Our columnist never forgets his wedding anniversary: it’s the day before July 23, a date recalled for the victory of his favourite horse
I recall it well even though it happened 25 years ago. My soon-to-be father-in-law was nervously pacing the halls of the wedding venue of Great Fosters – a former 16th century royal hunting lodge now on the edge of the Surrey town of Egham – periodically peering out through the mullioned windows.
It appeared for all the world as if he was trying to remember the words he was about to deliver as he handed over his precious elder daughter to a northern oik. In the event, he used the then buzz words of perestroika and glasnost, which gave a nod to the later buzz word of zeitgeist.
But I knew Max was not worried about the scribbling of his notes. He was more concerned by a single word he had put on another piece of paper days earlier: “Mtoto”. Outside it was raining and we both feared this might compromise Alec Stewart’s colt’s prospects of getting the trip 24 hours later in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at nearby Ascot. We – and my young bride Alex – should have known better.
As usual, Mtoto gave them a start and a beating. The last to be vanquished was the favourite Unfuwain (pronounced on television as “Unfwahn” by two other buzz words of the time: Julian and Wilson). It seemed a propitious start to the union.
To this day I never forget my wedding anniversary, which I know is the day before July 23, the date in 1988 when Mtoto won the King George. Just recently the horse and myself celebrated our silver anniversary.
Since he won the first of his Prince of Wales’s Stakes at the Royal meeting I had enjoyed a fixation with Mtoto. He had everything: the looks, the demeanour, the after-burner acceleration at the end of his races. It seemed a little odd to have an equine hero, but he was mine. Later, I almost formed a club, when Greg Wood, the subsequent racing correspondent for The Guardian, expressed a similar adoration for this horse and this horse only.
Where Alexander the Great had Bucephalus, the Duke Of Wellington was linked with Copenhagen and Roy Rogers teamed with Trigger, I felt it was me and Mtoto, with the acceptance that Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum was his technical owner.
There was to be one further triumph for Mtoto in the Select Stakes at Goodwood, before a ghastly career denouement in the Bois de Boulogne and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. I’ve scrutinised the replay of this race so many times that it could be considered a form of madness. To paraphrase Einstein, I watch the same race over and over again and expect to see a different result. To date, Mtoto has yet to run down Tony Bin.
For most people that was the last time they saw the great one, but I visited Mtoto’s new post-racing digs at Aston Upthorpe Stud, where the likes of Shaamit, Celeric and Presenting were conceived, the fruit of the old boy’s loins.
Mtoto was an unusual horse and here in Oxfordshire he was in an unusual setting, his attractive chalet-style premises just moments away from the 200ft-tall chimney and six hyperbolic cooling towers of the Didcot power station. One of the most beautiful creatures ever seen on a racecourse was side-by-side with a jumble of buildings once voted among the top three eyesores in the land.
I managed to touch Mtoto before he left my fenced portion of his paddock and before he left us all in May of 2011, aged 28. Alec Stewart is not here either, the victim of cancer, and Max, my father-in-law, is absent also, the victim of a good life. He always said Mtoto did not pay for the wedding, but I bet he would have covered the funeral.