Touching the hem

I watched Winx win her third consecutive Cox Plate yesterday, and her 22nd win in a row.

She was hot favourite funnily enough, and given many of her dominant wins it was expected she would win easily again. As it happened she was challenged and looked like she might be headed at one point, before she steadied to win a head in front. It was a great race.

In most sports, the underdog gets good support. We like a good contest, and if the champ gets rumbled every so often then so be it. There are few so sacrosanct that they have our support no matter the competition or competitors.

Champion horses are an exception to that. Great horses capture our imagination like few human competitors can. They are beautiful things to start with, graceful and full of latent power.It’s in their sleek muscles, rippling flanks, and polished coats. They are wonderful athletes, but they are animals too, beasts if you like, and so they are beyond us. They are something other, and at the same time as they are not human the human emotions of envy and resentment. They are innocent, beautiful things in their own right, but vessels of hope too. They are above us – when they win they are things of wonder, and when they lose, just brute animals.

It’s the race that people come for, to witness latent power become rawly kinetic. The gates open and then they go, they explode, and the crowd explodes with them, waiting for this, expectant, feeling the thrill of it in them like a primitive thing, a rhythm, an urging. The horses pound the turf and you hear the reverberation as the horses near, feel the air sizzle with energy, and ahead of them, or coming down the outside, is the horse, your horse, the horse everyone proclaims, the horse you come to win and even so, even so, it surges to the front like a freak of nature. You feel it catch in you. You are here. This is real. And as the horses go by you see the horse has hit the front and there is something holy and wondrous to be here witnessing this, to be part of it.

When it’s a horse like Winx, or Black Caviar, or Makybe Diva, or any one of the great horses we stop to applaud their feats. Their victory is the validation of expectation, and proof of a larger wonder that for a few minutes on a racetrack we can indulge in. It’s a form of love, and in those few minutes everyone shares in it.

It’s rare that a human competitor inspires such feeling, almost unheard of really, but it does happen.

Usain Bolt is an example of an athlete everyone liked, not just because he is the best sprinter the world has seen, but because he is a larger than life figure. His victories give rise to that character, which is ultimately life-affirming. We might have our national allegiance, but there’s few really who didn’t want Bolt to win – I was certainly one. For him to win as he did in Rio seemed only right. It was justice served.

I imagine it was the same for the likes of Phelps and Thorpe in the pool, unbeatable at their best and almost godlike in their perfection. They did not rouse the same affection, but even among their fellow athletes they inspired awe – and to the crowd that came to watch them compete, they wanted them to perform and win. Herb Elliott, who retired undefeated, must have been similar.

There are few others I can think of – Tiger Woods perhaps, but then his fall illustrates the frailty and fickleness human expectation. Once the god is exposed as having feet of clay we reject them – unlike the sleek, dumb beasts we cheer on at the racetrack, man has a consciousness we can understand. His flaws mirror our own but don’t belong when you’ve been raised to a pedestal. If you are just like me after all, then why should you be up on a pedestal? Horses have no such fears.

I can know this, but it doesn’t make me immune from feeling it. I was captivated yesterday. I had tears in my eyes and love in my heart. And I’m glad for it. There’s something special about having your imagination captured.

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