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Sunday, 18 November, 2018

Absorbing account of one of racing's great eccentrics

Dorothy Paget's storied life is the subject of an illuminating new biography

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Dorothy Paget: The Eccentric Queen of the Sport of Kings by Graham Sharpe & Declan Colley

£25 (hardback), published by Racing Post – racingpost.com/shop

If Graham Sharpe did not have a disqualifying interest as creator and manager of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, this would be a prime candidate for the 2017 prize.

Despite never having given an interview to the press, countless articles – rarely complimentary – were written about Dorothy Paget during her lifetime and immediately after her death in February 1960, a few days short of her 55th birthday, and she was the subject of a full-blown biography by Quintin Gilbey, published in 1973. Their authors had the advantage of contemporary involvement.

Four decades on, Sharpe and his co-writer Declan Colley have had the twin benefits of time to conduct detailed research into the most fascinating woman ever to tread the British Turf, as evidenced by a copious acknowledgements section, and access to people, including family members, who either worked directly for her or were associated with her.

They have also called on psychologist and former racing journalist John Karter to assess Paget's complex character traits – wayward child, frequently poor at relationships as an adult, prone to sleeping during the day and 'living' at night, caring less about her physical appearance as she got older – which Sharpe largely attributes to her mother's death when she was 11 and her father's indifference to her on the grounds that he wanted a son and heir.

By scratching beneath the familiar and accepted exterior the authors have demonstrated a softer, compassionate side to Paget, even if she once publicly berated a charity for asking for help while privately donating a substantial cheque. She supported a home for elderly refugees from the Russian Revolution in Paris, and gave an astonished young man a roll of £5 notes after purloining his car to get her to the Grand National when her own vehicle suffered a burst tyre.

However, Paget's legendary eccentricity, typified by nocturnal habits that persuaded some prominent bookmakers to take her substantial bets – losing ones more often than not – hours after the races had been run, continues as the central theme, and it affected those whom she employed in different ways.

Basil Briscoe was her most successful trainer, sourcing in the same batch the outstanding chaser Golden Miller and Champion Hurdle winner Insurance. He went into a rapid decline towards bankruptcy when Paget's horses left his stable immediately after Golden Miller had unshipped his rider in the 1935 Grand National.

On the other hand, jockey Tommy Carey retained her confidence, despite fairly damning evidence that he did not always ride her horses to win, and Charlie Rogers, who managed Ballymacoll Stud in Ireland (which she bought but never visited), maintained her patronage through a mixture of guile and assumed innocence.

Mysteries about Paget remain, not least why she left no will – or rather that none has been produced – and the revelation, discussed by the authors at length but left tantalisingly inconclusive, that she might have given birth to an illegitimate son, who is alive today.

As to her sexual preference, the evidence is conflicting. She was very close, perhaps even intimately close, Sharpe reckons, to the motor-racing driver Tim Birkin, yet she formed a long-term friendship with Francis Cassel, "a somewhat eccentric, apparently gay concert pianist", and around the 1930s she became close friends with Olili de Mumm, from the wine family, with whom, Sharpe notes, she enjoyed "a relationship that would endure for the rest of Dorothy's life, with some observers implying a closer, possibly sexual, dimension".

Always leave something for the next man is a sound maxim for biographers. Sharpe and Colley have done that, while covering their subject in absorbing detail and themselves in great credit.

Howard Wright


Chelmsford local shows British racing in microcosm

Full Circle – The Rise, Fall and Rise of Horse Racing in Chelmsford by David Dunford

£12.99, published by Essex Hundred Publications – essex100.com

When the racecourse that is now Chelmsford City opened in 2008 as Great Leighs, few realised it was merely a continuation of the sport's long tradition in that part of Essex.

Chelmsford's first racecourse was on Galleywood Common, south of the city, where racing was first recorded in 1759, and this new, unpretentious paperback sheds light on an obscure but engaging chapter in racing history.

In Victorian times Chelmsford, like most other sporting venues, was a place where “the aristocracy flaunted their wealth and power, the working classes enjoyed a rare day off, and crooks and conmen fleeced the unwary”.

The course's cast of characters included Admiral Henry Rous, the famous Turf reformer who put the track's organisation on a more professional basis, and eccentric adventurer Sir Claude de Crespigny.

The course was converted from Flat to National Hunt in the 1880s but the quality of the racing, never high, failed to improve. By far the best horse ever to run at Galleywood was Golden Miller, who won two £63 hurdles there in 1931, but the course was already struggling financially and it held its last meeting under rules in 1935.

That would have ended racing at Chelmsford but for local businessman John Holmes, the driving force behind the creation of the course at Great Leighs, five miles north of the city. It closed in 2009, only nine months after its inaugural meeting, but was resurrected as Chelmsford City in 2015.

Local author David Dunford chronicles this history in a fluent style with the help of dozens of illustrations in the form of maps, prints and photographs in both colour and black and white. The spectators at Galleywood Common would not recognise the current Polytrack circuit with its floodlights and pop concerts, but in terms of its history Chelmsford racing has been British racing in microcosm.

John Randall

She once publicly berated a charity for asking for help while privately donating a substantial cheque
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