Let me begin by saying that Kempton Park is far from my favourite racecourse. This I suspect coloured my initial response to the shock disclosure that The Jockey Club want to sell it to the highest bidder.
Kempton features in my favourite work of literature, 'Three Men In A Boat', a book I propose to have buried with me, alongside a copy of The Racing Post. That though is an aside. 'We stopped under the willows by Kempton Park, and lunched. It is a pretty spot there: a pleasant grass plateau, running along by the water's edge, and overhung by willows.' Jerome, of course, was not writing about the racecourse and now it is disfigured by the all-weather track Kempton, at least the racecourse, cannot be described as 'a pretty little spot', but I think he would be as saddened to have the parkland covered in tarmac and houses as we are of losing the racecourse to a woolly-headed scheme not properly thought-out.
You see my first reaction was, as the Jockey Club hoped the universal judgement would be, if it is for the benefit of the sport then so be it. But it is not for the benefit of the sport, is it? Flat racing loses an all-weather track yet gains another. Whereas National Hunt loses yet another racecourse. Doing up Sandown is well and good. It needs it, apparently. But Kempton, as far as the majority of trainers is concerned, is irreplaceable and the wrong place for a King George. I now believe them.
If the proposal was to build a new National Hunt course at Newmarket, especially if it was the exact replica of Kempton, I could give my wholehearted support for the venture, even with an unnecessary new all-weather track. But in protecting the sport the Jockey Club seems more concerned with the welfare of the Flat to the exclusion of doing whats right for National Hunt.
So I say shame on you Jockey Club. Sell your own family silver before you rape the green belt and assign Kempton to the revised edition of 'A Long Time Gone'.
The Bible has been translated into 2,508 languages. An impressive number, though a long way short of the 6,909 distinct languages to be found on our planet. This number can be multiplied many of hundreds of times if dialects are to be included. In France alone there are 10 Romance languages, including Picard, Gascon and Provencal, as well as Breton and Allemannish. In Italy there is Ladino, Friulano, Sloveno, Veneto, Romagnolo, Piemontese and hundreds more.
There are a whole lot of words using solely the English language that can be used to name a racehorse. So why can the name Spanish Steps be used over and over again? And by people who should know better?
It is shameful, lacking all respect for a great hero of our sport that His name can be given to horses that can only ever be pale shadows of the Spanish Steps who captured hearts and is an integral part of our sport’s history and legacy.
If this short article comes across as a rant I make no apology. Spanish Steps played a huge part in forming my life-long love of National Hunt and my heart cries every time I see His name entered today in races, especially with the name A.P. O’Brien next it. How can a horse with the name of a National Hunt legend run at Royal Ascot or perhaps even win the Derby! The thought just makes the blood boil.
For those who do not share my pain let me enlighten. Spanish Steps won the 1968 Tote Novice Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, the 1969 Hennessey Gold Cup carrying 11st 8, the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup, the S.G.B. Chase and was 2nd in a King George and placed in Cheltenham Gold Cups. He was fourth, carrying 11st 13, giving Red Rum 22Ibs, in the 73 National, behind Red Rum, Crisp and L’Escargot. Possibly the greatest race ever run, with the first four all beating Golden Miller’s then course record. He was fourth again in 74, carrying 11st 9 behind Red Rum and L’Escargot and 3rd to L’Escargot and Red Rum in 75.
Of course Spanish Steps was keeping up an honourable family tradition in the National as his mum Tiberetta finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the race.
The horse was loved by the public, and not only because he was owned, trained and bred by Edward Courage, a man bound to a wheelchair, from one of the most famous bloodlines in National Hunt history and who along with Clifford Nicholson helped set up what became the Injured Jockeys Fund. Spanish Steps was game and honest and he turned out for all the big races year after year. Indeed he was so popular that Michael Tanner wrote a book about him – ‘My Friend Spanish Steps’. It is a rare book; if you have it in your library I envy you.
I ask you, what does a horse have to achieve to have his memory preserved alongside his name? I ask specifically Weatherby’s, the B.H.S. and the Jockey Club. Why isn’t there a Hall of Fame? A Cherished List of Names never to be used again. And I don’t mean the list of classic winners and Gold Cup and National winners. I mean names of racehorses that have touched the hearts of the racing public. Horses upon which the pages of racing history are comprised. Read the history of the Grand National and there will be Spanish Steps itemised in the index.
When I hear it said that it is really difficult to name a racehorse I think of all the languages of the world, all the words in the dictionary.
Owners, I say, try harder. Don’t be so damned lazy. When you name a racehorse you are engraving a name (hopefully) on to the annals of racing history. If you need help call me. I have names falling out of my head all the time. The Golden Legion. The Turned Leaf. Sanctuary Slippers. Orphrey. Lappet. Mantling. Canting Arms. Gyronny. Lorraine. Cardinal’s Cross. Bell Screen. The Knight Strikes. Ribbon Marker. Flemish Bond. Banderilla. Veronica. I could go on.
Spanish Steps was a great little horse. He mingled with legends. Anyone reading this will only understand my fury and sadness at having his memory maligned when a horse who has inspired you to love this great little sport has his or her name replicated in the years ahead.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.