I sent Alan Lee a text message less than a fortnight ago. The racing correspondent of The Times had been in hospital for a few weeks and his desk in the various racecourse press rooms had been markedly vacant.
I teased him that people would start encroaching into his familiar spots — always on the end of rows, it seemed — if he wasn’t careful. On Friday last week, he returned to the racecourse at Ascot to enjoy some of his beloved National Hunt racing; he was, by his own quiet admission, feeling a bit better and was looking forward to returning to work in the New Year.
But Alan died the very next day from a heart attack. In a year of losses for racing legends — Sir Peter O’Sullevan and Pat Eddery, to name just two — this was devastating. Alan was 61 years young and as gentle, yet meticulous a soul as could be found in the press room. His humour was gentle, his voice was soft, his manner was courteous and his writing was superb. Racing journalism lost one of its superstars at the weekend — a fine man and far too young to even think of packing away his laptop.
Those of us who struggle to finish a sentence in one piece will miss Alan for his journalism, but even more we will miss his soft, searching conversations many time over. RIP Alan.
The sudden death of a great man nearly always puts the petty squabbles of our racing parish into sharp perspective, and it’s been difficult of late to focus on the thrilling Christmas action in store, but the horses — and their excited connections — deserve to be enjoying sleepless nights at this frantic time of the year.
However, one thing that has really been getting my goat in recent weeks is the guesswork peddled by some who ought to know better when it comes to giving their expert view or commentary to enthusiastic punters.
Ahead of racing at Ascot on Saturday, a case was made for a horse who would relish the testing conditions. The horse in question loves the mud, true, but the ground — officially — was no worse than “good to soft”.
Now unless I’m missing something pretty fundamental to National Hunt racing, good to soft ground or even soft ground itself is the absolute bedrock of jumping ground! Were it not so misleading, it would be comical, but it got on my nerves and I hope it’s the last time I have to mention it. Bah humbug.
My mum’s favourite clip of all time on YouTube is of a little girl singing a famous carol in her school’s nativity play. She doesn’t just sing it, she belts it — and my goodness can she belt. She knew what she had to do — right on cue — and she was going to miss her moment (watch here after 50 seconds or so). And so to Boxing Day when dear old Cue Card returns to Kempton with the hopes of all his emotional devotees (yes, that’s me) riding with him. He faces younger, fresher rivals in Don Poli and Vautour and although I doubt I will ever witness scenes to rival Kauto Star’s fifth King George, if Cue Card gets his lines right on Boxing Day, I’ll be roaring like that little girl in the nativity.
It was difficult to find fault in Thistlecrack’s superb win in Saturday’s Long Walk Hurdle. He put an under par Saphir Du Rheu to the sword(please, please send him back over fences, Mr Nicholls!) but it was the fluency of his jumping that left a lasting impression.
Defending World Hurdle champion Cole Harden might have something to say about my view that Thistlecrack is now clear pick of the pack in the staying hurdling division but if there are any cracks in this young horse they weren’t very evident to me. Not just one for the notebook, but one for a notebook all of his own. Which reminds me, I’m running out of notebooks — just in case you are looking for any Xmas present ideas…….
A very Happy Christmas to all readers and best wishes for the festive season. See you in 2016.