The Winners 2004 Under 26 Runner-up

The pink slips were my drawing paper. They were plentiful, and I liked the colour. I would never use the lined side, as it obscured my pictures of rockets and dragons. It never mattered that someone always wrote words on this side before the paper came to me. That side did not interest me.

Later I began to notice the words. Double Trigger, I pronounced slowly, running my finger under each letter. Interesting words. Words that held a promise of power, and sparked the imagination like lines from a magic spell. Some were too exotic for my young tongue, like Ile de Bourbon and Shadeed. Others were mystical and mysterious, like Golden Fleece. One word I became familiar with: Shergar.

As I grew older I stopped colouring the pink sheets, my crayons spread wide across the kitchen bench. But I would still see them, in pieces in the bin, or pulled from the pocket of jeans by my Ma before washing. When I helped her sort clothes into colours, I would see her brow crease for an instant when her fingers found what they always sought. And without a glance they were in the bin, no longer saved for little artists.

It was 1981. I was three years old. And I understood with an adults' clarity that there was tension between my parents. My Ma washed my hair with a vengeance. My Father took his boots off at the door without being told. He began to fix the rotting front window, but there was no adulation from my Ma. Instead she scrubbed and cooked, and bashed pots and pans as she went.

I wasn't in the dark for long. Usually I avoided my Father's shed. It was cold and the smell of creosote offended my childish nose. But the day was warm, and as I sat outside dashing my favourite fire engine to imaginary blazes he beckoned me through the open shed window. I remember how the haze of sunlight caught the single pane of dusty glass and shadowed the strong cleft of his chin. His mouth was drawn into silence, but his eyes betrayed his excitement.

I realise now that he needed a companion that day. But as I left my toys and walked through the wooden door he began to rearrange his tools, clattering a hammer, checking the edge of a file by holding it level with his eye. I waited, wondering if he had meant for me to come, surveying a split in a brown leather arm chair where smoky padding protruded. Sunbeams gave spotlight to a thousand flecks of dust, and a fuzzy radio crackled broken voices into the tranquil morning.

It was five minutes before he spoke. He closed a drawer of sand paper and rubbed my tousled hair. "It's the Epsom, son", he stated, looking directly into my eyes. I blinked. He continued, and I was relieved that he did not ask if I had understood. "I've got five pounds on Shergar. Don't tell your mother". With this he turned away and checked his watch. Then with a quick glance towards the house he tuned the radio, until the voices became clear, barking out numbers. I picked up words, but could make out nothing more than the contagious fervour of expectation. The one thing I knew was that this was about horses, and that my Dad, as I thought, had bought a horse called Shergar. He wanted it to win. From then on, so did I.

"Starters Hacks", my father muttered. "He'll walk it. With Swinburn on his back he'll walk it". He had left his tools and was sitting back in the big leather chair. In his right hand his fingers folded and unfolded a piece of pink paper. I perched near the radio, not understanding, and not daring to ask. With a final glance at his watch, his huge hand made its way past me, and turned up the faded black radio. The voices had all but ceased. My father shifted to the front of his seat.

They were off. I could feel his excitement as the radio announced they were under way. I had never seen my father so tense, his eyes swinging from the radio to me and back again. I listened hard, willing his horse to triumph, not wishing to see this new excitement met with disappointment.

He took my hand in his fist. With every spellbound moment his feet tapped and his fists pounded rhythmically on his knees, willing Shergar onwards. Tattenham Hill, I hear him whisper through stiff jaws. The radio is barking more names. 'Riberetto leads, followed by Silver Season', it shouts, and my heart is gripped by fear. My father is going to lose. 'They've entered the straight and Shergar starts to move'. My fathers hand tightens and adrenaline pumps through my body. The pink slip is crushed in his other hand, and his movements become bolder, more forceful, as he urges his champion forward. 'Shergar is leaving them standing….', the voice cries, '…he wins by a monumental ten lengths!', the pitch of the voice resounds around the shed, fills it with applause and amazement; my father grabs me from my perch and squashes me to his chest, on his feet and sending tools flying as he dances me around the shed. I am numbed by the minutes of awful tension and the adrenaline that has coursed through my veins for the first time.

At that moment I felt as he must have felt for me a thousand times afterwards during my years at college; the feeling of not understanding, but nevertheless praying with all your heart that the one you love will achieve, will make it through, will not have to face the horror of failure. From that day, those pink slips gained a new power, a magic that has outlasted childhood. The spell of horseracing has never faded, and the memories of its stars are only ever a moment away.