A Man in Love with a Horse

 

 

The Daily Mirror’s wartime cartoonist Zec produced this astonishing piece of inspirational art in 1944,
with the caption ‘there is no weak link’.

…and it is impossible to imagine even the most cynical Briton of the time failing to be moved.

The woman is defiant, cradling a baby, wearing an apron, standing on Dover’s cliffs and looking to the
skies. She is striking rather than beautiful. Behind her is bomb-blackened London…

Even black marketeers and deserters would have wanted a piece of it. Auden and Isherwood, having
fled on some pretext to New York, would have cheered.

A year later, Zec was responsible for the most famous cartoon of all time …

‘Here you are. Don’t lose it again!

Very occasionally life takes us, usually via trauma, to good places. It costs a lot.

Sport, on the other hand, gets us there quickly, often, cheaply and easily.

Vicarious is a great word with a bad name. Used well it can be withering. It was applied by one
commentator to the ‘grief’ with which the nation reacted to the death of Diana in 1998. We behaved,
he alleged, as though a member of our family had been killed, enjoying the adrenaline rush and the
catharsis but avoiding the numbing shock and the empty aftermath. We selfishly took the good bits,
the critic said.

We got off on it, in other words.

Sport we are meant to get off on. Picking out the good bits is what it’s for. To be vicarious is essential.
That’s the point of selecting a team or individual and spectating with the perspective of a partisan. It
feels as though our lives are at risk even though nothing is actually at stake. Triumphs can be
remembered and gloried in, disaster can be shrugged off in a couple of days. There’s another match
next week.

We can’t do this in real life. When things go wrong we have to pay the bills, then or at the end of the
month.

Sport is fiction. The misery it appears to cause the losers would, if real, take years to recover from.

There are so few good novels about it because it is already make-believe. The Stokes/Leach unbroken
partnership to win the test against Australia last summer, for example. No writer could put that in a
story and expect to be taken seriously.

Seeing the text unfold in front of us, being written in the present, is intoxicating. We are the lusty
Stokes one second, smiting so hard that even the mis-hits limp over the rope for 6, then Leach,
bravely resisting, holding the fort, polishing our spectacles like a patient bank clerk, then resuming
courageous defence. There is nothing we can’t be when watching sport.

The allegiance to a national team is a lifelong matter. In horse racing the love, generally lasting from
the striking of the bet to the passing of the post, may be more promiscuous. For Andrew Walker, the
gentleman of the title, the investment was long term.

 

At Exeter in 2005 a horse, favourite in a three runner field, caught his eye. It fell two from home and
the jockey, having kept hold of the reins, re-mounted and still nearly won. Frank Sinatra was needed…

Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger

You may see a stranger, across a crowded room

And somehow you know

For the next 7 years Andrew followed this horse, in person or in spirit, with money down or not,
wherever it went. No member of cricket’s now defunct Barmy Army was more dedicated and no
flare-brandishing Lazio ultra more single-minded. His passion could not have been greater had he
been watching his son compete in the Olympics. Mistakes made were ghastly moments of horror, falls
were catastrophes. Injuries led to months of desperation, searching for updates on the recovery.
Victories were personal triumphs, often leading to tears.

In this time Andrew collected a museum load of memorabilia. Photos, scarves, sculptures, posters, a
discarded plate sent on request by the trainer, signed race cards, models, portraits. In his book,
Following the Star, published in 2013, every stumble in every race is logged, the nature of each jump
is analysed, the threats are identified and the aftermath detailed. Family events, the birth of children
for example, are remembered in the context of which race had just been run or was being prepared for.

If there was no-one to watch, pay, obsess and sacrifice like Andrew, to travel long distances,
experience disappointment, be rained on and then consider the day well spent, elite sport would not
exist. Lionel Messi would have to get a proper job. He is Messi because we, in the absence of anything
more pressing to do, like fighting a war, dream of being Messi, no other reason.

Following the Star is available on Amazon and is being republished by BlueJ in August

Andrew Walker owns a share in Bob Pebble.