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Friday, 14 December, 2018

David Ashforth: hilarious reminiscences from a life in journalism

At the races in December 2013 at Plumpton
1 of 1

First published on January 3, 2011

Whenever I moved, the first thing I did was to find the newsagent that opened earliest and make sure of my copy of The Sporting Life. It was one of life's pleasures, and still is; the early morning walk to the paper shop in the quiet, crisp morning air, opening the paper on a new day's racing, with its endless fascinations. I remember enjoying reading Gus Dalrymple, Jeffrey Bernard, Ron Allen, Tony Morris and Jack Logan, alias Sir David Llewellyn, but mainly, I studied the cards and the form. I never imagined that, one day, I'd write for the paper.

My first article in The Sporting Life appeared on August 10, 1988, under the byline of David Ashworth. Ashworth, Ashford, Ashcroft. It's always been like that. I don't know why. The article was about equine eccentrics and was prompted by Ile de Chypre's startling behaviour in that year's King George V Handicap at Royal Ascot, when, with the race won, he suddenly swerved and unseated Greville Starkey. Nowadays there would have been drama on Betfair but betting exchanges did not exist, nor all-weather racing, and the Racing Post, like television in the smoky betting shops, was only two years old.

At the time, I was working for the National Foundation for Educational Research. Overcome with excitement, I showed the article to a colleague. A couple of weeks later, I asked if she had finished with it. For a few days, she couldn't find it. Then she produced it.

"I'm sorry," she said, "it was on the floor of the rabbit hutch." Judged by the state of it, the rabbit hadn't been impressed, either.

Meeting a lookalike at the races

After that, I went to Newmarket to interview two promising apprentices, Stephen Quane and Darren Biggs. All went well, until I got home and replayed the tape. There was nothing on it. Subsequently, interviewees sometimes asked why I kept checking the tape recorder. That was why.

Two years later, in November 1990, aged 41, thanks to Alastair Down's support, I joined The Sporting Life full-time. Alastair was features editor, looking bustlingly busy in the room he shared with the good-humoured Dave Atkinson, in Orbit House, New Fetter Lane, where the grey metal filing cabinets and piles of papers echoed an earlier age. Alastair wrote a regularly hilarious column for the Weekender while, on the newsdesk, Gary Nutting, Nick Reeves and Mike Cattermole, then Willie Carson's agent, tolerated my shortcomings.

One of the first calls I made was to Gordon Richards, to ask how Full Strength, a promising chaser, was doing. "Not reet well, lad," said Richards. "He broke his neck at Ascot three days ago." Shortly afterwards, someone rang to let us know that Newmarket trainer Tom Waugh had died. I was asked to phone other members of the Waugh dynasty, starting with John. "I understand that Tom Waugh has died," I began. "Died! Good Lord!" said John. "I only saw him the day before yesterday. Good Lord! James will be able to tell you more than I can." So I phoned James Waugh. "Dead! Dead! Tom? Good God! I only saw him yesterday afternoon. You'd better speak to Jack." So I phoned Jack Waugh and told him the bad news. He burst out laughing. "That's bloody amazing," he said, "because Tom walked out of my back door only five minutes ago."

Tom Waugh hadn't died but, exactly a year after I joined The Life, Robert Maxwell, its obnoxious and criminal proprietor, did. It meant that Charles Wilson, the Mirror Group's managing director, had to divert his attention from The Sporting Life to more pressing matters, which was just as well, as Wilson always looked as if he was about to sack someone. Rumour had it that, taking offence at a journalist's continued attachment to a typewriter, Wilson threw it out of the window, possibly without killing anybody. He had a habit of approaching a particular sub-editor and asking: "How are you, Fingertips?" When the sub-editor finally plucked up courage to ask why Wilson called him Fingertips, Wilson replied: "Because that's what you're clinging on to your job by, laddie."

Hard at work in the press room at Newbury

I loved it. I loved the job and the people, the characters and the camaraderie, and the racing - and the betting. In those days, in company with my friend and fellow columnist Ian Carnaby, I bet like a man, which, painfully slowly, taught me the advantages of betting like a mouse. Although the creation of the British Horseracing Board, in 1993, was a major landmark, a bigger one for me was the creation of Sporting Index the previous year. It's a shame spread betting was legal.

There were wonderful writing opportunities, including for the Mirror Group's new American paper, the Racing Times, with Christmas in New York in 1991 and, in 1993, the first of many Breeders' Cups, at Santa Anita, working with Geoff Lester. There were visits to Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai, and many other countries. It was a great job but there were two racing papers in a market arguably big enough for only one. Every day we'd scrutinise our rival and, for a while, competition reached a point where no story was too small to be included. In 1998, the Mirror Group bought the Racing Post and closed The Sporting Life. It was a traumatic time, with people whose life had revolved around either The Life or the Post losing their jobs.

I was one of the lucky ones and, at Canary Wharf, where The Sporting Life had moved in 1994, I worked under an exceptionally able editor in Alan Byrne, in a team with new faces, as well as old ones. With the continued freedom to write both the serious and the silly (not deliberately at the same time), the past 12 years have been as happy and rewarding as the previous eight. Many people have jobs where they long for Friday evening and hate the thought of Monday morning. A racing journalist's job isn't like that. Like other jobs in racing, it's a way of life, often hard work but also fun. Ever since the day I joined The Sporting Life, I've felt at home.

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My first article in The Sporting Life appeared on August 10, 1988, under the byline of David Ashworth
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