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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Brigadier Gerard: one of the greats and a lot more fun than Sherlock Holmes

Peter Thomas looks at horseracing's finest moments on the bookshelves

Brigadier Gerard: more than just a great racehorse
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1 The status of Brigadier Gerard as a great racehorse is well established, his place in literature not so well. Appropriately for a son of Queen's Hussar, he was named after the dashing and exceedingly vain Etienne Gerard, hero of a series of Napoleonic War stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Young Etienne is described as "gay riding, plume tossing, debonnaire, the darling of the ladies", clearly not the intellectual equal of Sherlock Holmes but a lot more fun and less reliant on opium.

The Coolmore-owned Black Minnaloushe, a son of Storm Cat, was indeed named after a cat in WB Yeats's poem The Cat and the Moon, from the 1919 collection The Wild Swans at Coole. In racing, Black Minnaloushe was the winner of the Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James's Palace Stakes in 2001; in the wider world, Minnaloushe was the cat belonging to English-born Irish nationalist activist Maud Gonne, Yeats's principal muse, to whom he proposed, unsuccessfully, on many occasions. 

It is generally accepted that no reader has ever finished James Joyce's 1922 stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses, set entirely on June 16, 1904, but those who have made it to page 87 will have noted the first mention of that day's real-life Ascot Gold Cup, won by the five-year-old Throwaway, unwittingly tipped to his friends by the book's main character Leopold Bloom, but remaining unbacked by them as he defeats Zinfandel and the odds-on favourite Sceptre at odds of 20-1. At least I think that's what happens.

James Joyce: put the Ascot Gold Cup in the literary pantheon

4 Horserace betting's finest chronicler Damon Runyon has provided the inspiration for many a racehorse naming but not, contrary to urban myth, that of the 1997 Derby winner Benny The Dip – likely though it sounds. He was definitely responsible, however, for the 1999 Belmont hero Lemon Drop Kid, and less gloriously the Karl Burke-trained Dream Street Rose (who ran twice in 2009 and failed to beat any of her 25 rivals) and Tim Easterby's Seldom Seen Kid, who exited the scene still a maiden after five juvenile starts.

5 Prize for the least likely work of horseracing literature surely goes to The World's Greatest Handicap (After Dad), written by Mick 'One-Bet' Bartholomew and subtitled "A homespun history of the Melbourne Cup". This 1997 book is a rare example of that unsung genre known as 'juvenile fiction, gambling, horseracing, Australia'. I'm sure it must be illegal to own a copy by now.

6 Many literate devotees of the Turf will be familiar with "Up the ash tree climbs the ivy, Up the ivy climbs the sun . . ." but not all will know that John Betjeman's ash tree was situated in Upper Lambourne, in the poem of the same name, near the marble headstone "Where, in nineteen-twenty-three, He who trained a hundred winners, Paid the Final Entrance Fee". The trainer remains anonymous. Lambourn's final 'e' is historical.

7 Top jumps rider Dick Francis may have cornered the market in "smoking syringe" literature with more than 40 published titles, but former 'Greatest Jockey' John Francome has penned 25 racing thrillers, from Eavesdropper (with James MacGregor) in 1986 to Storm Rider in 2010.

Jenny Pitman, prolific racing author, signs another of her thrillers
8 Not quite in the vein of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Richard Pitman and his ex-wife Jenny have both made a passable stab at penmanship. Starting in 2002, the former Jenny Harvey wrote five thrillers in a series that centred on fictional trainer Jan Hardy, while Richard in the 1990s produced seven that featured his heroes Eddie Malloy and/or Frankie Houlihan.

9 Yeats and Larkin, Disraeli and Churchill, many have tried to capture the essence of the Turf on the page, but the public vote still goes to Enid Bagnold, writer of the 1935 novel National Velvet, the story of 14-year-old Velvet Brown, who trains and rides (while posing as a Russian man) her horse The Piebald to be first past the post in the Grand National, thereby igniting the equestrian passions of teenage girls for generations to come.

10 The prolific 'bonkbuster' writer Jilly Cooper also ignited passions, but of a rather different nature. Following on from her popular 'Rutshire' series, the Essex-born author launched herself into the arenas of jump racing (Jump!) and Flat racing (Mount!), armed only with raunchy raw material, a fevered imagination and an inexhaustible supply of exclamation marks. Trainers and their wives read them nervously.

This is a rare example of the genre known as 'juvenile fiction, gambling, horseracing, Australia'. I'm sure it must be illegal to own a copy
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