a computer screen. “That’s what’s causing your pain.”

“How did it happen?” I asked.

Fisher looked at me, part fascination, part stupefaction. He’s the smart one of the Fisher brothers, graduated from Dartmouth, medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, opened up his own spine center. His brother, Jack, nearly went to jail, became a steeplechase trainer and hired me as his first-call jockey from 1994 to 2000.  

We shared a lot of wins – and a lot of falls.

We tried to schedule surgery.

Fisher asked if I had anything on my calendar. I thought of my calendar, 365 squares, with just four unmovable, unchangeable. Cheltenham March 15-18…I had to wipe away a tear.

My streak of consecutive days at Cheltenham, dating back to 2002 is in jeopardy. My wife, Annie, asked, “What are you really missing if you skip a year?”

I stuttered, stammered, spit…I’ll miss, I’ll miss, I’ll miss…

I’ll miss George and Candida Baker, Pat and Valerie Murphy, their dogs, their laughs, their horses, their smiles, thankful they chose me when they needed a token American on their annual Cheltenham craic.

I’ll miss flowing up the woodchip gallop at Manton, on a horse I just met, relying on old tricks to capitalize for new aches, rising to the top of the world, wind whipping, pheasants scuttling into the hedge, taking that first controlled breath as the set decelerates at the top.

I’ll miss the tea, the deep British tea that can warm your soul. I’ll miss the toast, the butter left out all day, sliding like a cashmere sweater across a bare arm.

I’ll miss the Bloody Mary toast in the back of the rented Marlborough Football Club van from Manton to Cheltenham every morning.

I’ll miss the ascent over Cleeve Hill and the descent into the cauldron, the course laid out like a Thanksgiving dinner.

I’ll miss the first taste of Guinness, crisp and cold, in Guinness Village, kings crowned, pints downed.

I’ll miss my British and Irish friends – who I see once a year – bellowing out my name, “Claaaaaaaancy’s back.”

I’ll miss the parade ring, seeing a proper National Hunt horse for the first time in a year, brow band matching the quarter sheet, ears up, stepping like he’s looking for lily pads across a stream, his eye dark and deep, piercing, like he recognizes me from last year.

I’ll miss the roar when the flag falls for the first.

I’ll miss AP – hell, everybody will miss AP.

I’ll miss meeting Steven Clements’ dad, hearing a story about a horse named Call Collect and hearing from Steven months later, finding him a job in America and then watching his career from afar.

I’ll miss the Irish cheer when a Mullins hotpot rolls in, I’ll miss the Irish fear when one goes long and low at the last.

I’ll miss the look on a jockey’s face when he wins his first race at Cheltenham.

I’ll even miss the Betfair scarves…OK, maybe I won’t.

I’ll miss the winner’s enclosure, sure, when a winner walks in but more when a veteran walks in, blowing moats down his sides, vanquished in third or fourth and the crowd roars their respect, knowing this might be the last time…Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe, See More Business.

I’ll miss the grass stains, Cheltenham Radio, the lilting prose of Alastair Down and trying to explain a four-horse trifecta box to a Tote teller who can’t understand my accent.

I’ll miss rooting and riding Wichita Lineman for 3 miles, the walks of Junior and Inglis Drever, discovering Hairy Molly in the parade ring and running to the betting ring and I’ll miss Timmy Murphy cajoling and coddling Tikram to win the Mildmay of Flete.

I’ll miss my friends who always win and then need to stop at the ATM machine on the way to the races.

I’ll miss the vibe, the jolt, the air.

I’ll miss it all – the essence of sport, the essence of life.

– Originally published in the Irish Field.