Authors: Dick Francis,FELIX FRANCIS
‘Unless you stopped it.’ The voice had a distinctive Scottish accent. The laughter died instantly. Scot Barlow was, it was safe to say, not the most popular regular in the jockeys’ room. That comment from anyone else would have been the cause for renewed mirth but from Scot Barlow it had menace.
Like Steve Mitchell, Barlow was one of the big three and he currently led the title race by the odd winner or two. But the reason Scot Barlow was not the most popular of colleagues was not because he was successful, but because he had a reputation, rightly or wrongly, of bleating to the authorities about his fellow jockeys if they transgressed the rules. As Reno Clemens, the third of the big three, had once said to me by way of a warning, ‘Barlow is a snitch, so keep your betting slips out of his reach.’
Professional jockeys were not allowed to bet on horses. It expressly said so in the terms of their riding licences. Some of them did, of course, and it was reliably reported to me that Scot Barlow had been known to go through his fellow jockeys’ pockets to find the illicit betting slips to give to the stewards. Whether he had or not, I didn’t know, it was hearsay evidence only and might be inadmissible in court, but the others believed it absolutely.
Somewhat strangely, as an amateur rider, I was allowed to bet, and I did so regularly, but usually only on myself to win. Always the optimist.
We were in the jockeys’ changing room at Sandown Park racecourse, in Surrey, and I was riding in the fifth race, a three-mile chase reserved for amateur riders. It was a rare treat for me to be part of a big-race Saturday. Races for amateurs
were rare these days, especially at the weekends, and I usually had to confine myself to such races as my weight had inexorably risen to what was considered natural for someone nearing his thirty-sixth birthday and standing five foot ten and a half in his socks. I tried my best to keep it down and regularly starved myself through the winter months to ride at the amateur riders’ days in the spring. At least the races reserved for the likes of me tended to have higher weights than those in which I would compete with the pros. There was no chance of me seeing ten stone again and the lowest riding weight I could now seriously consider was eleven stone seven, as it included not only my expanding body, but also my clothes, my riding boots and my saddle.
The jockeys were called for the third race, the main event of the afternoon, and there was the usual lack of a mad rush for the door. Jockeys are generally very superstitious and many of them like to be the last one to leave the changing room for luck, while others simply don’t want to spend any time making small talk in the parade ring with the owner and trainer of the horse they are riding. Some even hang around polishing and re-polishing their already clean goggles until the get-mounted bell has already been rung and the officials are having palpitations trying to get them out. I had grabbed all my stuff from off the floor and I now held it close to my chest to protect it until even the last of the tardy bunch had exited, then I put my tweed jacket over my silks and went out to watch the contest on the weighing-room televisions.
The blue and white hooped colours flashed past the post to win by a head in a tight finish. Steve Mitchell had closed the gap on Barlow and Clemens with one more win.
I went back into the jockeys’ inner sanctum to begin my
mental preparation for the fifth race. I had discovered that I increasingly needed to get myself into the right frame of mind. If I wasn’t properly prepared, the whole thing would seemingly pass me by, and be over before I was even ready for it to start. As I knew that my racing days were numbered, I didn’t want to waste any of them.
I sat on the bench that ran all round the room, and went through again in my head where I wanted to be as the tapes went up, where I would be as we approached the first fence and where I hoped to be as we approached the last. Of course, in my mind’s eye we would win the race and my apprehension would turn to joy. And that wouldn’t be all that unexpected. My bay gelding and I would start as favourite. His win in the Foxhunters at the Cheltenham Festival in March would make sure of that.
Steve Mitchell came waltzing back into the changing room with a grin on his face wider than the eight-lane highway down the road.
‘What about that then, Perry?’ he said, slapping me on the back, bringing me out of my trance. ‘Bloody marvellous. And I beat that bastard Barlow. You should have seen his face. Furious, he was.’ He laughed expansively. ‘Serves him bloody well right.’
‘What for?’ I asked innocently.
He stood still for a moment and looked at me inquisitively. ‘For being a bastard,’ he said, and turned away towards his peg.
‘And is he?’ I asked his back.
He turned round to face me. ‘Is he what?’
There was a pause.
‘You’re a funny bloke, Perry,’ he said, irritated. ‘What bloody difference does it make whether he’s a real bastard or not.’
I was beginning to wish I hadn’t got into this conversation. Being a barrister didn’t always help one to make friends.
‘Well done anyway,’ I said to him, but the moment had passed and he just waved a dismissive hand and turned his back on me once again.
‘Jockeys!’ An official put his head round the changing-room door and called the group of nineteen of us amateurs to the parade ring.
My heart rate rose a notch. It always did. Adrenalin pumped through my veins and I positively jumped up and dived through the doorway. No superstitious last one out of the changing room for me, I wanted to savour every moment. It felt like my feet were hardly touching the ground.
I adored this feeling. This is why I loved to ride in races. This was my fix, my drug. It was arguably less safe than sniffing cocaine and certainly more expensive, but it was a need in me, a compulsion, an addiction. Thoughts of heavy falls, of mortal danger, of broken bones and bruised bodies were banished simply by the thrill and the anticipation of the coming race. Such was the feeling on every occasion, undiminished by time and familiarity. I often told myself that I would hang up my saddle for good only when that emotion ceased to accompany the official’s call for ‘jockeys’.
I made it to the parade ring without floating away altogether and stood excited on the tightly mowed grass with my trainer, Paul Newington.
When I acquired my first horse some fifteen years ago, Paul had been thought of as the ‘bright young up-and-coming trainer’ in the sport. Now he was considered to be the man who never
quite fulfilled his potential. He was originally from Yorkshire but had moved south in his late twenties, headhunted to take over from one of the grand old men of racing who had been forced into retirement by illness. Far from being up-and-coming, he was now in danger of becoming down-and-going, struggling to fill his expansive training establishment in Great Milton, just to the east of Oxford.
But I liked him, and my own experience of his skills had been nothing but positive. Over the years he had bought for me a succession of sound hunter-chasers that had carried me, for the most part, safely over hundreds of miles and thousands of fences. Mostly they had been steady rather than spectacular, but that had been my brief to him when buying. I wanted to be in one piece more than I wanted to win.
‘I think you should beat this lot,’ Paul said, loosely waving a hand at the other groups in the parade ring. ‘Fairly jumping out of his skin, he is.’
I didn’t like being expected to win. Even when defending in court I was generally pessimistic about my clients’ chances. That way, winning was unexpected and joyful while losing wasn’t too much of a disappointment.
‘Hope so,’ I replied. My apprehension grew as an official rang the bell and called for the jockeys to get mounted.
Paul gave me a leg-up onto my current pride and joy. Sandeman was the best horse I had ever owned by a long way. Paul had bought him for me as an eight-year-old with a mixed history of fairly moderate results in hurdle races. Paul had reckoned that Sandeman was too big a horse to run over hurdles and that he would be much better as a chaser and he had been right. The horse had quickly learned the skill of jumping the bigger obstacles and was soon shooting up the handicap. So far
we had won eight races together and he had won five others without me in the saddle, including that victory in the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham.
This was his first run since the summer layoff. He would be thirteen on the first of January and, consequently, he was close to the twilight of his career. Paul and I had planned that he would race just twice before the Cheltenham Festival, before what we hoped would be a repeat victory in the Foxhunters.
I had first been introduced to steeplechase racing by my uncle Bill when I was twelve. Uncle Bill was my mother’s younger brother and he was still in his early twenties when he had been delegated to take me out for the day and keep me out of mischief. I had been staying with him and his parents, my grandparents, while my own mother and father were away together on holiday in South America.
I had clambered eagerly into the passenger seat of his beloved open-topped MG Midget and we had set out for the south coast and the planned day at Worthing in West Sussex.
Unbeknown to me, or to his somewhat austere parents, Uncle Bill had no intention of spending the day dragging his young nephew across Worthing’s steep pebble beach or along its elegant Victorian pier so I could be entertained by the amusement arcades. Instead he drove us about fifteen miles further to the west to Fontwell Park racecourse, and my abiding passion for jump racing was born.
At almost every British racecourse it is possible for the spectators to stand next to a fence, to experience the thrill of being so close up as half-ton horses soar over and through the tightly bound birch, to hear the horses’ hooves thumping the turf, to feel the earth tremble, and to sense the excitement of being part of the race. But at Fontwell the steeplechase course is a figure
of eight and one can run between the jumps that are near to the cross-over point and be close to the action twice on each circuit, six times in all during a three-mile chase.
Uncle Bill and I spent much of the afternoon running across the grass from fence to fence, and by the end of the day I knew for certain that I wanted to be one of those brave young men in their bright coloured silks fearlessly kicking and urging his mount into the air at thirty miles an hour with hope in his heart, trusting that the spindly legs of the Thoroughbred racehorse beneath him would save them both from crashing to the ground on the other side.
Such was my conviction that I could think of nothing else for weeks and I begged my uncle to take me with him to the races whenever I could get away from more mundane things like school and studying.
I enrolled at a local riding stables and soon mastered the art, not of dressage as they would have preferred, but of riding at speed over jumps. My teacher tried in vain to get me to sit upright in the saddle with my heels down. However, I was determined to stand in the stirrups crouching over the animal’s withers just as I had seen the jockeys do.
By the time I was seventeen and learning to drive a car, I could navigate my way around the country not by the positions of the major cities but by the locations of the racecourses. Maybe I couldn’t find my way to Birmingham, or to Manchester or to Leeds, but I knew unerringly the quickest route from Cheltenham to Bangor-on-Dee, or from Market Rasen to Aintree.
Sadly, by then I had come to terms with the fact that I was never going to earn my living from race riding. For a start, despite my best efforts in refusing my school dinners, I had
grown too tall and was already showing signs of becoming too heavy to be a professional jockey. Coupled with that was an apparent gift for academic success, and the fact that my future career in the law had been planned out to the
th degree by my father. He had decided that I would follow him to his old college at London University, then, like him, to the College of Law in Guildford and, finally, into the same firm of high-street solicitors that he himself had joined some thirty years previously. I would spend my life, like his, conveyancing property from seller to buyer, drawing up last wills and testaments, and untying the knots of failed marriages in south-west London suburbia. The promised boredom of it all had filled me with horror.
I had been twenty-one and in my third year of a Bachelor of Laws degree at UCL when my darling mother had finally lost her long battle against leukaemia. Her death wasn’t a surprise to me, in fact she had lived far longer than any of the family had expected, but, perhaps for the first time, it brought home to me the fallibility and transitory nature of the human state. She died on her forty-ninth birthday. There had been no cutting of cake with blown-out candles, no singing of ‘Happy Birthday to You’. Just despair and tears. Lots and lots of tears.
The experience made me resolve to do what I really wanted and not what everyone else expected of me. Life, I suddenly decided, was too short to waste.
I had duly completed my degree, as it had somehow seemed a mistake to give it all up at such a late stage, but I had absolutely no intention of becoming a solicitor like my father. I had written to the College of Law to withdraw my application for the Legal Practice Course, the next step on the solicitors’ ladder, and, much to my remaining parent’s horror and anger, had arranged
instead to go to Lambourn as unpaid assistant and amateur jockey with a mid-ranking racehorse trainer.
‘But how will you afford to live?’ my father had demanded in exasperation.
‘I will use the legacy that Mum left me,’ I’d replied.
‘But…,’ he had blustered. ‘That was meant to be for the down payment on a house.’
‘She didn’t say so in her will,’ I had said rather tactlessly, sending my father into a tirade about how the young these days had no sense of responsibility. This was not an uncommon rant in our household, and I was well used to ignoring it.
So I had graduated in June and gone to Lambourn in July, and had used my mother’s legacy not only to pay my living expenses but also to acquire a seven-year-old bay gelding that I could ride in races, having correctly supposed that I was unlikely to get any rides on anyone else’s horses.