Because racing is so unpredictable, and a thing of high emotion, and because it involves the beautiful and mysterious creature that is the thoroughbred, and the almost equally mysterious people who understand and love that breed, it touches the heart in a way that I think other sports don’t, quite.
Or, at least, it touches mine. I mourn disasters and celebrate triumphs as if they were my own. There is a real love for the characters in the game, both equine and human, who start to feel like old familiars, almost personal friends, even if one has only ever glimpsed them across the paddock at Ascot.
One of those great characters, Sir Henry Cecil, died this week. He was such an enduring figure of the turf, so brilliant, so unlike anyone else, with such an unparalleled record and such a feel for horses, that for racing fans it felt almost like a death in the family. He had been sending out winners since the seventies. He won the Oaks an absurd eight times. His last, greatest swansong was the mighty Frankel, who was officially rated the best horse in the world, never to be forgotten by anyone who ever saw that soaring colt in action.
At once, the whole of racing bowed its head. It wasn’t just that greatness had passed, it was that everyone knew they would never see his like again. There was eccentricity and an idiosyncratic panache in his brilliance, and great kindness too.
The moment the news broke, everyone, from the humblest punter to the richest owner, expressed their sorrow. My Twitter timeline was awash with tributes and memories. The racing world, slightly unexpectedly, has taken Twitter to its heart, and it was here that the internet did a rather marvellous thing. It made a place where an instant memorial could be constructed. All the metaphorical hats were doffed. The recollections of the dancing horses who had passed through the master’s hands were shared; the people lucky enough to be there when Frankel destroyed a top-class field in the Queen Anne could revive the glory of that shining day.
AP McCoy, pretty legendary himself, tweeted: ‘Sir Henry was a hero to everyone in flat and jump racing. Loved his horses, we loved him. True genius.’ Other famous trainers and jockeys expressed similar sentiments. A real gentleman, without whom Newmarket would not be the same, seemed to be the enduring theme. For most of the day, the name Henry Cecil was the top-trending Twitter subject. It’s a small thing, but it gave me a profound satisfaction. It had a rightness to it. There was something curiously consoling in the thought that a man who had given so much pleasure to so many people could be remembered so instantly, so variously and so well.