On the ‘About’ page of this website, the page that should only be about introduction and welcome, is an ever-expanding list of possible names for racehorses. This list is on the ‘About’ page as at present I have no other facility for it, and because my knowledge of computers is on a par with my knowledge of nuclear physics or why Turkey would vote in favour of a dictatorship.
As with all ‘obsessions’, I suppose, it began with point-making, a point directed specifically at the Coolmore empire, though which I now justify as a ‘service to owners struggling to find names for their two-year-olds and store horses’.
I abhor the re-using of names of famous horses. Cherished names that light up the memory and warm the heart when read in old form or racing books. It is my belief, almost threatening to become an ambition, that those horses who make their mark in our sport but who do not win a classic or major jump or flat race should have their names engraved in a Hall of Fame. Some horses should be granted the distinction of having their names live-on only in memory of them.
Racing people all have their individual favourites. For the great Alastair Down it is Rondetto, a horse who ran with distinction in the big steeplechases of the late sixties and early seventies and who helped capture Alastair’s heart and lead him to become the foremost writer on National Hunt racing. For that we owe Rondetto a debt we can never hope to repay.
For me, though now I will say Denman is my favourite of all-time (I am perhaps cursed by a more fickle personality than greater men) it is Spanish Steps who my youthful heart fell for, and because he was the first he remains special, and it is why I find it both upsetting and unforgivable for his name to be re-used, not once but twice, on the second occasion by someone within an organisation that really should know better.
Let’s be clear about the achievements of Spanish Steps the steeplechaser. He was owned by a stalwart of British racing and one of the co-founders of the Injured Jockeys Fund, Edward Courage, a man bound to a wheelchair through polio. Spanish Steps won what is now the R.S.A. chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 1968, won the 1969 Hennessey Gold Cup carrying 11st 8lbs. He also won the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup and the S.G.B. Chase. He was 2nd in a King George and was placed in Cheltenham Gold Cups. He was 4th, carrying 11st 13lbs to Red Rum in the 73 Grand National, giving the great horse 22lbs and when the first 4 home all beat what was then the course record held by the immortal Golden Miller. He was fourth again in 74, carrying 11st 9lbs and 3rd to L’Escargot in 75.
He was so popular in his day that on his retirement Michael Tanner wrote a book about him ‘My Friend Spanish Steps’.
In the seventies a horse called Prince Regent won the Irish Derby. I was not so militant back then and in my youth history was just things that happened in the past. Now of course I know about the exploits of Prince Regent the steeplechaser, the horse of whom Tom Dreaper said on being asked if Arkle was the best horse he ever trained ‘Yes, I’m afraid he is.’ You see Tom Dreaper never thought he would train a better horse than Prince Regent and in admitting Arkle was supreme he felt he had betrayed an old friend.
This is how I feel about the re-use of Spanish Steps by Coolmore. Horses of the prowess and popularity of Spanish Steps are the greatest friends racing can ever have. Whichever way you look at it we as human beings use horses for our entertainment and sport. Yes we care and look after their welfare and if it was not for our use of them they would never see life. But, and this is an important ‘but’, if our adoration of the horse has any real depth and is not simply rhetoric to help sell and justify the sport, we need to be seen by the public as respecting their achievements long into the future and not say, as is said now, that Spanish Steps is just a name and that in the human world there are many John Smiths, Jack Jones’ and Michael Johnsons, and no one will confuse the three-year-old trained by Aidan O’Brien with the steeplechaser of the seventies. To use such an argument is to have no heart and to care nothing for the history of the sport.
What I am saying will cost very little to be put into practice. I am not suggesting the erection of statues. I am asking for a cherished list of names that can never be used in the future. Perhaps the public could be asked to suggest horses to be elected into a Hall of Fame, with their names and perhaps achievements engraved on a plaque. And not only present day horses but also great names from the past. Names that are not mere names but picture postcards that act as personal memorials to a day when we, mere humans, cheered and exalted a species that in exciting our spirits were elevated into being, for that moment, superior to us. I reference Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham as example.
There are over six-hundred languages to pick from, with words that if they were calculated the numbers would run into eight or nine digits, possibly more. It is easy to name a horse. It is plain lazy to use a famous name from the past and ignorant of the authorities to allow it.
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.