WE BEGIN with a ship transporting horses at night. But not just any horses. These are jumpers hunters, chasers on their way to the Cheltenham Festival, the peak of the long English steeplechase season. And they are Irish.
Bill Barich’s A Fine Place to Daydream comprises a series of portraits of steeplechase horses and their trainers, of jump jockeys and their injuries, and of punters, bookies, pub pontificators, and random tipsters with their inside information on the ever-elusive “sure thing” insights that the author, who is willing to place a bet, does or does not credit, to his pride and or chagrin, depending. “Sometimes after a bet I want to go back a minute later and beg the bookie for a refund, as people do when they send a nasty or unguarded e-mail, but at others I’m enveloped in a profound aura of well-being and entirely regret-free, as if the result of the race were preordained.” And then the tape drops and the horses surge forward . . ..
Bill Barich, author of the racetrack classic, Laughing in the Hills, moved from California to Ireland, drawn by love; and he soon developed a fascination with the country in terms of one of its most characteristic enthusiasms: horses and in particular those horses which will agree to jump over obstacles while galloping pellmell around a grassy track. He is an insightful and entertaining guide. Writing about a place well means writing about yourself there, and Barich filters the race tracks and training yards and pubs of Ireland through the inner landscape of his own experiences and expectations, vividly portraying a small country that can usually be trusted to punch above its weight. A Fine Place to Daydream is about steeplechase racing in terms of its Irishness.
Horses and trainers occupy center stage: Moscow Flyer, who is either careless or carefree; Beef Or Salmon, a disappointing horse (and one that has disappointed us yet again this year at Cheltenham); Best Mate, everybody’s favorite; and hovering above them all, the spirit of Arkle, greatest Irish horse ever. Much is known about each of them. It seems possible that through dogged investigative efforts, thoughtful analysis, and an unflinching avoidance of self-deception, you just might be able to pick the likely Gold Cup winner. That it’s not so simple comes as no surprise.
Barich cares about the horses, and he learns early on that there’s more to it than pondering bloodlines and past results. “I couldn’t bring myself to back Beef Or Salmon. He still had that distracted air of youthful inattention, while Best Mate grasped the exact nature of his mission. When he hit the track, he showed no hesitation. Instead, he was off at a trot, tossing his head about and eager for the action to start.”
The Irish love of jumpers also partakes of an atavistic desire to stick it to the Brits. And Barich amasses anecdote and evidence as he moves through the racing calendar on his way to the final showdown at the Cheltenham Festival in the quaint Cotswolds. He is an informed guide and a curious student. Stories are told, opinions shared, races run; it rains or it doesn’t rain; the “going” is too hard or too soft or not hard or soft enough; and in the end, something happens. A favorite lives up to its potential or fails to. The author bets wisely or in some of the most enjoyable moments in the book goes with his gut and follows a hunch, often with unfortunate results. The Irishness of it all is there always:
I had another Guinness, a guilty pleasure at midafternoon, and basked in the atmosphere of bonhomie . . .. The faces along the bar had a rosy burnished glow, teased out by the beer and the whiskey, and as I sipped my pint, I thought dreamily about my travels and all the people I’d met, struck again by the relative purity of the National Hunt purity always being relative and how the love of the game colored and enriched the lives of those who cared for the horses, a simple but powerful equation.
A Fine Place to Daydream is about Irish steeplechase racing. But on a more fundamental level, it is about embracing enthusiasm, about the pleasures of taking up a new concern and applying yourself to it, about caring for what you’re doing and then doing it well. Barich follows the winter season in Ireland and England, from dismal rain-soaked affairs with leaking booze-tents where tattooed thugs stand in the mud sucking it down to posh affairs with toffs in tweeds, and the range and authenticity of the experience is part of the pleasure.
All the hype, all the boozing and carousing, even the slot-machine frenzy of the Centaur, they were swept aside by a cosmic broom, and we were delivered to the hear of the matter and understood our purpose again. It went that way at every major sporting event, be it the Super Bowl or the World Cup final, because the event itself was often buried under so many layers of commerce that its essence was obscured. But there always came a revelatory moment such as this, when everyone remembered the why of it and snapped to attention, ready to witness the impossible forward pass, the amazing penalty kick, or the making or unmaking of a champion.”
The next Cheltenham Gold Cup will be in April 2007. Any thoughts on Kicking King’s chances?