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Farewell to a Friend

4.45am. I couldn’t sleep. It had been teeming down for hours. The heat and humidity seemed sub-tropical in this little enclave of Hackney, reminiscent of faraway climes.

I’d fidgeted for hours, thoughts swimming – drowning, more like, in the monsoon outside my bedroom window – after events of the evening before.

Not wildly sentimental, though far from immune to affairs of the heart either, it had been an emotional few days. An all too rare weekend foray to Dorset, son Leonardo in tow, to visit my dad – Leon’s nonno – was bathed in sunshine, both literally and metaphorically. Though I never speak it, it comes to mind often that, at this stage in our lives, one never quite knows when it will be the last such trip.

Those thoughts were granted more resonance on Monday when an offer was finally accepted on my late mother’s house, thirteen months after her passing. Though not especially close to her, she’d appeared more prevalently in my consciousness in recent times, for reasons that the shrinks could go to town with, doubtless. We only have one mum, after all, and Leon only had one nonna.

But nonna’s gone, and this was a surprisingly sore reminder.

In truth, twelve hours ago, none of this was in the forefront of my mind. I was watching the second race at Carlisle, praying for rain. He needs rain, does our lad. Half of our lad is owned by myself and three other Geegeez syndicateers: Jim, Pete and Charlie. The other half is owned jointly by his trainer, Wilf Storey, and his former owner, and breeder, Ray Tooth.

Just an average plodder on good ground – below average, truth be told – he’s ten pounds better on soft, and most of a stone and a half more of a man on heavy going.

Let it rain. Please let it rain. The Racing UK chaps were of the view that, if the forecast was correct, it would be heavy by the last race. Our lad was in the last race.

And then it came. A heavy shower passed over the corner of Cumbria in which Carlisle’s racecourse is reposed. The talk was of stamina-sapping conditions, of attritional scraps up the hill that hinders tiring progress through the final furlong. Perfect for our lad.

Except it wasn’t. The winners were not the soft and heavy ground horses. Not the known ones anyway. Most had never encountered such an apparently deep surface before. Race times were slow but not funereal. No, not funereal, let’s go with another word. Not pedestrian.

And then there was the pace in our race. Despite the big field of fifteen – you get another place for sixteen, eh? – there was little to no known early pace in that large group of middling stayers. That was a worry for a chap as one-paced as our fella. Still, hope springs eternal, and it was good to soft, soft in places, after all.

The trip, a mile and three quarters, the big field, the track and the going were all largely in his favour, and he’d have his best chance for a while of going close. When he won at Hamilton, it was soft and they went the sort of breakneck gallop that had him off the bridle from the gate.

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It might sound odd to the fleetingly familiar with racing, but that’s when we knew he had a chance: when they went so hard early that our boy could barely keep tabs at the back. A bit like Zenyatta, though a thousand pounds below her level, he just keeps galloping when the rest can no longer raise a leg.

It was the same at Nottingham last season when confronted with heavy ground. He sluiced through it. Big feet, probably. And here, for the first time since Hamilton, was a race with his name on it.

I wagered accordingly. Not heavily: after a few recent reversals, the punting belt had been tightened, and here it was only released a couple of notches. But still enough to score most of three grand if he prevailed. After all, he was a 22/1 chance. Except he wasn’t. If there was genuinely any real juice in the turf, and if at least one horse pushed on, he was more like a 6/1 shot. But 22/1 was the price on offer. That’s called value, they tell me.

Post time came, 7.15pm on 13th September. The triskaidekaphobics would have a field day. Our chap, occasionally recalcitrant at the stalls in recent outings, was first in, quiet as a mouse. A couple of minutes later, the other fourteen loaded, he was last out, slumbering when he should have been lumbering from the boxes.

But he had his position, two or three from the tail and, although they didn’t go a searching gallop, the field was strung out – fifteen lengths first to last after a quarter mile, thanks to the rag, Belle Peinture’s, interjection.

Perhaps it was the longer trip, because in spite of the washing line formation our boy was still lolloping along on the bridle. They’re not going quickly enough, I muttered to my disinterested wife and child, who had been obliged to suffer the unscheduled interruption to cBeebies.

Come on Kevin, make your ground, don’t give them a start in a foot race you can’t win… I do babble when watching our boys.

Kevin – Stott, a jockey considered good enough to get the Godolphin leg up 126 times to date – gave him a peach of a ride. Making his move half a mile out, Nonagon came with a surprisingly smooth run, widest of all as they fanned across the track into the straight.

At the two-furlong pole, he was going best, with the debatable exception of the 2/1 favourite. Shortly before the furlong pole, his run petered out, quickly, desperately disappointingly. My initial reaction was that he didn’t stay, that his one run used him all up, or perhaps that it wasn’t quite soft enough.

But then it all unravelled, initially unbeknown to me.

Even in the mobile age, there remain communication problems. I had taken Leon for bath and bed time, missing a call from on-course Jim. When I returned downstairs, I read his cryptic text message:

“Sadly horse broke down. Not sure what happens next. Phone out of juice. Will call when I get home”

Shit. Broke down? What does he mean, broke down? He finished sixth, just didn’t quite get home. Surely.

Both Jim and Wilf were incommunicado as they drove back to York and Muggleswick respectively, so it was an agonising wait for news, which came shortly before 10pm, when I got hold of Wilf.

Wilf is 78, the same age as my dad, and a horseman of the old school. A bloody brilliant horseman, a farmer, and a lover of animals more generally. He’d not be soft, having weathered the fat end of four score County Durham winters, most of them tending the land.

But he had the husk in his voice of one who had taken a blow, emotionally. Mainly, I think, he felt for his daughter, Stella. She does so much of the labour with the Storey horses, her dedication and work ethic, well, stellar. She’d been in tears at the course apparently, and was inconsolable when they’d got home.

Nonagon suffered a ruptured tendon, presumably somewhere between the quarter mile and furlong poles, and it was bad. Sufficiently bad that, in Wilf’s opinion, he should have been euthanized at the track. “But they don’t like that”, he said, referring to the racecourse administrators.

So our boy, in deep distress and under heavy sedation, was loaded back onto the horsebox. Mercifully, a small mercy, the return trip was less than ninety minutes.

The prognosis for Nonagon is terminal, I’m afraid. The injury is severe, and he is unlikely to see evening stables tonight. Writing that wells me up. It shouldn’t do. I mean, he’s just a horse.

Except, of course, he’s not “just a horse”. They’re never “just a horse”. To his owners – Jim, Pete, Charlie and myself – he’s our soldier, our boy, our lad: a horse who tried his guts out every time he stepped on a race track. You can’t teach them to try.

Nonagon was a slow racehorse, but he could be slow for a lot longer than most others could be a beat quicker; and, in the right circumstances, that made him look like a Rolls Royce. A working man’s syndicate’s Rolls Royce.

If we owners, who waltz up on race day to swill the gravy and dream of the kudos of the winners’ enclosure, are upset, then spare your sympathies for Wilf, and mostly for Stella, whose love and care made the story possible.

Nonagon, like all of Wilf and Stella’s horses, was a cast off. Asked to do too much too soon – well, early return on investment is so important in a racehorse, isn’t it? – he injured a tendon as a two-year-old. That tendon.

Wilf patched him up, and gave him a year and a month in a field. At the end of it, he had an autumn three-year-old who might make a racehorse at four, Nonagon’s body allowed the time it needed to mature and to mend. His trainer always maintained he had ability, especially in the early days when that precious commodity looked conspicuously absent.

And, after a tongue-swallowing incident when running his best race to that point at Ripon, he had that most rudimentary of aids - the tongue tie - applied on every subsequent start (except the time at Newcastle when the stalls team couldn’t get it on him).

It helped him breathe. It helped him win two races. And it helped him bring a hell of a lot of joy to his owners, his trainers, his breeder and his matchmaker, Tony Stafford, whose introductions joined all the preceding parties in this unlikely union.

Horseracing is the ultimate numbers game, awash with lows that, as the cliché hackneys, make the good days so sweet. We have to celebrate the good days, a point emphasised and underscored by the dark dawn to which I awoke to scribble this half-baked homage.

It could have been worse. After all, Nonagon is just a horse.

Matt