A potted history of modern jump racing and its toughest champions
Champion Jump Horse Racing Jockeys from 1945 to Present Day by Neil Clark, available from the Racing Post shop, £25
"It's one of the real sports that's left to us: a bit of danger and a bit of excitement and the horses, which are the best thing in the world."
This quote from the Queen Mother, which I hadn't previously come across, is used to establish the mood of this book. It sells itself as the first to tell the story of all 22 jump jockeys who have been champion since the second world war.
Two themes dominate: many big-race winners are recalled, naturally enough, but the reader also becomes aware from an early stage of the repeated damage being done to the bodies of these highly successful sportsmen. If we were allowed to amend Her Majesty's words so long after her passing, it would possibly be more accurate to say "a lot of danger".
As early as page nine, we learn that Fred Rimell, described as "quite lucky with falls", broke his neck twice in a year and had to wear a plaster cast "over his head and down to his waist" which reminded Mercy, his wife, of a monster from a TV programme.
Bryan Marshall damaged an eye in a Fontwell fall, so he rode around Cheltenham with an eyepatch the following week and, perhaps unsurprisingly, hit the deck again, sustaining further facial injuries. "The too-careful fellows never get anywhere," he apparently said on his way to A&E.
A story about Jack Dowdeswell is relayed in his words, describing a fall in which "my arm broke off, pulled out and stuck in my ribs". What could that possibly look like? Small wonder the attending medic quietly muttered to another jockey Dowdeswell would never ride again. High on morphine, the champ replied: "I bloody well will!"
Tim Molony rides a winner over the National fences with blood streaming from his face; Fred Winter breaks a leg at the first fence of the first race of the season after he has just become champion; and there is an excruciatingly vivid description of Tim Brookshaw breaking his back.
All of these unbelievably hardy types and their successors would insist such injuries were incidental, a price to be paid for the right to take part in the greatest game, but the sedentary reader does a lot of wincing.
There's a slew of insightful anecdotes along the way, many of which have been told a few times before, while some derive from fresh interviews. Taken altogether, it amounts to a potted history of modern jump racing. Quite a few of the stories allude to the changing attitudes of the times (like Marshall being presented with a gold cigarette case). The question is what constants can be identified among the characteristics of these 22 champions?
The author is Neil Clark, a man I have known since the long-ago days when I worked on Racing & Football Outlook, for which he was one of the regional tipsters. He had an unsexy beat, away from the main training centres, but worked hard at truffling out what winners might be available.
Neil and I wouldn't see eye to eye on every issue outside the racing bubble but what always brings us back on the same page is a shared admiration for tough people on hardy horses. Whenever I call him to mind, he appears wrapped up in several layers, because when we bump into each other it is invariably some bitter day at Warwick or Wincanton when only a true enthusiast would venture outside the bar. If that's you too, you'll enjoy this book.
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