Thursday 22 February 2018

Racing community foot-perfect on day of tribulation

Tommy Conlon

Racing people speak with natural eloquence about the horse, the beloved species that has been at the centre of their universe for over 300 years.

Indeed they are liable to swoon with infatuation when a charger of exceptional power and beauty emerges from the equine pasturelands and into the competitive arena. The latest Pegasus is Sprinter Sacre. On Channel 4's Cheltenham Festival coverage last week they were spreading the love.

"He's spectacular," said Jim McGrath, "and he's balletic in his movement." Alasdair Down: "A force of nature." Nick Luck: "The picture of muscle and athleticism." Sprinter Sacre duly destroyed the field in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday, winning by 19 lengths. Race commentator Simon Holt called him "a steeplechaser from the gods." Rishi Persad: "The closest thing to equine perfection." Nick Luck: "This horse for the ages."

It was a nirvana moment for a racing community somewhat beleaguered these days by an urbanised society that has drifted away from the traditions of country life. Television audiences have dwindled; it's just not as popular anymore. Cheltenham is therefore a vital window in a sporting calendar dominated by football and crowded by rival events.

It's "such a beautiful sport," declared Clare Balding. But the whey-faced citizens of the suburbs don't necessarily see beauty in horses being hunted hard by tough little men with whips in the air. On Thursday evening, a gelding named Matuhi had to be put down after a fall. In the next race the Irish jockey JT McNamara suffered an injury which no amount of enthusiasm from Cheltenham's cheerleaders could downplay, even if they were in a mood to try.

And they weren't in a mood to try because even though they love their horses, it was the integrity with which they handled this story that shone through.

Televised sport has historically not dealt well with the occasional human tragedies that happen on its watch. Its personnel usually don't have the emotional intelligence, or the basic articulation, to cope with such situations. And nervous producers will shy away from the reality, minimising it, staying in their comfort zone.

Channel 4's team proved that the racing community can speak with natural eloquence about human emotion too. They handled this harrowing story with decency and courage. Nick Luck in the studio, and Clare Balding out on the ground, faced it and talked about it. Friday was Gold Cup day and the last thing racing needed was a potentially tragic situation hanging like a pall over this most prestigious of days. Another sport on another television station might have given it the token treatment and quickly moved on.

In this case they moved on, but they brought the story with them. On a day that should have been all about glory, they didn't deny the worry and fear that permeated the occasion.

Nick Luck set the tone with his opening address to camera on C4's preview programme The Morning Line. "We wake up this morning deeply concerned about the condition of John Thomas McNamara, the 37-year-old amateur rider who was airlifted yesterday afternoon to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol. It was confirmed that JT had incurred a serious neck injury affecting the C3 and C4 vertebrae and clearly we await further news with real concern."

He then invited guests who know McNamara, Ted Walsh and Mick Fitzgerald, to speak at length on the subject. On the station's Festival telecast later that day, Fitzgerald interviewed Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty in the jockeys' weigh-room. Both of them spoke briefly but with admirable clarity and sensitivity. Later, Balding asked Fitzgerald about the near-catastrophic spinal injury he'd suffered in a fall during the 2008 Grand National.

Fitzgerald too spoke well and movingly. "For the first time in my life I was scared," he recalled. "I was afraid. I was afraid every time they moved me. I was paralysed for a minute and a half. And that minute and a half to me felt like a lifetime, an eternity. I hope he has got (those) closest to him by his bedside because even 30 seconds when you haven't got somebody you love beside you is hard." He just about held onto his composure.

AP McCoy won the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. Interviewed on horseback just after the finish line, he was in no mood to celebrate: "It's very hard to be happy today after what happened yesterday." He also remembered the young Scottish jockey Campbell Gillies who'd won the same race in 2012 and who died on holidays in Greece last summer.

JP McManus owned the horse which McCoy had brought home first, but it was no consolation. "The day is marred with sadness for JT and what he and his family are going through," he told Balding. "We're here today (but) we feel guilty being here, we feel we should be doing something for him. I just wish we could."

Throughout their coverage on Friday the Channel 4 team navigated this delicate terrain between sport and grief with sound judgement and an intuitive emotional balance. They gave space to the pain people were feeling; they allowed it to breathe. They weren't television performers anymore but people grounded in the sometimes harsh natural world that produces a beauty like Sprinter Sacre, and a hefty share of suffering too.

At times like this an authentic humanity is palpable at the heart of racing's love for the horse.

Irish Independent

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