Sunday, January 30, 2011

Chilly at Cheltenham

Brrrrr - that's about the only first thing that comes to my mind when I think to my day yesterday at Cheltenham. Temperatures all day hovered around 0ÂșC, which I guess isn't too horrible, but that coupled with a stiff steady breeze and a total lack of shelter for hours at a time made me a frozen popsicle by the end of the day! My feet, wrapped up in two thick pairs of wooly socks, were so cold they'd gone past numb and into painful, dead-feeling blocks of ice that I legitimately thought might be frostbitten as they didn't get full feeling back into them even after an hour of brisk walking that had the rest of me sweating (fortunately they appear none the worse for wear today!).

(Trying to keep warm before the first race of the day)


(Puffin steam on the way to the paddock)

But, those rather difficult conditions and the above-average effort it took to actually get there (a two hour train each way with multiple changeovers and then a brisk 50 minute walk through some rather sketchy neighborhoods, all while toting my very heavy and probably conspicuously bulky camera bag that made me feel like a prime mugging target to all the groups of punks on bikes I passed who seemed ready at any moment to start displaying some "antisocial behavior," as the Brits so euphemistically put it), plus of course the exceptional quality of racing I got to witness, made my visit to Cheltenham my best racetrack visit yet so far.

(Whyyyyy is England so beautiful?)

(McCoy gettin it done)

(Local Hero looking steamy after his win in the first with McCoy up)

Like at Ascot, I really could see what all the big fuss was about. These horses were not only gorgeous and sparking with intelligence, but they were also bursting with the athletic power to make the challenging hills and massive obstacles at Cheltenham look easy. Every race was so smooth and fluid, and here "big mistakes" involved getting a deeper distance and falling off the pace of the field, and almost never with anything worse than that (like at Ascot, there was a single fall all day while I spectated, a totally innocuous tumble that left both horse and rider ready to run again another day). While obviously serious accidents still do occur even at this higher and more proficient level of racing, I could understand after the past two weeks how rational people could get still get behind this sport (like I get behind eventing), whereas at Warwick I was struggling.

(How can you not fall for a face like that? So strong and intelligent)

(looove the saddle)


(Such a lovely quiet pre-race moment - this horse has a heck of a kind eye)

(Off to the start! Seriously, this horse is teddy bear... in supreme athlete powerhouse form, of course)

And, even more than at Ascot, I started to feel the real thrill of being there. Standing draped over the rail with camera in hand, outfitted in my Barbour coat and wellies with my tatty and already well-loved copy of that day's British Racing Form sticking out of my back pocket (and so feeling rather British, if I do say so myself), I found myself cheering on my favorites to the finish with my heart pounding in my ears with the sort of heady thrill that usually only happens when I'm watching (or better yet have just finished executing) a foot-perfect cross country round. I suddenly realized how it could be possible to form a full-on love affair with this world, where the emotions can peak so very high and are tempered always with that background understanding that they can also crash so very low.

(A little fired up post-race)

(So handsome with the backlit spotlight going on)

(Doin Work)

Plus, if there's one thing I've learned from the past two weeks, it is this: don't bet against AP McCoy unless you're prepared to lose some money. That man is incredible. I've now watched him win in a hat trick of different ways, from holding at the back until a huge kick at the very last, to a steady creep up the pack, to an incredible wire to wire domination in the headliner yesterday on a longer shot (who wasn't even mentioned ONCE in a single one of the many previews I read about in the Forum that morning) who he made just ooze class. He's a true athlete and a master, and it's fun to watch him make it look so easy time and time again. Plus, as I've said before, he's pretty fine.

(I want to print this picture out and put it under pillow to try to do some learning by osmosis - from the past two weeks I must have dozens of pictures of McCoy where he's in this absolutely perfect, consummately balanced two point in each every one. A master.)

(...Of course, when push comes to shove, he can also achieve some pretty incredibly extreme positions to get it done! I actually cannot imagine galloping in a way where my ass would be 10" behind the cantle, but McCoy as ever makes it look easy)

(The master pre-race, totally cool and calm, gently patting his horse and untying a single hand-hold braid as they walked around. Magic.)

(Post wire-to-wire victory - I think I've been spotted!!! Yikes!!)

Cheltenham was almost certainly my last NHR trip of the year, unless I can get back for the Gold Cup in March (which, given my current travel plans, is only a maybe at the moment). I'm so glad I made myself come back after Warwick, as I've now had my two best days in the UK so far at the track, watching the most beautiful horses. I don't know what I'm going to do for my horsey/photographic fix next week! Our program is going to Canterbury and Dover next weekend which will certainly be fun, but will almost certainly be horse-free and so innately inferior. We'll see; I'm definitely excited, as always, to see new country! Even if it would be better seen with a few horses tossed in along the way...

(A study in pre-race expressions: calm...)


(...maybe about to vomit)

(Winner of the last race I watched - as he trotted by, the jockey smiled and said, "Ahh goodness, this horse is blessed" =D)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Super Exciting News


See that massive throng of people? This April, I'll be one of them!! Badminton is the mecca of eventing, and has been a dream destination of mine since I was 8 years old. I've watched the tapes, followed the reports, and even gotten up at 2:30am the past few years to stream coverage live online. I will freely admit that, when I was applying to Oxford, the prospect of going to Badders was a major selling point.

The only somewhat downside of Badminton as a destination is that it's fairly unfriendly towards people without their own vehicle as it's not in a city centre and so not easily accessed by train or bus. So, factor in the prospect of taking cabs to and from the grounds every day with B&B prices that were sure to be sky high given that it's not only Badminton weekend but also a bank holiday and Easter all in one, and things were starting to look pretty bad on the cost side.

That is, until I found out about the camping option. Now, I'm not a huge camper but I've spent more than my fair share of nights sleeping out at horse shows, and so when faced with an option that was not only cheaper than your average B&B but also would allow me to walk to the main grounds every day, consider me SOLD. And, they've even got onsite showers, which would put accommodation far above that which I often get at horse shows. It's probably going to pour down rain all weekend and I'll probably leave on Sunday feeling like a drowned rat, but I couldn't care less because I'M GOING TO BADMINTON!!

In other news I know I said I wasn't doing anything horsey this weekend, but it turns out Cheltenham's got a fairly big race card on for Saturday, so . . . =)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dream Come True

I don't know about you, but ever since I was six years old and watched National Velvet for the first time (especially the scene where Mi is riding in the train and Velvet gallops alongside jumping hedges as she goes), I've wanted to ride in England. Heck, forget riding, I've just wanted to be in England, in that world of softly rolling green hillsides and high twisting hedges, crumbling farmhouses and ivy-strewn rock walls.

(Number 1)

It's always seemed to good to be true, and even since arriving in the UK I've had a hard time believing that that English countryside of my dreams was actually a tangible and reachable place beyond the backdrop view from the M40 or a passing suggestion out of a train window. Life in Oxford, while decided not American, is certainly more like other European cities I've visited than it is to the gingerbread-house fantasy land that I think of when I think of England.

(Ok this is sooo not an attractive photo because it had just started raining and the sun was about to set... but I promise, it was actually lovely)

But now, I've been there. I've been in those green fields and driven down those one-laned hedge roads; I've squished through grey British mud and trodden on unbelievably green British grass. And, I've gotten to do it with a horse. Moments like these truly do remind me that this is, in fact, the good life =)

Now granted, I've so far only actually ridden in an arena, but I'm not getting too picky. Twice now I've gotten to drive out with a group of kids of Oxford Polo into absurdly idyllic farm country to a place called Pryatt's Farm in Wycomb to hit the ball around a bit. The arena is surrounded by green fields dotted with happy and rugged-up horses who occasionally wander over to the fence line to peek in on the game progress, and it sits on top of a hill so that you can see out a great distance over the sorts of fields that I didn't actually believe existed outside of movie sets and paintings.

(Me, looking sweaty and maybe psychotic?, and Number 1)

It's felt great to be back riding, though I've been feeling seriously rusty. On Tuesday I got to ride a quirky but fun gelding named, mysteriously, "Number 1," who I was warned ahead of time to warm up properly before I took a swing because he would probably stop dead the first few times. Sure enough, even with a decent warmup and my forewarning, the first time I leaned down to hit the ball he slammed on the brakes, very nearly sending me over his head! Fortunately not many people were watching so I was able to clamber back into the saddle with only a minor loss of dignity and continue on. Number 1 was good practice because he would naturally wander off the line of the ball at the last minute if I didn't concentrate on keeping him straight, which requires a level of multi-tasking that I'm definitely still struggling with. I had it managed a bit better by the end, though, and was able to hit some pretty nice shots (for me haha) including one straight into goal with such force that Number 1 spooked and almost spun me off at the sound of the ball hitting the boards!! Goof.

We got to play a chukker at the end and I was happy that I played better than last time, though I'm still so out of shape that I get exhausted mid-way through and completely stop being able to direct my horse. As someone who normally rides multiple horses a day and rarely gets tired doing it, this is definitely a new and frustrating feeling! Definite incentive to keep exercise going (though being trapped inside for the past two days with my nose literally rubbed raw from being pressed so hard to the grindstone has NOT helped in that regard!).

(Ok but granted, when you get to study in an early 16th Century study carol looking out on Corpus Christi's main quad with the muffled sounds of organ music coming from the chapel next door, it feels pretty legit...)

(...and when you successfully digest and get notes from 7 books (2 in French) in a 3 1/2 hour period, you feel pretty badass! Or that just be the nerd in me coming out...)

I'm supposed to play again on Tuesday, though there's currently a bit of issue with the scheduling that could complicate things. I'm not going to any horsey locations this weekend or next (bummer), so this past week's ride will have to carry me forward for a while if I don't get to go out next week. We'll see! I feel sooo incredibly lucky that I've gotten to ride at all while being abroad, as the vast majority of my riding friends who've done so in different locations haven't even been able to a see a horse, let alone get on one. Now if only I could go hunting, then I could REALLY try to recreate my fantasy of galloping beside the train like Velvet Brown... =)

(Unrelatedly, I've set up a little "pony section" above my bed in my dorm room - can't wait to see them again!!)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Down and Up



So basically this weekend has been one of the most up and down of my entire life-- and I know I came on here pretty much every Sunday last fall saying that, but GOOD GOD, it's like the universe just keeps finding ways to top itself. Serious lows so far:

--Going to a dance club with my friends on Thursday night and getting a bottle thrown into my face in a total random act of violence by some drunk guy, with the result that the entire left half of my face swelled up, I briefly couldn't see out of my left eye, and I now have a WICKED impressive shiner. Thanks dude.

(How did you spend YOUR Thursday night?)

(Directly after a girl pointed at me and screamed at the train station on the way to Ascot - way to throw salt in a wound, little girl. This is actually not as black as it is now.)

--Learning that I won't be able to get media accreditation at Badminton this year (they have a few spots for student journalists for which I applied but sadly didn't get in) -- though the email I received back was very nice and came complete with an offer to get a tour of the media centre, so definitely not all was lost on that one!

--Almost burning my dorm down (and requiring all 47 of us to evacuate in near-freezing temperatures) when I went to the bathroom while steaming some vegetables and, in the intervening 2 minute period, they inexplicably caught fire. A definite first, that one.

BUT, to counter those downs, there were also some amazing ups:

(Mimosa look alike!)

--Playing polo on Friday!! It was a bright and cold day on Friday and me and two other people from Oxford Polo piled into a cab and drove out to the ridiculously beautiful English countryside, winding down classic one-lane hedge-lined roads until we got to a little farm in Wycomb. There we each got a polo pony and were turned loose in an arena (that had some seriously lovely all-weather footing that, as a constant mud-watcher at Stanny, made me drool a little) with our own ball and the invitation to work on whatever we wanted. Sebastian, the instructor, rode around to each of us in turn as we worked and gave us pointers. I felt a little rusty but not as bad as I'd feared (I could post the trot! Seriously I was afraid I would have forgotten), and was able to hit the ball from the canter pretty well, though when Sebastian set up a little pressure drill at the canter I fell apart pretty quickly. He was super nice, though, and in general pretty complimentary of my play -- always nice to hear! We then played a quick chukker at the end which was fun though I was definitely feeling VERY rusty about that (and was tired at that point as well) so played pretty terribly. But still, SO. MUCH. FUN. By far the most fun I've had at Oxford so far!! I get to play again on Tuesday; very, very excited =)


--Having a GREAT DAY at the races at Ascot yesterday. Folks, I finally get what the big fuss is all about. The display of athleticism, grace, and skill that I witnessed yesterday was simply awesome, in the most traditional sense of that word. I wasn't even planning on watching the races after the disaster at Warwick but still somehow found myself at the rail at the start of the first race, a handicap 'chase, and suddenly found myself watching breathlessly as a massive-strided jumping MACHINE led effortlessly from wire to wire, getting to every fence on perfect stride and making even the widest open ditches look easy. It was some absurd combination of the accuracy of a great hunter round and the speed and thrill of a great cross country round, and I was totally captivated. I'd never seen anything like it.

(I love capturing these quiet moments between the horses and their grooms - I want someone to take a picture of me like this someday! ...Though maybe lose the weird tie-in earplugs next time.)

(soo sweet)

(Another huge cutie in an Ozzie noseband - do you think I could fit him into a suitcase to take him home with me??)

Every race I watched had the same magic to it: unlike at Warwick, where it seemed like every horse had been struggling over every jump, and there was at least one horse fall per race, here the horses popped around like it was a hunter track, and even over the last few fences when they were clearly going for broke they still managed to jump cleanly and easily. There was only one fall the entire time I was there, an innocuous trip up mid-way around that left both horse and rider safe and ready to fight again another day.

(Steamy post-race)

(Sooo steamy)

(This guy saw me taking photos and so I was able to get this nice double portrait - love the tie!)

Plus, I got to see AP McCoy!!! Even to someone as relatively uninitiated in British National Hunt Racing as I am, this name was familiar. AP McCoy is arguably the best jump jockey of all time, having smashed pretty much every record in the books from most wins in a season to most lifetime winners, etc, and has done so over the toughest races in Britain. I got to watch him in three races, where he won or came second in each, and it was a seriously impressive display. Plus, it also seriously helps that he's pretty easy to look at!! I love that jump jockeys are actually of a pretty normal height (McCoy is 5'10") and so are on the whole an incredibly drool-worthy bunch; a serious upshot to any day at the races, for sure, when you can admire the horses and the riders =)

(Tony McCoy - such a badass)

(Marry me Tony!)

(I absolutely do not care that this man is one inch taller and about 20 pounds lighter than I am; he's dreamy, and anyone that can ride like that has a good vote in my book)

(A different guy - we're shiner buddies! I'm going to take a WILD guess and venture that he probably has a less pathetic story behind his.)

I only ended up staying for four races because it was absolutely freezing and I'd forgotten gloves so my hands had gone completely numb, but it was so worth it. I didn't get as many action shots as at Warwick because the set up of the stands made it impossible to get close without having the white rail become pretty intrusive, but I did have a lot of fun getting photos of the horses in the paddock pre- and post- race. Sadly this might have been my last steeplechase visit as my weekends are now insanely busy from here on out (I might get to Cheltenham but we'll see), but what a good way to end.

(Get it McCoy!!!)

Today I'm just trying to close the weekend out with a little less drama than it started with. My eye had been feeling better but is feeling gunky today so I'm a little worried that there might be something going on, so I might get that checked out. I might actually have to use those eyes for studying one of these days...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ringo and Kiki Update

Thanks everyone for the wonderful comments on my photos from Warwick. I'm headed to Ascot this weekend so hopefully I'll have another chance to get some nice shots -- I'm planning on hanging out more exclusively in the saddling area this time, both to focus more on my favorite part-- getting as close as possible to the horses-- and to avoid witnessing anything like last weekend. (Here's hoping.)

(Kiki in her new digs in Aiken - thanks to Mike Robbins, Suzi's assistant trainer, for taking all of these photos)

Meanwhile, a few days ago my parents were able to connect my trainer who has Kiki and Ringo down in South Carolina (thanks to the time change, I've found it exceedingly difficult to be either awake or free at either of her two very narrow windows of availability, and so have had to rely on the 'rents on this one) and could pass the report along to me. The short version is that they're both doing great -- yay!!! Suzi was pleased with the condition they both came down in (though I'm sure she's already made them look like totally different animals -- really, no one keeps the horses looking better than she does) and with how well both of them have settled in.

(Beautiful Ledgefield Farm, Ringo and Kiki's home for the winter)

Kiki is, apparently, the star of the barn so far. Would you expect anything different?? =D She's just been doing basic w/t/c to get back into work, and so far has been totally sound and good to go. Excellent! Suzi had only taught me on her a few times this summer, and apparently she was very pleasantly surprised with how far she's come since then: much more accepting of the contact and leg and overall more relaxed and ready to go to work. I think a lot of this had to do with her getting a nice mental break on her time off, because when I started her back up after her layup she felt better than when I'd left her with no intervention on my part whatsoever: something that I need to keep in mind more often, as I'm usually always trying to squeeze in that extra ride whenever I can. They haven't jumped her yet (though Kiki has done some "extracurricular" jumping on her own - clearing out of her field on New Year's Eve when the neighbor's fireworks spooked her!) but should be starting soon if all goes well.

(This is a classic Kiki move - she'll see you approaching, briefly prick her ears, and then immediately start chewing on/trying to destroy whatever she can get her lips around because she knows it will get attention - what a naughty, clever little beast)

Ringo has been getting one tack walk and one hand walk a day and has been a total gentleman (good man). Suzi thinks he's looking good and has actually maintained a pretty good topline for a) already being a bit of a stick naturally and b) sitting around for five months. He's on track to get re-ultrasounded and hopefully start trotting in another month or so.

(Ringo enjoying his back window)

In BIG BIG news, I may get to ride on Friday!! I usually have commitments on Fridays but this week they were cancelled, so I'm trying to see if I can tag along for a polo lesson with the Oxford club. I might not be able to fit into my breeches (damn you, unbelievably delicious British candy!!) and I'm envisioning some serrriooouss rustiness, but I CAN'T WAIT.
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