Charismatic Animals

September 7, 2015

How far is it helpful to extend the construct of charisma into the animal world?Desert Orchid

For many people there is little doubt. Some animals are treated as ‘the special ones’, just as is the case for humans.

Race horses are already genetically special ones, bred for performance. In this respect they begin life as ‘born to lead’, and receive intensive training to release their natural potential.

Desert Orchid

A classic example from the 1980s in England was Desert Orchid, a magnificent white creature (or grey, in racing parlance). His spectacular appearance, coupled with his front running style and stamina, gave him iconic status. Dessie seemed to enjoy attention, enthralling his audiences as he cantered up to the start, or as he paused to acknowledge applause. His National Jump racing results were exceptional, considered to place him among the top six hurdlers of all time.

Janice Coyne, long-serving stable girl, had to defend Dessie after a rare act of its petulance. “He’s only human” she protested.

Red Rum and Sea Biscuit

In some contrast is the more plebeian courage and stamina of two other horse legends, Red Rum and Sea Biscuit. Whereas Dessie had an ethereal beauty, neither Red Rum nor Sea Biscuit stood out for their natural grace among the other horses on parade.

Red Rum suffered from a form of arthritis that threatened his career and left him with a rather ungainly gait. Under different circumstances he might not have been spared from an early end. To add to evident physical weaknesses he was lethargic in training and inclined to prefer sleep over exercise. He was not even bred for jump racing at which he excelled. He was to become one of the greatest of racers over Aintree’s’ Grand National course, an idol for his fans. He was to star in films and books about his remarkable career. On retirement, he appeared on the celebrity circuit ahead of B List humans in demand for opening charity events and supermarkets.

Sea Biscuit, an earlier sensation in American horse racing history, was as unpromising as a foal as Red Rum. Undersized, ungainly, almost unmanageable, the damaged horse was rescued by an equally scarred Jockey. The combination released Sea Biscuit’s potential. During the Great Depression the horse became a symbol of hope and even a money earner for the near defeated masses who backed it.

Perfection and hope

I think of Dessie as symbolizing perfection; Red Rum and Sea Biscuit as symbolizing hope, and triumph of the weak over the privileged, the flawed over the perfect. Or maybe  beauty. as is often suggested, lies in the eye of the beholder.

Acknowledgement

To Susan Moger for her unrivaled knowledge of equine history


Sir Alex Ferguson: He’s only human (like Desert Orchid)

January 1, 2012

It was a week when North Korea reported supernatural events on the death of their dear leader. It ended with a reminder at Old Trafford that even great leaders like Sir Alex Ferguson are only human, and will make mistakes from time to time

Let’s make this personal. Susan and I settled down to listen to the game between Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, the mid-day match on New Year’s eve. The stated odds were twenty to one against a Blackburn Rovers win. For arcane contractual reasons there were no Premier League football matches televised that day.

More injury worries for United

We listened to the team news with surprise but only slight concern. United’s injury problems seemed to have become even worse with makeshift arrangements in defence and mind-field. And the latest casualty was Wayne Rooney, by general agreement United’s most gifted attacking player.
Still, Blackburn Rovers were in turmoil. They were bottom of the league. Their hapless manager was the target of a vociferous campaign to have him sacked. Sir Alex said Rooney would miss the game but would probably be back for the next one. Rooney watched the game from the Directors’ box.

The crowd sang Happy Birthday

The press had built up the occasion as the day when Sir Alex Ferguson would celebrate his seventieth birthday, and when United would leapfrog their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City to head the league table at the start of the New Year.

The nightmare begins

Sometimes you can anticipate when a team that starts badly is going to get worse. This began to seem one of those times. United were playing as if it were only a matter of time before Blackburn would drop out of the two horse race, leaving the thoroughbreds to canter on to the winning post. But Blackburn defended grimly then broke away and scored. “That’s what the neutrals wanted” said the commentator. “Now we’ve got a game on our hands”.

The nightmare continues

At half time the game remained one goal in Blackburn’s favour. United’s patched-up team had begun to run out of attacking ideas. Then the next blow. Another breakaway goal. The inexperienced defence exposed again.

A brief time of hope, and then

Unlike proper nightmares, there was a brief time of hope. United scored within minutes of conceding Blackburn’s second goal. But then the nightmare continued. Yet another piece of poor defending by United and Blackburn score again. The Old Trafford fans were silenced, as their lambs were despatched. The game ended Manchester United 2 Blackburn Rovers 3. “It’s a disaster” said Sir Alex

The story behind the story: bend it like Beckham?

Within hours the story behind the story broke. Wayne Rooney had mightily displeased Sir Alex, and had been dropped as a disciplinary measure. It all sounded a bit like the famous David Beckham episode resulting in Beckham’s injury from a flying boot, not on the field but in the dressing room.

Perhaps coincidentally, Rooney had made a very public joke about that incident a few days earlier. He had also broken the strict training regime having dinner with a few players and wives after the last United match. A confrontation with the notoriously prickly Sir Alex, and some punishment was inevitable.

He’s only human

I couldn’t help remembering the words of a stable girl after another great sporting personality, Desert Orchid, failed surprisingly. “He’s only human” she said in Dessie’s defence.

Maybe we should remember the same point about Sir Alex. Even the greatest leaders sometimes struggle with the dilemmas they have to deal with.