David Owen

“It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people.” – Terry Eagleton.

Here at insidethegames we spend much of our time peering through the murk into the political and financial engine room that has powered sport to its early 21st-century status as a colossal industry of genuinely global mindset and scope.

Let’s just say it is not always a pretty sight.

So I think it is important every once in a while to pause and reflect on what it is that has enabled this set of what some may regard as trivial and time-wasting exercises to make the world its franchise, or if you prefer, what makes sport such an unbeatable product.

It is hardly, in Joseph Conrad’s phrase, “one of the dark places of the earth”, but Britain is a fractious and discordant place at the moment.

Deeply uncertain about its future direction and understandably glum after a decade or more of economic stagnation, the country is threatening to turn in on itself – we are, after all, an island nation – and to steam off in pursuit of a past that almost certainly exists now only in our imagination.

This is fertile ground for the uniquely gripping, spirit-lifting escapism that sport, at its best, is capable of rustling up.

And boy last week did sport deliver.

Cheltenham is not usually my favourite sporting occasion.

For all the pageantry, jumps racing is a tough and hard-nosed game.

It is far more common at the sport’s premier annual festival for reality to bite than for sentimental dreamers to escape with wallets stuffed and pockets jangling.

Not last Thursday.

Just when we needed it most, a contest called the Ryanair Chase, worth just under £200,000 ($264,000/ €233,000) to the winner, dished up a story that was at once a fairy tale and a parable of virtue, exuberance, love, determination, talent rewarded.

As a seven-year-old bay gelding called Frodon, game as a puppy, soared over the last and battled back up the hill to win a race he had led almost throughout, I was in bits.

And then came the post-race interview.

“He is Pegasus, he has got wings,” blurted the blue-and-white-clad jockey in the moment of victory.

“That minute when he got overtaken two out, most horses would quit; but no, he grabbed me by the hands and said, “Don’t you dare give up”,” went on the ecstatic rider who, oh yes, was a woman, Bryony Frost.

Jockey Bryony Frost poses with the trophy after she rides Frodon to victory during the Ryanair Chase ©Getty Images
Jockey Bryony Frost poses with the trophy after she rides Frodon to victory during the Ryanair Chase ©Getty Images

In some books, accordingly, the moment will go down as a landmark for women in sport – rightly so.

But in truth it was a landmark for sport full stop, the perfect distillation of the “two hearts” slogan dreamt up in a different branch of horse sport by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI).

Asked for his thoughts during the ITV broadcast, Brough Scott, a former jockey who nowadays combines the ear for a phrase of Arlott with the unimpeachable authority of Richie Benaud, said it had been “just about the most exhilarating race I have ever seen”.

Suffice to say that very few have seen more races than the 76-year-old Scott.

For sheer life-affirming joy, I would not normally expect to witness another sporting moment to rival that for a long, long time.

But what do you know? Another one popped up just two days later.

This time the venue was Twickenham, where Gregor Townsend’s Scotland rugby union team, 31-0 down after about half an hour, looked on their way to the biggest hiding of their sporting lives.

A rather fortuitous try just before half-time did little, seemingly, to rewrite the equation.

There then erupted one of those seismic switches in momentum that this demanding game can throw up from time to time.

Playing high-risk, exuberant rugby, the effervescent Scots tore the suddenly ponderous English defence to pieces as they raced thrillingly into a 38-31 lead before a brave last-gasp try salvaged a draw for the shell-shocked home side.

Darcy Graham scores Scotland's fourth try against England ©Getty Images
Darcy Graham scores Scotland's fourth try against England ©Getty Images

The match reminded me both of a scintillating, Townsend-inspired try blitz for the Scots in Paris in April 1999 and of France’s dumbfounding comeback to beat New Zealand in a World Cup semi-final at Twickenham later that year.

“We set a goal of winning the second half,” Townsend said after Saturday’s feast, with commendable level-headedness.

“Coming out with respect,” the Scotland head coach added.

“We thought the game was gone.”

With a Premier League title race of the highest calibre approaching its dénouement and both an Ashes Series and a Cricket World Cup to come, as well as the Rugby World Cup in Japan, 2019 just might be turning into a truly special year for British sports fans.

If so, you would have to say its timing is immaculate.