Must-have reads: an unexpected bad boy, vodka, cocaine, kidnap and Olympic gold
Something for everyone in our review of the year's best books
Memorable year wrapped up with delightful words and pictures
Racing Post Annual 2018 (edited by Nick Pulford)
£12.99, published by Racing Post Books – racingpost.com/shop
Although there's plenty worth reading within these pages, the Racing Post Annual is worth purchasing for the photographs alone! Unforgettable moments are captured in a plethora of wonderful pictures sparking memories of the last 12 months both on the Flat and over jumps.
Best of the lot is a dramatic shot of Identity Thief unseating David Mullins and sending him flying through the air in the Irish Arkle. There’s also a stunning shot of the mighty Winx on Altona Beach in Melbourne. Let’s hope next year’s annual is reviewing her tilts at big prizes in the UK in 2018.
The dramatic finish between Marsha and Lady Aurelia in the Nunthorpe is captured perfectly with a shot that makes you feel like you’re standing on the winning line, a dramatic photo matched by words from the incomparable Alastair Down. Richard Hoiles’ iconic commentary comes flooding back: "Frankie punches the air . . . he's sure, I’m not!"
There’s also an incredibly moving close-up black-and-white photograph of the late, great Many Clouds accompanied by appropriate words from Peter Thomas recalling what was far and away the lowest point from our first year broadcasting racing on ITV.
I remember that day so clearly. The atmosphere at Cheltenham was building to a crescendo after a titanic battle between Many Clouds and Thistlecrack, only to be punctured by heartbreak. It was an awful afternoon, salvaged to some degree by the bravery and inspiring words from Oliver Sherwood.
If that was the low, there have been so many highs from what’s been an incredible first year on a long journey with ITV Racing. This annual has reminders of all the great moments at all the big meetings and I found it impossible to read without a big smile on my face.
Champions like Sizing John, Harry Angel, One For Arthur, Richard Johnson, Ulysses, Nicky Henderson et al are celebrated with photographs and stories.
Two features stand out among many: one is that detailing the world-record feat by the 'master' Aidan O’Brien; the other concerns Big Orange. The year of 2017 on the Flat was a year of great warriors and battles – Marsha v Lady Aurelia, Ulysses v Barney Roy and Big Orange v Order Of St George. But, for me, the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot was the race of the year. Two great warriors, proper sporting drama and, crucially, a memorable commentary to match.
The final word, and there is suitable coverage at the start of the annual, goes to Enable. The most dramatic television pictures of the year came at Epsom when Enable caused a storm in the Oaks. I have presented football matches in some great atmospheres around the globe including the World Cup Final at Soccer City in Johannesburg, others at Wembley, Anfield and Old Trafford – but Epsom on Oaks and Derby day was a match for them. It was a cauldron. Wonderful.
Enable’s story is captured well with a cute photograph of her as a two-year-old and then her journey on the racecourse from a low-key debut on Newcastle’s all-weather to global glory in Paris in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Chantilly.
Enable captured the public’s imagination and we all eagerly await her return and potential clashes with stablemate Cracksman, and possibly even Winx.
All in all, a memorable year captured beautifully in the Racing Post Annual.
Warts-and-all account is a compelling read
Form: My Autobiography by Kieren Fallon
£20 (hardback), published by Simon & Schuster – simonandschuster.co.uk (also available at racingpost.com/shop)
Those seeking a key to unlock the mysteries of Kieren Fallon – although, let's face it, the mysteries have long been uncovered through frequent and searching exposure – could do worse than the short statement on page three of this candid and rewarding book, in which he explains: "I have always been comfortable with horses, but I have never been comfortable with myself."
Those few words inform all the rest. Many jockey autobiographies are bland affairs, too focused on the minutiae of races won and lost, the focus rarely straying from the career path.
In Form, Fallon has so much material to work with beyond the straight and narrow that the big wins and career highlights are left to fight for whatever space remains after honest, expansive accounts of his various scandals, a point never better illustrated than in his thoughts after winning the Arc on Dylan Thomas. "For a moment or two I felt like a conquering king in a foreign land," he says. "The next morning I was in the dock at the Old Bailey."
If he has never been comfortable with himself, Fallon is certainly honest with himself, and that lifts Form out of the also-ran clutter of the genre and into the winner's enclosure. Even the casual reader, without a connection to racing and likely unmoved by tales of Classics won, can get their teeth into a narrative of life's ups and downs, of human failing and semi-redemption. Not all of it makes for comfortable reading, but no-one ever put a book aside because of that.
Nothing is left out or swept under the carpet. From the Stuart Webster scrap – 'Reader, I nutted him' – to the Top Cees affair, which gave the beleaguered Fallon his first taste of courtroom drama, through the ignominy of being fired by Henry Cecil, via the sliding-doors moment of Ballinger Ridge all the way to the 'trial of the century' at the Old Bailey, Fallon and his able ghost Oliver Holt give readers what they are looking for.
"Jockeys are human too," advises Fallon in the Ballinger Ridge tale, and the narrative works on that level throughout. It's the account of a flawed individual who happens to be a genius at riding horses, as accessible as human nature itself, not simply the life story of a jockey.
The in-car bottles of vodka and the nosefuls of cocaine are part of the story, of course, but so is the account of Fallon's unconventional upbringing in rural Ireland, where we see how the boy shaped by his environment became the man ill at ease under the pressure of sporting celebrity. Fallon says that he found writing the book a therapeutic experience, and it is easy to see why. He allows Holt to explore his motivations and his limitations, which of course lends the requisite sympathetic slant to the story. His descent into depression and subsequent recalibration is plainly, unaffectedly, portrayed. Nothing is left out.
And, for racing fans, there are the days of Derbys won, of alliances with Aidan O'Brien, Cecil and Sir Michael Stoute, of the behind-closed-doors nature of a jockey's life that endlessly enthrals those on the other side of that door, notably a fascinating exchange with Stephane Pasquier that embodies the jockey-code that binds together this band of brothers.
It is likely that most readers of this book will have a preconceived idea of Fallon, a prejudice gleaned from banner headlines, lurid tabloid stitch-ups, races won and races lost, the gaunt visage looking wearily at the camera as it dogs his footsteps. It is just as likely that, after reading Form, that preconceived idea will have been altered, almost certainly in Fallon's favour.
If it were fiction, it would be a proper page-turner, Dick Francis-esque in its delivery. The reality that this is fact, a life well lived if not always lived well, makes it even more compelling. This piece of Form is strong, solid, difficult to argue with. With Fallon holding the reins, it's a good bet.
Rich fund of big-name anecdotes
£9.99, published by Racing Post Books in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund – racingpost.com/shop
Just as Christmas brings with it too much food and a thrilling King George, so too New Year brings about reflection, looking back over a dozen months and ahead to 12 more. While the future trades on its unpredictability, the past serves the present in myriad ways – to mark the remarkable, teach lessons from failures – or, just to take a comforting meander down memory lane for the sake of it.
Off Track allows us to join 60 racing greats as they do just that, recounting tales both well known and hitherto undisclosed to those beyond the author’s inner circle. Most of us will know of Plaid Maid, National Hunt broodmare extraordinaire, but reading Lady Oaksey wax lyrical about the dam of Coneygree brings her name out of the racecard and into life.
Likewise, it is little surprise Sir Anthony McCoy chose to relive his epic Grand National victory on Don’t Push It, but refocusing the day on a run-in with the police when driving home gives extra insight beyond that now legendary image of AP crossing the finish line, fist clenched, ending 15 years of frustration.
As for the revelations, the anecdotes racing-related and otherwise admitted in these pages, well – let’s just say who knew Paul Nicholls was secretly racing’s bad boy? And Brough Scott’s well-oiled walkover, that is indeed a tale from a bygone era, one just as sure to raise a smile as to never happen again – much like Lester Piggott’s racecourse debut at just 12 years old.
Incidentally, if the past is often viewed through rose-tinted spectacles (or mud-spattered goggles), it is worth noting one or two of the entries can seem a little dated in their attitudes to either women or horses. These aside, Off Track serves as a glorious reminder through the eyes of others as to why racing is such a captivating sport. There is no one reason of course, every fan has their own story – for Geoff Lester it was a huge payday on his first visit to a track, while Sir Mark Prescott found the indestructible nature of the fallen jockey inspirational.
Each to their own of course, and while most of us don’t see being crushed by half a ton of horseflesh so alluring, it is hard not to be inspired by the passion for our sport as professionals old and young sift through the memories of a lifetime consumed by racing.
Add to that a mix of bespoke cartoons by Darren 'Birdie' Bird and vintage photos (Richard Pitman and Terry Biddlecombe drinking champagne in a sauna earns top billing) and you have the perfect companion to while away a few winter nights – while raising proceeds for the Injured Jockeys Fund in the process.
Popular characters return for kids' kidnap caper
The Racehorse Who Disappeared by Clare Balding (illustrations by Tony Ross)
£10.99, published by Penguin – penguin.co.uk (also at racingpost.com/shop)
Last year Clare Balding joined the growing legion of celebrity authors of children's books with The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, in which ten-year-old Charlie Bass accidentally buys a quirky racehorse who, with the help of portly pony pal Percy, overcomes an aversion to galloping and goes on to win the Derby.
Reading the first book is not a requirement when it comes to enjoying this sequel, which sees Noble Warrior taken from the Bass family farm in a Shergar-style kidnapping. A ransom note is discovered and, ignoring the police’s advice to leave the investigation to them, the family set off on a mission to rescue their beloved animal.
The idea of a million-pound demand is swiftly forgotten for some reason and their pursuit takes them to an illegal trap race in Essex, where the travelling community’s inhumane treatment of their horses is pointedly contrasted with the caring, regulated world of horseracing.
It's a straightforward tale that doesn't outstay its welcome, but perhaps it's all resolved a little too quickly – the odd false lead or blind alley along the way would have helped to heighten the tension.
Subplots involve the recovery of Charlie’s best friend Polly from an injury suffered as the kidnappers make their escape and Derby-winning jockey Joe’s dilemma over whether to follow his dream and join top trainer Seamus O’Reilly (Aidan O’Brien by another name) in Ireland.
I read it with my daughter Cara, who at eight would be the perfect target audience (ten-year-old Alex bailed after a chapter and went off to re-read one of his favoured Wimpy Kids). She enjoyed it and there is a lot the book does well.
The story gallops along nicely, with chapters the perfect length for a 20-minute read before bed. A lively cast of characters (Charlie’s squabbling brothers and larger-than-life granny raise smiles) is brought to life by popular illustrator Tony Ross. It is well written and error-free.
For all that, it does just lack that bit of magic needed to lift it above the competition in a crowded market, although I would say the same about the David Walliams books, and it doesn't stop those selling in their squillions.
One does wonder whether such a story would even get published were it not for Balding's household-name cachet. Happily for horseracing and a potential seam of future fans it did, and it's sure to be ending up in plenty of stockings this Christmas.
Standing dish for point-to-point fans
£24.95 (+p&p), published by Paleface publications – paleface-point2point.co.uk (telephone 01202 309489)
Many racing fans may think about point-to-pointing only once or twice a year – normally when trying to interpret who might win the respective Foxhunters' at Cheltenham and Aintree.
But there is much more to the game than those two figurehead races, and that is gloriously illustrated in John Beasley's 192-page annual about all things pointing.
If you don't know your Dingley from your Llwyndu Glais, your Friars Haugh from your Revesby Park, this is the book for you as there are pictures galore from all four quarters of the British Isles highlighting the many and varied venues that stage racing between the flags.
If you thought National Hunt venues under rules had a pleasing variety to them, that is nothing compared to the patchwork of beautiful courses in the amateur form of the game – and what is more, there is probably one near you. You might even meet Luke Harvey if you're lucky.
A month-by-month breakdown of fixtures for the season ahead at the start of the book is followed by a look back at the pointing season just gone, embellished with images that appear to highlight a thriving pointing community. Good crowds, happy jockeys entering the parade ring, triumphant connections – it’s all there, and if anyone was picking up this book for the first time and hadn’t been pointing before, then a flick through this ought to be enough to convince you to give it a go.
And it matters. One of Mick Connaughton’s dark horses to follow, Equus Secretus, has made such rapid progress since winning an open maiden at Dingley in April, that he is now with Ben Pauling, unbeaten in two starts, and has quotes for the Albert Bartlett in March.
How is that Bryony Frost is so good now and making waves in the professional ranks? It’s because she had such a good grounding in the point-to-point sphere. She won the Foxhunter in March, but has since gone on from that to net big Saturday winners for her boss Paul Nicholls. James Bowen and Henry Morshead are but two other names who have done similar things.
It goes to show that point-to-pointing is relevant, it’s diverse and its participants – both human and equine – can vary wildly in age and background, from young maiden winners to old warriors like Gauvain, who first won at Hanover in 2005 but this year completed a pointing hat-trick at the ripe old age of 15.
As a day out you can’t beat a spot of pointing and as an accompaniment this lovely, glossy hardback offering is perfect. Beginner or veteran you can enjoy it, and after a hard day at the office it is the perfect relaxant with its mix of words and pictures.
Showjumping legend in good form
£20, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson – orionbooks.co.uk (also at racingpost.com/shop)
Racing's loss has been showjumping's gain. In this highly readable and engaging account of his life in horses, Nick Skelton reveals that as a youngster his ambition was to become a jump jockey.
He never got the chance. After a visit to the yard of the top showjumping pair of Ted and Liz Edgar seeking their advice to sort out a wayward pony, the young Skelton was offered the chance to work for them in his spare time. He took it up, then joined them full time after leaving school at 15.
Three years later he became the Junior European Champion and so racing went by the board. Well not quite, for it has always retained an enthusiasm and he hasn't missed a Gold Cup day at Cheltenham for more than 50 years, having initially taken the day of school to accompany his father and grandfather who both had a keen racing interest.
Skelton did train a few point-to-point winners and, being friendly with David Nicholson, joined him as an owner by buying the Strong Gale mare Certainly Strong, who won six of her 20 races. She was ridden on many occasions by Adrian Maguire, who years earlier Skelton had fished out of a river after he had fallen while out hunting in Ireland.
His chief claim to fame in the horseracing world, of course, is as the father of the highly successful trainer/jockey partnership of Dan and Harry.
As such, though he is immensely proud of their achievements, in essence this is a book more for showjumping fans, a fast-paced account of the rise to the top of his sport by a man with no academic qualifications and whose career reached new heights when in his 50s.
In an epic four years riding the talented Big Star, Skelton was one of the four members of British Olympic showjumping team who won gold in London in 2012, and then four years later won the individual gold on an emotional afternoon in Rio. He achieved both despite being told that he would never ride again after breaking his back in a horrible fall in 2000.
Although much of the book is about rounds jumped and prizes won or lost at shows all over the world, there is no shortage of humour in a serious sport as the now-retired Skelton includes loads of amusing tales of the pranks the riders got up to outside the ring. It's a thoroughly enjoyable read.
'I'll treasure my copy' – John Berry on Queens Of The Turf. Read about the top 25 fillies and mares of all time for only £18.99. Order now at racingpost.com/shop or call 01933 304858