An annual Man v Horse race in Wales has been won by a man for the first time in over a decade (Irish Times 18/06/22)…
Chestnut was not taking it well.
Being chosen had come as a real shock to him. He knew well, of course, that the annual Man v Horse race was never between a colt that might one day win the Derby and a pensioner with an artificial hip. He knew that each year they would pick the fittest young man in the village and would run him against the slowest horse.
He had just never realised that he was now that horse. It was a sign that he was past it. He was now a walking sack of future glue and dog-food. He had been put out to stud.
Though sadly not literally, he thought glumly.
Chestnut had once been regarded as the Greatest Horse in the Village, and while it was just a tiny Welsh village with more consonants than people, he had been proud of that. Where had the time gone? Horse years do move quicker, of course, but in Chestnut’s mind he was still a magnificent young beast, effortlessly able to pull inept young riders over large fences; to gallop through the breaking surf on the village’s flat sandy beach; to perform Dressage, the horse equivalent of Riverdance.
He thought back to how he had watched pityingly, year after year, as some older horse had been led to the start line, lined up beside a lean young man full of fire and protein shakes, and sent off in a ridiculously loaded contest.
But the horse had always won, he remembered suddenly. In spite of the race being rigged against them, each year they had galloped – well, lolloped – to victory.
He would be no different. He would put this human in his place.
So he was full of grim determination as his young owner Katie brought him down to the main street on the afternoon of the race. He snorted as he looked at the young man doing stretches in front of him. The crowd cheered as the two lined up. He looked into their faces. He saw hope and anticipation in their eyes. He saw young children, chattering excitedly as their ice-cream trickled unnoticed onto their wrists. He saw a middle-aged couple, obviously his opponent’s parents, holding a sign that read ‘Come On Gareth’.
He looked at this Gareth and saw only fear, of coming humiliation.
This means so much to them all, he thought.
A starting-gun fired, startling him, so he was slower into his stride than the young man. The volume of cheering rose as Gareth led. Then Chestnut started to gain, to draw alongside, to move ahead. He could hear the cheers grow ragged and falter. He made a decision.
He was going to have a mare.
He slowed his pace. Then slowed it again. Dear Lord, he thought, I could beat this guy if I was towing a haystack. It wasn’t easy to hide the fact that he wasn’t trying, but his years had given him experience. He began to whinny, as if tiring. He lolled his head from side to side, as if struggling. His pace slowed to a trot, as if that was all he could manage.
Yet the finish line was approaching and Gareth wasn’t, as least not quickly enough. If I go any slower, Chestnut thought, I will actually be travelling backwards.
But Gareth was gradually gaining, and the shortening gap excited the crowd. The cheers became wild yells of encouragement and exhortation. These lifted the young man, and he rallied, increasing his pace. The yells became high-pitched screams, urging him on and enraging local dogs.
Gareth overtook Chestnut just a foot before the line.
A great, guttural, primeval roar of joy exploded from the crowd. Gareth was surrounded by well-wishers, their back-slapping hampering his attempts to regain his breath. His parents ran to hug him, both crying unashamedly. A bottle of champagne – which had been brought home unopened each year for over a decade – was noisily popped and poured onto his head.
Chestnut stood quietly in the middle of the street, with a long face. It was the only face available to him
Katie walked up and rested her face against the side of his, gently stroking his neck.
“i know what you did,” she whispered. “You’re still the Greatest.”