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Authors: Dick Francis,FELIX FRANCIS

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BOOK: Silks
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I didn’t tell my father.

August had mostly been spent getting fit. Each morning I would ride my horse in the stable string to the gallops on the hills above the village and then, each afternoon, I would run the same route on foot. By mid September both horse and jockey were showing signs of being ready for the racecourse.

Quite by chance, or was it fate, my first ride in a proper race had been at Fontwell in early October that year. The whole experience had seemed to pass me by in a blur with everything happening at once. Such was my naivety and nervousness that I nearly forgot to weigh out, had been unprepared and badly left at the start, had struggled for a full circuit to get back to the other runners before fading badly due to my own lack of stamina towards the end. We had finished eleventh out of thirteen, and one of the two I had beaten only because he had
fallen in front of me at the last. It had not been an auspicious beginning. However the trainer had seemed relatively satisfied.

‘At least you didn’t fall off,’ he had said on our way home in his car.

I had taken it as a compliment.

My horse and I had raced together five more times that year and on each occasion we had fared slightly better than the time before, finishing a close second in an amateur riders’ steeplechase at Towcester races the week before Christmas.

By the following March I had ridden over fences a total of nine times and I had also had my first racing fall, at Stratford. However, it had been my ego that had been more bruised than my body. My horse and I had been well in front with just one fence left to negotiate when the excitement of the moment had become too much for me and I had made a complete hash of it, asking my mount for a mighty leap while he had decided to put in an extra stride. The result was that we had ploughed through the top of the fence, ending up in a crumpled heap on the ground watching ruefully as the others had sailed past us to the finish.

In spite of this disaster, and even though I had not yet ridden a winner, I still loved the excitement of the actual races, but I had begun to be rather bored by the time between them. I was missing the intellectual stimulation that I had so enjoyed during my time at university. And my mother’s legacy had started to show major signs of exhaustion. It was time to put my fantasy back in its box and earn myself a living. But as what? I remained steadfast in my aversion to being a solicitor, but what else could I do with my law degree?

Not all lawyers are solicitors
, I remembered one of my tutors saying during my first weeks at university.
There are barristers
as well.

To someone who was expecting, and expected, to become a general practice high-street solicitor, the world of the barrister was mysterious and unknown. My choice of optional study topics in my degree had concentrated on those areas I could mostly expect to encounter: conveyancing, family, employment and contract law. I had tended to avoid advocacy, criminal law and jurisprudence as much as possible.

I had researched the differences between barristers and solicitors in the local library in Hungerford and had learned that barristers were advocates, standing up and arguing, while solicitors generally did the legal paperwork in the background. Barristers tended to spar verbally across courtrooms with other barristers, while solicitors drew up contracts and litigation alone in quiet offices.

All of a sudden the prospect of becoming a stand-up-and-argue barrister had excited me hugely and I had eagerly applied for a return to legal matters.

So here I was some fourteen years later, well established in the world of horsehair wigs, silk gowns and courtroom protocol, but still trying to master this racing lark.

‘Jockeys! Walk in.’ The starter’s call brought me back to the matter in hand. How careless, I thought, to be daydreaming at such a time. Concentrate! I told myself sharply.

The nineteen of us walked up slowly in a straggly line, the starter pushed the lever, the tape flew up and we were off. Not that it was easy to tell as no one seemed keen to make the running. The pack slowly went from walk to trot, and then to canter as the race began in almost sedentary style.

The three-mile start at Sandown is on the side of the course just after the bend at the end of the home straight, so the horses have to complete almost two full circuits jumping a total of
twenty-two fences. The first, which comes up very soon after the start, looks fairly innocuous but has caught out many an amateur and professional rider in its time. The landing side is some way below the take-off point and the drop tends to pitch horses forward onto their noses. The slow initial pace of this race, however, gave even the most inexperienced jockey, riding the world’s worst jumper, time to haul on the reins to keep the animal’s head up. So all nineteen runners were still standing as the pace picked up and we turned right-handed into the back straight to face the most famous seven-fence combination in steeplechasing. Two plain fences and an open-ditch fairly close together, then a slight gap to the water-jump, then the famous Railway fences – three plain fences very close together, closer than any others in British racing. It is always said that if you jump the first one well then all will be fine, but make a hash of the first and then horse and rider will be lucky to get to the far end intact.

Three miles is a long way, especially in November mud after a wet autumn, and none of us was making the mistake of going too fast too early. Consequently all nineteen runners were still standing and fairly closely bunched as we swung out of the back straight and round the long curve to the Pond fence and then up in front of the watching crowds for the first time.

The thing that struck me most when I started riding in races was the apparent isolation in which the participants find themselves. There may be thousands and thousands of eager gamblers in the grandstands, each shouting on their choices, but, for all the jockeys can tell, the stands may as well be empty and deserted. The sound of horses’ hooves striking the turf, the same sound that had so excited me as a boy that first day at Fontwell Park, was the main noise that filled the senses. And
obviously, unlike for the stationary spectator for whom it comes and goes, the noise travels along with the horses. There are other sounds too: the slap of the reins or whip, the clicking together of hooves, the shouts of the jockeys and the clatter of hoof or horseflesh on birch and wood as the animals brush through the top few inches of each fence. All of these together make the race a noisy place to be, and they exclude any utterances from outside this bubble. No word of encouragement can penetrate, not a single phrase of commentary can enter. Quite often, afterwards, the jockeys are the least informed about the triumphs and disasters of others. If it occurs behind them, they will have no idea that, say, the red-hot favourite has fallen, or a loose horse has caused mayhem in the pack. Unlike Formula 1 there are no team radios or pit-boards to inform and enlighten.

The pace quickened again noticeably as we turned away from the stands and went downhill past our starting point. The race was suddenly on in earnest.

Sandeman and I had been keeping to the shortest way round, hugging the inside rail, following the leading trio by a couple of lengths or so. Now, the horse immediately ahead of me began to tire slightly and I was concerned that I would be forced to slow with him as, with others alongside me, I had nowhere to go.

‘Give me some damn room,’ I shouted at the jockey ahead, more in hope than expectation. Amazingly, he pulled slightly away from the rail and I sailed up on his inside.

‘Thanks,’ I called to him as I drew alongside him on his right. A fresh faced, big eyed young amateur grimaced back at me. That was the difference, I thought, between how I was when I started and how I was now. These days I would never give a rival room even if he shouted at me all day. Racing was all
about winning and one didn’t win very often by being too courteous to the opposition. Not that I would purposefully baulk someone by cutting across them, although I had often been so treated by several of my colleagues. Some jockeys could be sweetness and light in the changing room both before and after the race, but vicious and ruthless in between. It was their job. Amateurs, in particular, should expect no favours from professionals.

Two horses fell at the next fence, the one with the drop. Both animals pitched forward on landing, going down on their knees and sending their riders sprawling onto the grass. One of the jockeys was the young man who had given me room up his inside. Phew, I thought, that was close. Thank goodness he hadn’t fallen right in front of me. Being ‘brought down’ by tripping over another already prostrate horse was one of the worst ways of losing.

The remaining seventeen of us were becoming well spread out as we turned into the back straight for the second and last time. Sandeman was still going well beneath me and I kicked on hard into the first of the seven fences. He positively flew across the birch and gained at least a length on the two still in front.

‘Come on, boy,’ I shouted at him.

The tempo had now really quickened to a full-out gallop and I could hear some of those behind having problems keeping up.

‘Pick up your effing feet,’ shouted one jockey at his horse as it dropped its back legs into the water.

‘Tell your sodding horse to jump straight,’ shouted another as he was almost put through the wings of the first of the Railway fences.

We swung into the final long sweeping turn with just four
having a realistic chance. I was still on the inside next to the white plastic rail and so the others had to go further to get round me. Kick, push, kick, push, my hands and heels were working overtime as we straightened for the Pond fence. Sande-man was just in front and another great leap from him took the others briefly out of sight behind me.

‘Come on, boy,’ I shouted at him again, this time with diminished breath. ‘Come on.’

We were tiring but so were the others. Three miles in bottomless going is a huge test of stamina. But who would tire the most? Me, I feared. My fatigued legs would no longer provide the necessary kicks to Sandeman’s belly and I could barely summon up the energy to give him a slap of encouragement with my whip.

We still had our nose just in front as we took off at the second last but Sandeman hit the top of the fence and landed almost stationary on all four feet at once. Bugger. Two other horses came past us as if we were going backwards and I thought all was lost. But Sandeman had other ideas and set off in pursuit. By the last fence we were back alongside the others and the three of us jumped it line abreast.

Even though the three horses landed over the last together, both the others made it to the winning post ahead of us, their jockeys riding determined finishes while I was so tired that hanging on was about as much as I could do. We finished third, which was more to do with my lack of stamina rather than Sandeman’s. I had clearly been spending too much of my time sitting on my backside in courtrooms and it showed. Three miles through the undulating Sandown mud had been just a bit too far. My pre-race apprehension hadn’t turned to joy, more to exhaustion.

I slithered off Sandeman’s back in the unsaddling enclosure and nearly sat down on the grass, so jelly-like were my legs.

‘Are you all right?’ Paul, the trainer, asked concerned.

‘Fine,’ I said, trying to undo the girths. ‘Just a little out of puff.’

‘I need to get you up on the gallops too,’ he said. ‘No good having a fit horse if the damn jockey sits there like a sack of potatoes.’ It was a harsh assessment but probably fair. Paul had invested heavily on Sandeman to win in more ways than one. He gently brushed me aside, undid the buckle with ease and passed me the saddle.

‘Sorry,’ I mumbled. It was a good job I was paying the training fees.

Somehow I made it to the scales to be weighed in, and then back into the jockeys’ changing room, where I sat down heavily on the bench and wondered if it was time to call it a day. Time to give up this race-riding malarkey before I did myself a proper injury. To date I had been very lucky, with only a few bumps and bruises plus one broken collarbone in fourteen years of racing. But, I thought, if I were to continue for another year I would have to become fitter than this or I might come to some serious harm. I leaned back wearily against the cream-painted wall and closed my eyes.

Only when the valets began to pack up the equipment into their large wicker baskets did I realize that the last race had already been run and I was almost alone in the changing room, and still I was not changed.

I stood up slowly and peeled off my lightweight riding strip, picked up my towel and went into the showers.

Scot Barlow was half sitting, half lying on the tiled floor, leaning up against the wall with a stream of water falling from the shower head onto his legs. He had a small trickle of blood coming from his right nostril and his eyes were puffy and closed.

‘Are you all right?’ I asked going over to him and touching his shoulder.

His eyes opened a little and he looked up at me but with no warmth in his expression.

‘Sod off,’ he said.

Charming, I thought. ‘Just trying to help,’ I said.

‘Bloody amateurs,’ he replied. ‘Take away our livelihoods, you do.’

I ignored him and washed my hair.

‘Do you hear me?’ he shouted in full Scottish lilt. ‘I said people like you take away my livelihood. I should be paid to let the likes of you ride races.’

I thought of trying to tell him that I had ridden in a race reserved only for amateurs and he wouldn’t have been allowed to ride in it anyway. But it would probably have been a waste of time and he clearly wasn’t in the mood for serious debate. I went on ignoring him and finished my shower, the warmth helping to return some strength to my aching muscles. Barlow continued to sit where he was. The bleeding from his nose had gradually stopped and the blood was washed away by the water.

I went back into the main changing room, dressed and packed up my stuff. The professional jockeys all used the valets to look after their equipment. Each night their riding clothes were washed and dried, their riding boots polished and their saddles soaped ready for the next day’s racing. For me, who rode only about once a fortnight and often more infrequently than that, the services of a valet were unnecessary and counter-productive.
I stuffed my dirty things in a bag ready to take home to the washer-drier in the corner of my kitchen.

BOOK: Silks
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