One of the great benefits of my week of confinement to date is that I’ve been able to indulge completely in Cheltenham.
It’s been years since I sat down to watch little more than The Gold Cup.
I went off down memory lane the other day to my first televised Cheltenham back in 1964.
First TV Set
We got our first television set on the darkest day of the previous winter – on the very evening in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Our house was never the same again.
It also changed the way we ‘looked at races’ as everything was followed through the radio and through newspaper photographs the following day.
Up to that I used to read the Cheltenham and Aintree previews from the daily papers for my horse-racing loving ‘grand-da’ Johnny Reidy.
All Things Horsey
He was a blacksmith and his love and knowledge of all things horsey was limitless. Up to the TV era entering our lives we would listen to the races on the wireless. These were usually on a Saturday and the following day’s Sunday paper would carry a page with a series of negative sized images under the heading: ‘See How They Ran.’
It was a frame-by-frame coverage of the race from start to finish. That was quickly killed off soon after the arrival of television.
I remember the near incredible reaction of my grand-da seeing the horses and jockeys live on television for the first time. Up to now they’d occupied the dead flat pages of newspapers – but papers still had their roles.
Build up between Arkle and Mill House
Being 10 years old by the first TV Gold Cup in 1964, I was well able to read the newspaper articles for him and the build-up between the Irish hero, Arkle and his English adversary, Mill House and the odd arrangement between the jockeys, Pat Taaffe and Willie Robinson. The losing jockey would have to buy a shirt for the winning one. Innocent times.
At the end of a race one day that we had an emotional attachment to, ‘our horse’ had to fight it out and won by a nose.
I was crying uncontrollably when my mother came into the room and asked me what was wrong with me.
I could only point to the television as the words couldn’t come. My grand-da knew exactly the instinctive, primitive pull I was under and he opened his arms and in I went.
Then, the huge hands which had beaten and moulded steel into horse-shoes and gates and wheels for the past 60 years came to rest on my back and my head and I felt it was alright to be the way I was.
I also understand now how much he loved me as I often feel the same privilege when one of my grandchildren run from imaginary monsters into the safety of my loving and outstretched arms.
I can’t help thinking of him when I hear a radio commentary on a big race nowadays. I was travelling through North Kerry on the Saturday of the Grand National of 2003 when Monty’s Pass won and was ridden by Barry Geraghty.
Deep feelings and tears from sources unknown to me took over completely and I had to pull in for a while.
Wonderfully Heroic Horses
Why should the sounds of the hooves of those wonderfully heroic horses beating on a far- away field and the mention of their names over the radio be able to reach right through my soul and flick a switch and throw me.
Red Marauder; Boom Docker; Sunny Bay; Mr. What; Churchtown Boy; Red Rum …..just add the soundtrack.
Grand-da’s reading habits also involved horses: Nat Gould was his man and he had a stack of his books in a cardboard box under his bed.
From a Sound Sleep
I frequently read these for him as he lay down for the night. Then, the lines would start coming back to you in whispers as he drifted away and he often quoted from one of the books from a sound sleep.
I wasn’t allowed to be with him as he went over the last on February 15th. 1966 but it wouldn’t surprise me if his final thoughts came from a close finish in one of those books.
I’ll watch the Gold Cup later on today and I’ll hold his memory close and let it run with whatever emotions wash over me – as that amazing sound of hooves on ground and those wonderfully brave men and the odd remarkable woman do what generations before them have done. God speed them.
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