THE GREAT birthday of the year is upon us. On 1 January my three-year-old horse becomes a four-year-old. Also, by one of those Nostradaman coincidences, every sin- gle horse registered in the world becomes a year older. In a species of bureaucratic mania, a horse is allowed no other birthday.
And so, everywhere across the world in racing yards the leggy, sprawling two year olds turn overnight into mature athletes ready to face the decisive year of their lives — their third, and the Classics loom ahead for the fast ones.
This is the time of the year for dreams, like all other times of the year, if you have anything to do with horses. I remember talking to the American trainer, Charlie Whittingham, as we watched the horses breeze — lovely Americanism for fast can- ter — around the track at Santa Anita in California.
Whittingham had passed 80 and was still an active trainer at the very highest level. Naturally I asked him why he still bothered: after all, he had done everything and won everything. 'Listen, I got a young horse out there,' he said, waving his arm vaguely at the barns behind us and, showing a very unArnerican taste for understatement: `Nobody ever commits suicide if he has a young horse.'
A young horse. Magic words. Because it could be anything. It might be the greatest horse in history. True, it probably won't, but what is true of all sport is doubly true of horses: you don't know what happens next. I was recalling the horse of the century — which one? I hear you ask cynically — the other day as I read Brough Scott's collec- tion of journalism, Racing Certainties. Only racing people will recall Celtic Swing. 'From the moment he started can- tering I knew he was something special,' said his lad, Bob Mason. At two, the official handicapper gave him the best turf-rating since modern records began. But a two- year-old season is for promise. The three- year-old season is for fulfilment. I watched the Two Thousand Guineas on television, at Badminton where I was covering the horse trials.
Celtic Swing was supposed to run away with the race; in the end he was photo-fin- ished out of it. So it goes. Just another dream broken on the wheel: that's sport, that's racing, and there'll be another dream along in a minute. Still, at least we can say with certainty that the greatest horse of the coming year will celebrate its birthday on Monday.
On that day, God willing, I will go up to the stable yard and check out my gangling, woolly monster and wish him a happy fourth official birthday. Welcome to the grown-up world. Not being aimed at the races, he gets longer to mature. But I will bring him into full work in a week or two. And I will not be contemplating suicide. Not right away, at least.
Because he could be anything, just like every horse that celebrates a birthday of four years or less on this, the festival of dreams. And already I see myself in three or four weeks' time, standing in the rain holding a lunge-line as I attempt to coax the horse into remembering his lessons of the past summer.
I see myself a fortnight later, riding in the biting wind, cold hands, cold nose and feet at best luke warm, as I despair of ever per- suading him to strike off onto the correct leg. And I see myself in early spring, out on the gallops with the horse for the first time, sense his sudden wild elation and my own half-terrified sharing of it. Then walking over poles and shuffling over tiny jumps: and on. And on.
He will not be the greatest eventer that ever drew breath; the limitations of the jockey will see to that, and I don't dream of Derbys, but I remember when his mother and I won £5 on that glorious day at Potton. I have invested wild amounts of time and money in this gangling galoot of a soon-to- be-four-year-old. If I ever win £5 on his back, I will be so far in profit it will be unbelievable. That is how horse people do their maths. Some people keep a dream diary; horse people go in for dream accountancy. Happy birthday, dream horses everywhere.