Look for your friends: it’s always a good idea, especially when you have problems. So that’s what David Redvers and his recession-hit team from the Horseman’s Group did when they commissioned a short promotional film to extol the excitement of ownership. Within two days they had a list of volunteers that would make a marketing man’s mouth water and, much, much more difficult, within two weeks they had 6 genuine A-Listers in the can. In chronological order say “hello” to Mikey Holding, Michael Owen, Frankie Dettori, Ronan Keating, Jimmy Nesbitt and Judy Dench.
When Redvers told me of his masterplan, I was supportive but sceptical. It would only work if you had real stars who really cared, and the chances of getting six of them in front of a camera in a very tight time frame in the holiday month of August were low to zero. Yet the only name who couldn’t make it was Alex Ferguson, stranded at a Manchester United Supporters Club event in Gibraltar, and he sent a jolly text (back) about the difference between the apes and the bookies on The Rock. The other six stars* broke schedules, cleared stages, climbed on to roof tops, picked up cats and then, unscripted and unpaid, told director Alastair Siddons why they loved the racing game.
Whether the two stylish and pacey Partizan Production made features , one of 2 minutes and one of just 30 seconds, actually get people hustling off to the Sales to chase the delights of the Racing Post Yearling Bonus Scheme is something for the future. But never again should we accept the defeatist bilge that racing, as it presently exists, does not already attract a wide ranging and aspirational audience. These six people age from 29 to 74. They hail from Jamaica, Chester, Milan, Dublin, Ballymena and York. They have cracked Test Matches, Cup Finals, Derbies, a mere 22 million CD albums, a string of comedy awards and an Oscar to cap them all. This half dozen, to allow just one bit of marketing speak, are very much more “Brian” than “Ben”.
It probably helped that Alastair Siddons knows next to nothing about racing. His last film, “Turn It Loose” was a worldwide search for the six best break dancers on the planet recently showing at the Edinburgh Festival, and here, in his engaging way, he was asking his rather different sitters where their magic came from. And, boy did they tell him.
“Mikey” Holding crinkled up his old ebony face and said “when I had my first winner as an owner in Jamaica it was better than taking ten wickets in a Test Match.” Michael Owen came whizzing back to his training complex from a Manchester United session to look out in the paddock and say “you buy your babies at the sales and grow and nurture them to become champions.” Back in Newmarket Frankie came out of the weighing room to tell us “except for the cheetah the racehorse is the fastest animal in the world , that’s why you get such a rush from riding them,” whilst out on the Friday night July Course stage Ronan Keating paused his Boyzone preparations to think why he was hooked. “The whole thing about going to the races and being involved is fantastic,” he said with that ginger stubble angel’s smile. “But if you own a horse, it just amplifies all of it. The buzz is good at the sales, very exciting to watch. Especially if there are lads with big money and they go after it. That is a proper auction.”
So four tributes (there), all equally enthusiastic, charismatic and utterly unfeigned. Two more to do last week, and standing on the hot, railed roof of 143 Wardour Street in Soho on Monday afternoon we could hardly dare to believe (that) our luck would hold. Shame on us for so little faith. Right on cue Jimmy Nesbitt came skipping up the stairs in T shirt, jeans and open toed sandals, and within seconds that famous County Antrim voice was whisking us away to an Irish childhood and his later road to the winner’s circle.
“I didn’t come from a horse racing family at all,” he said. “I was more interested in show jumping . My mother and I used to watch the likes of Eddie Macken and Boomerang on TV. Then I started an annual Cheltenham trip with some mates and I just loved the world of it. People talk about the clatter of hooves but for me it’s not just the noise of the hooves. It’s the tinkling of glasses, the shouts of joy, the howls of despair. All these noises make up a cacophony of sound united by this thrilling spectacle centering around this wonderful beast”
Looking out across the London skyline it was such a mesmeric start that you wanted to say “hang on Jimmy while we write all this down.” But there was no stopping with Nesbitt. He told of how he got increasingly committed€. How he first tasted ownership as part of one of Harry Herbert’s Highclere syndicates but, having met Nicky Henderson’s owner Brian Stewart Browne at a charity function, was persuaded to have a horse of his own. “I called him Riverside Theatre after the place in Coleraine where I had my first part,” he said. “It was the Artful Dodger. I have been playing him ever since.”
It was said with the cheeky smile which has won him numerous (comedy) awards but anyone who saw Jimmy in “Bloody Sunday” or when matching Liam Neeson every step of the way in this year’s “Stairs of Heaven” will know that there is something much deeper in Nesbitt than the Irish charmer that made Cold Feet such a comedy hit. He becomes serious when he talks of Riverside Theatre’s first race at Kempton. “The feeling beforehand, I have never known nerves like it, more than all my acting jobs together. And then the feel when he began to take off and you saw that surge of speed as he came through and won – it was a sense of elation that was incomparable, magnificent.”
The statement was so strong that it was almost shocking. In the hustle and hassle of getting these different people on camera it had been easy to miss one central and uplifting truth. They were doing it not (just) for favours, cash or fame. They were putting themselves out because they really, actually liked what was at the very heart of the game. They may have come in via TV, betting, friends or family, but the reason they were speaking to us was because racing had given them something.
Michael Holding’s remark about his first winner in Jamaica being better than taking ten wickets in a Test Match was not just a glib sound bite for our amusement. “You can take a wicket in a Test Match,” he had explained, “you can bowl out a great batsman and it is a tremendous thrill but you cannot stay on that high. You have to bowl the next ball, the next over. When you have a winner you stay on the high for a long, long time because you know how special it is. You know some people go years without having a winner.”
Jimmy Nesbitt does not have sporting comparisons of his own except in his boyhood dreams of playing for Manchester United. “I think that’s part of the excitement of ownership,” he explains, “to be vicariously involved with an athlete and its people. Because most of us performers originally wanted to be sportsmen, that’s the most thrilling stage of all. So I think in owning a horse you feel a sense of responsibility for* these massive strong beasts with four spindly legs. It takes so little for them to go wrong.”
“The first thing I would do,” he adds, “is to encourage people to go racing. People are turned off the idea because they think it is not for them. They don’t understand the majesty of the spectacle, the thrill of entering this vast arena filled with people with the right bonhomie all focussed on this one, sharp, exclusive event. Racing is good for the spirit; good if you win, sad if you lose, but still great. You can get as much pleasure in moaning about your losses as celebrating your victory but what I have really discovered about owning horses is how adored and cherished the animals are by the trainers and lads and everyone.”
With that, the bare Nesbitt toes were twinkling off down the stairs to the recording studio and our project had five big names logged and one to go. They had been a fascinating, surprising and universally enthusiastic collection. But the last was to be perhaps the most surprising of them all. Someone who had ridden more than anyone but Dettori, who had been to the races since long before he was born, who was, (as if) it were possible, even more famous than the others could be. As we slid through the small sleepy Surrey villages in the hidden rural spaces just north east of Gatwick on Wednesday morning we were to discover, and you will have to pardon the quite irresistible use of the phrase, to discover “that there is nothing like a Dame”.
Judy Dench, Companion of Honour, Dame of the British Empire and actress supreme, used to ride with her mother during her Yorkshire childhood. A pony she rode called Jimmy specialised in rolling in the mud at the end of the lane, another called Brandysnap galloped (off) out of the arena during a show class at Whitwell on the Hill and it took the doctor’s daughter nearly two miles to stop him. But if you really want to win a Turf Trivia competition you need to ask where Dame Judy backed her first winner. They will never guess. It was at Chantilly.
“I had a French sister in law who married into the Cunninghams, a French racing family,” she said sitting in her abundant garden. “After the war we travelled over there and went racing and my father allowed me to have a bet. It was on a horse called Romany which was the name of my cat and it came in and I won a considerable amount of money. I just love it. I love racing.”
Judy Dench is our greatest living actress, the wins on her form book include 10 Baftas, 7 Laurence Olivier Awards, 2 Golden Globes and an Academy Award for Elizabeth1 in “Shakespeare in Love”. Through all this, from Ophelia to Queen Victoria, from Sally Bowles to Irish Murdoch even to “M” in the Bond movies, the truly amazing thing has been the way she has always somehow contrived to make the part her own. So the head tries to tell you that the little, smiling, 74 year old in the garden might well be acting now. The heart won’t allow.
“If you want incredible excitement,” she says, “like to gamble, want to pay, and love horses, being an owner is a terrific thing to do.” There is no “act–or” pretension in her but the voice and the gestures have got so familiar down the years that when she relates the story of her Lincoln winner Smokey Oakey there is a strange feeling that you are actually watching something on the screen or stage.
She tells of how she and her long time friend, driver and fellow racing fan Brian Agar decided to have a horse together. How “Smokey’s” name came from her grandson Samuel Michael Oak Williams. How, as unbelievably lucky as Jimmy Nesbitt’s Riverside Theatre, he turned out to be not just a winner but a good horse. How as a two year old he won at Ayr, as a three year old at Newmarket and then, on that mad March day last spring, how he swept from last to first of a 21 strong field to scoop up four times his purchase price by winning The Lincoln. “I was in Scotland with my daughter,” she relates giddily, “we came in to watch on the telly and of course they split into two groups and I kept saying ‘I can’t see him, I can’t see him’. My daughter said ‘he is at the back on the near side’ and then suddenly he shot through and won and we cried uncontrollably. Then we saw Brian and Brenda on the television and it was thrilling and wonderful.”
Judy Dench may not have been acting but it had been a bravura performance. She looked up at us to share her pleasure and if we had not been over burdened with cameras and microphones we would have stood to give a long ovation**. We had completed our mission but now there was one last favour to ask, one actual scripted line to speak, and as she stroked the elderly white cat on her knee there was just a hint of “M” in her concentration.
It is possibly the shortest part she has had to play in all her long and glittering career. She (just) had to look at the camera and say the five word “call to action” line which is the closing theme of our little film. Judy Dench smiled into the lens and asked everyone to join her and our other five super star supporters.“Racing,” she said, “be part of it.”
She is. They are. More can be.