On a grey, whipped Wednesday in early winter, men in long coats came out and shot Renoir where he stood, noble, unbalanced, a foreleg hanging. In the terminating jolt of the bolt, many dreams died.
Later, in the car, Cameron Delray sat behind the wheel, looked straight ahead and made no move to get going. Harry Strang, head deep in his old racing overcoat, held his knuckles to his forehead. After a while, he said, ‘Act of God, no bloody insurance for that.’
I was in shock, rubbing my hands together, trying to comfort myself. Most of them you can lose easily and there are fifty reasons why. This was the one we couldn’t lose. If the ground was firm. If the horse didn’t miss the start, and this horse was not going to miss the start, it was the best-schooled horse in the world, if it didn’t miss the start, it could street the small field by at least six lengths, probably ten.
And nobody knew that except us.
The ground was firm. It didn’t miss the start.
All Renoir had to do was run 1000 metres. On lazy days, not pushed, we had clocked him doing that in around 57 seconds. Only one horse running against him had come close to such a time. Afterwards, that creature swabbed positive for Melazanine and hadn’t run under 65 since.
So that didn’t count. Drug-assisted times don’t count.
The day before, Harry Strang, walking next to Kathy Gale, big hand holding her elbow, said, ‘Can’t win with you up, he can’t win. Just mind you get him out with em, keep him away from em, don’t touch him, he’ll do the rest.’
All Kathy had to do was get the horse to jump cleanly out of gate number six, just urge him on, one bend, it didn’t matter about looking for the short path, being out wide meant nothing, he could beat them if he ran on the grandstand rail, the horse was ten lengths better than any of the competition. Just go for the judge.
Renoir, black as the grave, stood in the stall with the patient air of a Clydesdale, no sign of nerves. The VE 4000 showed me a calm, intelligent eye and Kathy Gale’s face, her mouth, the upper teeth resting on the plumped pillow of the lower lip, the tooth next to the canine that jutted slightly, that broke the rank of her seagull-white choppers.
I saw Kathy put out a hand and rub Renoir under his left ear. It twitched. He liked that; she had done it to him hundreds of times. They stood in the gate, a horse and a small rider, at their ease, friends, together greatly superior to the men and animals on either side of them. And when she urged him, he would respond with a great thrust of dark and gleaming thighs.
The race caller said, ‘Three to come in, very serious plunge on Renoir for a horse with one place from nine starts, never run this distance. He’s shrunk from 30-1 to outright favourite, 4–5 on, pressure of the money, started as a trickle. Not just the bookmakers either. TAB pool is astonishing for a pretty ordinary autumn race.’
A pool swollen by our money, ours and the money of all the price-watchers who got on with us in the last moments before betting closed.
‘Last one goes in, that’s Redzone,’ said the caller, ‘the line’s good, light flashing…’
The gates opened and they came out together, eight abreast, but only for a moment because Renoir needed no more than half-a-dozen strides to draw away, a length, two, three. Then Kathy settled him, didn’t let him bolt, used what she knew about sitting on horses to manage him. Just before the bend, she looked over her shoulder, just a jerk of the head, saw the inadequate herd well behind her, and she took the horse over to the rail. In the straight, Renoir’s dominance was complete. With three hundred to go, he was six lengths clear and Kathy was riding him hands and heels, copybook riding, and drawing further ahead with each stride.
‘Well, isn’t this easy,’ said the caller. ‘Renoir’s thrashing this field, drilling the bookies who got caught early, he’s in another league altogether and Kathy Gale isn’t even…’
I had Kathy and Renoir in perfect focus, all grace and power, an unbidden smile on my face, and then I saw her head drop and her arms in their silken sleeves go forward to clutch the lovely black neck and I saw shining horse and rider falling, falling, falling, all gainliness gone, all grace and power departed in a split second of agony.
They fell and she lay still and he, the proud and lovely creature, struggled to stand and the field had plenty of space in which to part and ride around them so that some undeserving twosome could be declared winners.
Now, in the car, Harry took his hands from his face and fastened his seatbelt. ‘Home,’ he said, ‘have a bit of Bolly, thank the stars the Lord didn’t taketh away the girl.’
On the way, on the hideous tollway, in post-adrenalin shock, I was thinking about life, the brevity, the silliness, my life in particular, the fragility of life, how unfair it was that the huge burden should be carried on such slender and brittle supports, when Cam said, driving with two fingers in a suicidal rush of trucks and boofheads, petrolheads, ‘The giveth is we got average fifteen with the books, just on ten on the tote.’
I sat up, heart pumping as if from a dream of flight, enraged and irrational. ‘You put money on that?’ I said. ‘A fucking thing not fit to lick Renoir’s boots, shoes, whatever, hooves, bloody hooves…’
Harry had his head back, against the headrest. ‘Jack,’ he said, sadly, ‘they don’t have races with only one horse.’
I slumped in my seat, a child gently chastised. How often do you have to be told some things?
Lyn, the fourth Mrs Harry Strang, opened a French door at the side of the mellow red-brick house as we came up the gravel path from the carriage-house. She had the sexy look of someone who’d been running, followed by a hot shower and a rough towelling. Her right hand came up, fell. She knew. She was once a trainer’s wife, she knew.
‘Had better days,’ said Harry without being asked anything. ‘Might have the bubbly in the study, love.’
In the awesome room, we stood with our backs to the five-metre-high wall of books that held everything ever published on horses and horse racing and looked out across the terrace and the lawn and the yew hedges to the naked maples moving like things possessed.
There was a knock. Cam opened the door in the library wall and Mrs Aldridge came in with a tray. I saw the delicacies, salivated. I’d had them before and they featured in my dreams. Ethereal capsules, a shell of champagne batter just puffed in hot oil. Inside, the teeth would meet a fresh oyster wrapped in tissuethin smoked salmon.
Lyn Strang followed, three flutes on a silver tray, a bottle of Bollinger, uncorked, stoppered with a sterling silver device.
Harry looked at his two women. ‘What would I do?’ he said, head to one side. I had never seen him like that.
‘Stuff yourself with all the wrong things,’ said Mrs Aldridge, sharply. She left the room.
Harry looked at Lyn. ‘Glass short,’ he said.
‘No,’ said Lyn. ‘Can’t bear racing post-mortems.’
She touched his cheek, smiled, a brisk nurse smile, and left.
Harry poured. Cam and I waited for the toast, Harry always proposed a toast to the next time. It didn’t come. He sipped, and we sipped. My eyes met Cam’s.
‘Well,’ Harry said, putting his glass down on the tray, looking out at his garden, ‘I’m thinkin of givin it away.’
I didn’t want to hear this. It had been in my mind from the moment he said, ‘What would I do?’