Must-have reads: tabloid tales, a terrific travelogue and brilliant biographies
There's something for everyone in our review of the year's best books
Expertly bringing a journey of romance and emotion to life
Churchill at the Gallop by Brough Scott
£20 (hardback), published by Racing Post – racingpost.com/shop
So many books have been published on the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill that it's a wonder there are any angles left to explore. In beautifully scripted prose, however, Brough Scott unearths more than enough synergy between man and horse to keep the thread running at full tilt.
For those in thrall to the horse, Scott paints a striking picture of Churchill's alliance with just about every type of quadruped, from war chargers to hunting horses and polo ponies right through to the racehorses who would bring him joy towards the end of his life.
The journey is steeped in romance and emotion, the portrayal of which the author is rightly celebrated for. Scott finds his rhythm from flagfall here, examining passages from Churchill's plethora of books and letters before meticulously developing them for contemporary consumption. The effect is a pleasing and sometimes amusing tableau, not least when Scott gently berates the young Churchill for his less-than-modest observations from the saddle.
A deal of the book chronicles Churchill's military-related expeditions on horseback, including his part in the last great cavalry charge at Omdurman, in Sudan. A more light-hearted note governs his fervent embrace of polo and hunting, in the latter instance both over that where wild boar proliferate in France and South Africa.
Churchill's saddle prowess is self-evident: he finished second in the Riding Prize at Sandhurst's Royal Military College, although you are occasionally left wondering whether this heroic ability has been somewhat embellished to correspond with his status as the 'Greatest Briton'.
The section devoted to Churchill's affiliation with racing is short by comparison, since he turned to ownership only at the ripe old age of 75. Until then, the renowned racing writer Geoffrey Gilbey noted that Churchill had had "little interest or knowledge of the game". That was soon to change.
Churchill's racehorses quickly made an impact, initially through the battling grey, Colonist II, and subsequently by the top-class exploits of High Hat and Vienna, the latter a live contender for the 1960 Derby until he was injured when being shod for the race.
One of the book's many strengths is the way it brings events a century and more distant so vividly to life. This has always been Scott's forte; as always, his gift for storytelling remains captivating in the extreme.
So good you'll want to form your own book club
Queens of the Turf (edited by Andrew Pennington)
£18.99, published by Racing Post Books – racingpost.com/shop
At one time I aspired to joining a book club. I actually did just about join one. Then came the group email saying that the first meeting had been postponed because no one had yet read the book.
So I’m cured of that one. Except that I’m not really cured. Granted, I no longer wish to join a book club. But it’s actually worse than that. I now want to start one.
The catalyst for this is Queens of the Turf, which is a gem, a lovely book which is as beautifully illustrated and designed as it is passionately written. Quite simply, it is too good to enjoy by oneself. Like Quality Street, this book – featuring a series of excellent essays by the Post's best writers – is made for sharing.
We have read most of these essays already. But they are just as good second time round – and will be just as good third time round. However, they will really come into their own when used as catalysts for debate. It will be fun to agree with the relative assessments, and even more fun to disagree. How on earth did Pebbles find herself at number two? Why did neither Sceptre nor Ruffian make the Top Ten? How did Kincsem (a perfectly justifiable number one) not even make the Top 25? Where’s ‘The Flying Filly’, Mumtaz Mahal? Where are Corrida, Go For Wand, Winning Colors, Sunline, Light Fingers and Gladness?
Few, though, could quibble with the choice of number one: Pretty Polly, regarded by many as both the greatest filly and the most influential broodmare of the 20th century. What an afternoon it was, as Randall reminds us in Sceptre’s chapter, when she and Sceptre (who ran in all the Classics in 1902 and won four of them) won consecutive races (the Criterion Stakes and the Limekiln Stakes) at Newmarket on October 27, 1903.
We will all have our different favourites, and our own ideas of the most notable omissions. The resultant never-ending debates which this book (which also has a foreword by Lester Piggott) will spawn will ensure that its appeal never fades.
I’ll treasure my copy, and will keep it on the same shelf as Great Racehorses of the World, by Roger Mortimer and Peter Willett, and its inevitable and inevitably named sequel More Great Racehorses of the World. Praise doesn’t come any higher than that.
Enjoyable journey told with passion and professionalism
Postcards from the World of Horse Racing by Nicholas Godfrey
£18.99 (hardback), published by Pitch – racingpost.com/shop (and pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop)
Wish you were here? That's what the postcards say. Wish you were at Waregem races, Champ de Mars or San Sebastian, wish you were standing where the surf meets the turf, or where the athletics meets the synthetics? Turn the pages of this hugely enjoyable book and you're there.
Nicholas Godfrey, upon whom the wanderlust has an iron grip, who would have taken both the paths that diverged in that yellow wood of Robert Frost's and chronicled them accordingly, has parlayed his pleasure into a series of dispatches from racing's front line and also from its backwaters, a guided tour of grandstands both gleaming and grotty from rainy Randwick to sunny San Isidro.
Godfrey's prize-winning prowess as a racing writer ensures that the sport is covered with a professional eye while his passion for life on the road satisfies the appetite for local flavour.
In some countries we learn a little more about the place itself and in others we concentrate more on the racing, the author's light touch bringing out the best in both. We learn not to bother Christophe Soumillon in Tokyo, we find out about the Polish equivalent of Peaky Blinders, we're warned about the overround in Istanbul. Derek Thompson, as you'd expect, pops up here, there and everywhere, but Hayley Turner has his measure.
Every racecourse has a guide on how to get there, ideas for something to do on non-racedays, all the little details necessary for a successful trip. Now and again, though, Godfrey pushes the travel advice to one side and revels in the glory of the destination, with his delight in the sport itself never better exemplified than through his account of watching the great mare Zenyatta win at Del Mar.
There is something here for everyone, whether your passion is for the anticipatory thrill of the airport departure lounge or the heady buzz of the grandstand steps, or, more likely, for both and for everything in between. Godfrey the genial guide shows you the way – so what are you waiting for?
Delicious anecdotes from 50 years in the tabloid hotseat
Moments in the Sun: Tales from the Punter's Pal by Claude Duval
£20 (hardback), published by Racing Post – racingpost.com/shop
A memoir that is not so much about the author – the Sun's longstanding racing correspondent Claude Duval, who retired in 2016 after 47 years – but about the men, women and horses with whom he dealt during nearly half a century in journalism.
With most of the chapters updated specially for the book, it has a fresh, crisp feel to it and makes fascinating reading, though perhaps you need to be a year or two older than 40 in order to remember many of the former Punter's Pal's featured subjects.
It is often hilarious, right from the first chapter that recalls the tragicomic story of Blackwater Bridge and the 1982 Grand National. The race was sponsored by the Sun, and Duval's brief from his notoriously mercurial editor Kelvin MacKenzie was to buy a horse to win the race. The paper then held a telephone competition so that one of the paper's readers would own the horse for the day.
Blackwater Bridge, affectionately known as 'Blackie', was the horse duly acquired. Let's just say things didn't go as planned, despite the horse being sent to Aintree king Ginger McCain. McKenzie's final words on the subject to the hapless Duval? "Save a bullet for your f***ing self!" By then, Duval was an integral part of the paper's racing team and managed to keep the job he had begun in 1969, soon after joining the newly launched paper as a sports sub-editor seemingly on account of his ability as an off-break bowler.
The young Duval quickly realised there was an opening for a writer and his sports editor, bored of his continually putting himself forward, told him: "Get an interview with someone who has never been interviewed before and the job is yours."
He stayed there a long time – read all about it, as they say, in the pages of this highly readable and entertaining book.
Say what you like but he's certainly not boring
Harry Findlay: Gambling For Life by Neil Harman
£16.99 (hardback), published by Trinity Sport Media – racingpost.com/shop
Harry Findlay has not lived a boring life. The book telling the story of that life is not boring, either.
Consider the time when during a 72-hour leave break from Highpoint Prison, Findlay agreed to organise bringing some drugs back to the jail. He drove with his mother to a wine bar "to pick up the gear", after which they carried on to a branch of Little Chef, where Mrs Findlay inserted the pills into her son's bottom. It seems an unlikely tale but much of what you read in Gambling For Life seems unlikely – so unlikely it has to be true.
Findlay, described in the book – penned by sportswriter Neil Harman but with masses of quotes from the subject – as having achieved "legendary status" in the punting fraternity, has won fortunes and lost fortunes. He has been in trouble with the law, warned off by the racing authorities – before having his six-month ban overturned – owned an outstanding racehorse (Denman), owned an outstanding greyhound (Big Fella Thanks) and had his picture taken with Martina Navratilova.
The disqualification represents an occasion when Findlay felt he had been wronged, justifiably so. There are also times when Findlay has been in the wrong. You sense, however, he fails to properly see that.
As a young man he served nearly a year in jail for credit card fraud. He tells us about once going out for dinner with a group of friends, who each wanted to pay their share by cash. He took the notes and settled the entire bill with a dodgy card. He says: "I realised I'd just been paid over £500 to eat and drink the best food and wine I'd had in my life."
On the cause of his conviction, he admits he had "no qualms" as he hated banks. Such anecdotes arguably make it hard to see Findlay as an heroic figure, something it feels like the book is trying to achieve. This is, therefore, not a perfect biography but nor has Findlay lived a perfect life. It is, however, a fascinating window into the sort of world few inhabit.
Absorbing account reveals one of the great eccentrics
Dorothy Paget: The Eccentric Queen of the Sport of Kings by Graham Sharpe & Declan Colley
£20 (hardback), published by Racing Post – racingpost.com/shop
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, Graham 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 worked directly for her or were associated with her. The twin authors have covered their subject in absorbing detail and themselves in great credit.
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, her most successful trainer, 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.
Mysteries remain, even after this thoroughly researched and immensely entertaining account.
Masterly account of jockey unfairly in Archer's shadow
The Demon – The Life of George Fordham by Michael Tanner
£15.95 (paperback), published by AuthorHouse – authorhouse.co.uk
Posterity has decided that Fred Archer was the greatest jockey of the 19th century – the most successful, the most charismatic, the most famous, the most celebrated.
Yet posterity can be wrong, and George Fordham’s claims to supremacy are convincingly argued in Michael Tanner’s excellent 400-page biography of this underappreciated paragon.
Fordham won more jockeys’ championships than Archer (14-13), rode seven 1,000 Guineas winners (still a record), and scored 2,587 victories, which made him the world’s winningmost jockey on his retirement in 1884 and still ranks him in the top ten Flat jockeys of all time in Britain.
Fordham was born into a poor family in Cambridge in 1837 and had little education, but soon rose to the top as a jockey. That was thanks not only to his riding ability but also to his scrupulous honesty, which made him unusual in a sport emerging from an era of corruption and scandal.
He won his 14 titles in 17 years (1855-71) and remained at the top of his profession for the rest of his career apart from a two-year temporary retirement. The rich tapestry of 19th century racing is powerfully evoked here, as is his rivalry with the legendary Archer, who was 20 years younger and stole much of his thunder. He enjoyed tormenting Archer with his ‘kid’, especially in the matches that were the staple of racing at Newmarket, where he knew every blade of grass.
Archer’s statistical dominance, especially in the Derby, and his tragic suicide have caused most historians to prefer him, but this biography comes down firmly in favour of Fordham as the greatest jockey of his time. The author again proves himself a master of scholarly historical research, and he gives copious quotes from leading owners, trainers and jockeys who regularly saw both champions in action and considered that, overall, Fordham was superior. Read this book and judge for yourself.
Love letter by two authors with different perspectives
Sixty Years of Jump Racing – From Arkle to McCoy by Robin Oakley with Edward Gillespie
£25 (hardback), published by Bloomsbury – racingpost.com/shop
A book about jump racing is not a new concept. This particular book on jump racing does, however, feel different. It also feels better than many of those that have gone before. It is a very fine book indeed. For a start, it has a clear beginning, with the sport intentionally tackled from the 1960s, on the basis that so much happened and changed in that decade, not least Arkle and the legalisation of betting shops.
From that neat starting point, the near 300-page volume progresses in an informative and entertaining way. What we have, in some ways, is a love letter to a sport the two authors adore. This should come as no surprise.
Robin Oakley, responsible for most of the words, has written a racing column in The Spectator since 1995, while Edward Gillespie, as Cheltenham’s managing director for an extraordinary 32 years, became arguably the most successful impresario in modern racing history.
While books of this nature often sit on shelves without ever being opened, this is highly readable, not least because some of the content is based on extensive interviews carried out during the research period. These give a book enhanced by some glorious photographs more impact and pace than might otherwise have been possible.
Also effective is a structure that begins with chapters on the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle before moving on to less predictable sections focusing on varied matters such as the life of a jockey, betting on racing and the sport’s wider funding. Also to be welcomed is that the authors express views and opinions. It is far from just a reference work.
In the section on the Grand National, Oakley notes the race’s "ups and downs, its triumphs and tragedies, its successes, its blunders and its controversies sometimes seem to be a magnifying mirror in glorious technicolour, reflecting the fortunes of the whole sport".
Look back on a sizzling year of racing in the new edition of the Racing Post Annual, priced at only £12.99, which has 208 colour pages packed with the best stories and pictures of 2017. To buy click here or call 01933 304858