17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 71


Winter promise

Simon Barnes

I THINK on the whole it's my favourite race of the year, the Dewhurst Stakes this weekend, a handful of horses hammering down the brutal arrow-straight stretch of turf on Newmarket Heath. These are the best two-year-olds in the country, or, at least, they think they might be.

It is the dying light of summer, it is the first flickering of hope of the following spring. It is not a race about fulfilment, it is a race about hope, promise. The following year, the same horses will, if all goes well, run in the Classics. A good deal of the advance betting for the big races of 1999 will be about that one brief charge across the blasted autumnal heath.

Horse-racing is wonderful, and the fur- ther you get from the actual races, the more wonderful it is. The longer the dream can stay alive, the more glorious is the world of racing. The Dewhurst has the great virtue of being a race about hope rather than achievement.

Sometimes, when you are powerfully moved, you make the mistake of saying exactly what you are thinking. Earlier this year, I was standing on the Albahatri gallop on Newmarket Heath, a few days before the Derby, in the company of — excuse the name-drop, but it's true — Sheikh Mohammed, the world's leading owner. We were waiting to watch his super-swift filly, Cape Verdi, do her stuff as part of her dar- ing preparation for the Derby. It was six in the morning, soft light and a few distant moving specks ahead. 'This is the best bit,' I found myself saying. 'You can keep the bloody races. Nothing is as good as this.'

And Sheikh Mohammed turned to me with his eyes blazing — but then I suspect that his eyes do a fair bit of blazing when he is asleep — and said, 'You are quite right.' So there you are. The magic moment, when every horse is a champion.

Promise is racing's magic word. The fur- ther you go from the races, the more the magic of promise surrounds you. The other week, at the Newmarket sales, I was view- ing the horses: all those wonderful, skitter- ing, daft yearling horses, bursting with fear and swagger and pride, and the eyes of all the humans seeking the spark of promise in every one. Or earlier this year, at the National Stud, in a foaling box with a mare and a just-born foal, my fingers nibbled by the waist-high, staggering bundle of legs that might be destined for everlasting glory.

Or earlier still, witnessing the brief titan- ic moments of copulation, the stallion doing his stuff, and then the mare walking away filled with — with promise. Perhaps that, after all, is the best bit: I doubt if the two principal participants would disagree. But perhaps for the humans the best bit is in planning the mating, plotting the magical combination of genes that cannot fail to produce a champion.

The Dewhurst is the nearest you can get to the perfect promise of not racing while still having a race. For the winner, it is not total fulfilment, for the losers, if not dis- grace, it is not the end of the dream. 'Needs a bit further,' you say. 'Needs to grow. Needs a good winter.' And we can walk away from the race believing that there is a place in life for this, the ultimate oxy- moron: a good winter, the light of promise to cheer the dark days ahead.