Describing himself as “fanatical and unashamedly passionate” about racing, Henry Birtles – AKA The Racing Poet – hopes his poems go some way, however small, to help racing reach a broader audience.
“There is something about the relationship between man and horse that has gone on for so long and although we don’t rely on them like we used to, they are still such a part of us.” It is this love for the horses themselves that enables Birtles’ poems to transcend sporting barriers and strike a chord with any lover of animals.
His poems serve as very British tributes to special horses, great occasions and much-loved people. They capture moments in history and suffuse them with drama, nostalgia and uplifting finales and when you add in the magnificent delivery of Brian Blessed to The Derby, or Tom Conti for Royal Ascot (amongst others), the poems achieve the emotional and patriotic equivalent of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ sung at the Last Night of the Proms.
Birtles’ passion for racing began early thanks to both location and family, growing up near Stow-on-the-Wold with Cheltenham as his local track and having a Grandfather who owned some very good horses, both on the Flat and over the Jumps.
One of those horses achieved a unique claim to a piece of racing history: “Popham Down won the Scottish Grand National for us in 1964 and it is through this horse that my family can lay claim to as close an association possible to one of the most famous, or infamous moments in Racing History, the Grand National pile-up of 1967, which was solely brought about by Popham Down.
“Without our horse, Foinavon would never have been heard of and one of the most enduring and replayed moments in British Racing history would never have happened.
“I sometimes feel like petitioning Aintree to re-name the Foinavon Fence, the Popham Down; after all it was him that created the spectacle, the endless replay opportunities for broadcasters, the history and of course, immortality for the winner!
“If that fence ever comes up for sponsorship, I’ll be at the front of the queue.”
Public displays of affection
Though Birtles may joke about racing and speak irreverently about his poetry from time to time, make no mistake that he takes the sport very seriously and is hugely keen to impart his love of it to others.
“When Racing gets you, it gets to your very core and you want to share that with people and without forcing it, you want them to feel what you feel. I don’t write my poems with the intention of converting people. I very rarely plan them, but if they do appeal and I continue to get a good crowd to listen to the somewhat eccentric bloke blasting out rhyme, then great.”
His poems are a regular feature on Cheltenham Gold Cup Day where he recites to the crowd from the famed Best Mate and Arkle statues. He has been featured on the BBC, Channel 4 and Dubai Sports Channel and has been commissioned by numerous international newspapers.
Yet he remains modest about their style: “I would hate to insult the great poets and prefer to describe what I write as rhymes. There’s nothing that clever about them, but I think they reflect what racing fans feel about this sport and the memories they have of some of the great horses and races that we’ve been privileged to witness.”
A leg up
Birtles is also repeatedly commissioned by jockey clubs and racehorse owners, and he attributes the start of all this public interest to one man: “Where my poetry is concerned I pretty well owe everything to Edward Gillespie, who challenged me to show the colour of my money publicly at Cheltenham in November 2006.
“After ‘performing’ Desert Orchid’s Gold in a packed Gold Cup Restaurant, followed sharply by a repeat in Royal Box, Lord Vestey subsequently asked me to write Best Mate as a surprise present for Henrietta Knight, his sister-in-law.
“I completed it in February 2007 and on Champion Hurdle Day in the Vestey’s Box, with only family present, I recited Best Mate for the first time to Henrietta, who had no idea about it. When I finished the great trainer, whom I had never met, walked over and we just hugged and held on – it was extremely emotional.
“Just to do that in such a personal situation was mindblowing. They asked me to stay for lunch, but I was knocked for six, so went straight to my car and left the racecourse, missing the Champion Hurdle.
“Two days later I stood at the Best Mate statue and there started a Gold Cup day tradition, which continues today.”
Birtles’ poetry began in Australia where he was working as a bike courier. “The first poem I ever wrote was on the great Australian Champion and icon, Phar Lap.
“I loved the story and the place he has in the hearts of all Australians, so was rather shocked when overhearing a mother point him out to her child, where he has pride of place in the Victoria Museum and say the words ‘Horsey’!
“In between [courier[ jobs, parked up on my bicycle, I switched off the radio and scribbled down the line…’He ran for a country struck down by depression…’ And I thought, one day that child will know, because that horse is part of the very fabric in the country he calls home.”
The real deal
When he is not scratching his brow waiting for inspiration to strike, Henry runs the “rather unimaginatively named ‘Henry Birtles Associates'”, a media rights distribution company that has just been assigned the international television rights to the Breeders’ Cup (USA).
“My company specialises in spreading the word [about racing] through television. This is what I do for a living, with the poetry as a side-line. I write a handful [of poems] every year and do not take it particularly seriously. After my family, the job – running a media consultancy – comes first, second and third.”
Perhaps surprisingly Birtles has found his poetic leanings can often be a positive factor where the day job is concerned: “When pitching for the distribution business of one of our clients, the Singapore Turf Club, I was asked ‘How do we know you really like racing?’ I believe when I rather ruefully revealed my alter ego ‘The Racing Poet’, they needed no further convincing!”
The risk of such a revelation paid off and his company HBA has handled the global distribution for the Singapore Airlines International Cup ever since. (Henry also ended up writing a poem for the STC on Singapore’s greatest champion, Rocket Man, which was subsequently published in the national papers.)
“However, I saw Teddy Grimthorpe [racing manager to Prince Khalid Abdullah] recently and he had been surprised to hear something about the Breeders’ Cup contract, saying ‘I thought you were just a wandering poet!’ so I think I really need to start working on my corporate image a bit more to dispel that notion!”
A Poet Laureate for Sport?
In the meantime Birtles continues to produce poems from the heart that capture the genuine passion of those who love the sport – and this extends to other sports including cricket and most recently the football World Cup for which the BBC has commissioned a poem to be broadcast by a collection of celebrities ranging from Tony Adams to the London Community Gospel Choir.
But racing remains at the core of Birtles’ poetry and – work permitting – he has plans for plenty more in the pipeline: “In the back of my mind, there are four Racing Poems I plan on attempting. These are Secretariat, Dubai Millenium’s Dubai World Cup (I was there), The Breeders’ Cup and of course Popham Down.”
In case you have not yet discovered Henry Birtles’ poetry you can read them and find out more at www.henrybirtles.co.uk – and he has kindly allowed us to reproduce The Derby poem – click here.
Allison is the Publisher of Eclipse Magazine. She loves going to the Races and is learning to bet (despite being officially the worst bettor in the History of the Universe), there’s a lot more to learn…