There was a curious debate this week on the Today programme about whether “tragedy” was an appropriate word to apply to jump racing — specifically, to the death of Best Mate at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. No, said the classicist Peter Jones. Yes, said the racing writer Robin Oakley.
It is true that “tragedy” is a word carelessly applied by headline writers to every passing inconvenience. But having spent the week gripped by the drama of Cheltenham, I can’t help feeling that Professor Jones, who is usually right, is mistaken in this case.
All shades of emotion are encapsulated in National Hunt racing. In what other area of contemporary life is so much complexity mixed with so much drama? Glued all week to the telly, I am struck by the way in which the impenetrable code of the commentators’ judgments lurches at the off into violent, naked emotion — from the noisy hilarity of Sky’s The Limit’s connections, roaring out a victory jig, to my hero Ruby Walsh’s thunderous face on his second unseating of the day. So much hope, so much spirit, so much courage and exertion — what is that, if not classical high drama?
Here's the Googloss for those not in the know ... Best Mate was a horse; the three-time champion of the Cheltenham Festival which is that curious brand of UK horse racing which we North Americans usually subsume under the generic term Steeplechase. Last year Best Mate had to withdraw from defending his crown because of a burst blood vessel, which was the eventual cause of his demise. The exceptionality of the horse is clear when one realizes they've just erected a statue of him.
So, to return to the definition of tragedy which Peter Jones is no doubt adhering to. Unless by some chance Best Mate was capable of hybris this isn't "tragedy" in the Classical sense. And the fact that an audience at a racecourse -- or football field, or hockey arena, or tiddlywinks pitch -- might evince the whole gamut of emotions from A to B, that doesn't make what they are watching 'tragic' in the Classical sense. One of the big things to look for: there is no human 'winner' at the end of a Greek tragedy; if there is, they tend to be dead.