Tom Vernon’s stale whiskey breath was my inspiration.
You don’t get breath like Tom’s without sitting hunched over six half-pints of John Smiths and nursing a sizeable tumbler of Bells throughout the chilly twilights of long wintry Wiltshire evenings. For fourteen years, he was the head groom at my father’s small stables, Lilac Place, in the market town of Whittingham, three country miles from Salisbury. To say he had a problem with booze would be undermining it somewhat – the man would suck liquor from a dishcloth. But in spite of that, he was a conscientious employee, a sensitive horseman and (when drunk) a fountain of coarse worldly wisdom that naturally enhanced his standing in my impressionable young eyes.
He taught me to ride properly. With difficulty, yes, but he did succeed. When I was twelve, I was interested in Jackie Stewart, Alex Higgins and Fleetwood Mac far more than I was in John Francome, Pat Eddery or ‘the Duke’ Nicholson. It was an effort to get me out of bed and onto a horse before nine, and I would grumble incessantly at the end of the string all the way along the brow of the wooded hill as the sharp white hoar frost, burnished by the weak morning sun, painfully dazzled my sleepy eyes and my mount – invariably a recently-broken two-year-old – would spin and weave like a flamenco dancer, itching to be free of the constraints of saddle, bridle, and novice rider. But when we reached the gallops, suddenly my tetchiness would be submerged beneath the wave of anticipation that flooded my senses and drowned my ill temper. Tom, however, was never in the mood for admiring the scenery. His face as puce as a bell pepper, he would canter along the sides of the gallops on a powerful veteran chestnut hunter, barking hoarse instructions and screaming obscene criticisms of my seat, my hands, my legs, my everything.
I asked Tom, many years later, why he always put me up on a green horse at a time when I had the riding skills of a punch-drunk Johnny Vegas. He smiled ruefully, as if it pained him to admit it. “’Twas an easy choice, lad – no-one else we had was f*****g good enough!”
My father trained hurdlers and flat horses. He was no Vincent, but he sent out six Group One winners between 1971 and 1986, which was quite an achievement seeing as how we lacked wealthy owners and top-class facilities. But we did have a groom called Thomas George Vernon, a man who was an icon in Whittingham, a law unto himself in a small country town where racing and gambling was the passion of the unemployed masses who had nothing to do and all day to do it, thanks to the iron rod of Thatcherite England. Every little tip or piece of information about the stable which Tom chose to dole out to his cronies was reciprocated by various acts of generosity involving alcohol from the men and baking and crocheting from their wives. When Father went to the sales at Ascot or Newmarket or Doncaster, he would lean over the palings and gaze longingly as the blueblood yearlings were paraded by their breeders and inspected by the blueblood agents and trainers clad in tweed and suede. Father, a pessimist by his very nature, would lament his misfortune to be trapped by circumstance in a tiny, impoverished stable with no hope of advancement. It was Tom who pored through the catalogue, who selected the targets which Lilac Place’s meagre purse might actually be able to afford, who viewed the chosen ones and – when Father had given up the search for a champion in despair and sloped off to the bar – who did the bidding. Father never brought me to the sales with him, despite my many tearful pleas to be spared the torture of a dreary autumn afternoon in the freezing classrooms of Whittingham Comprehensive. Mother told me, when I was old enough to understand and when Father was safely dead, that the fear of lowering himself in his son’s eyes by being unable to compete with Cecil or O’Brien or Brittain inhibited Father’s desire to bring me along to the sales with himself and Tom. Not that I cared about viewing and buying young horses any more than I did about riding; rather, I would have shot my own grandmother to get the day off school.
Tom had an intuitive eye. He never selected a horse with inferior conformation or one with a negative attitude. Of the many horses he advised my father to purchase, it would be safe to estimate that at least fifty per cent went on to win at some level. He dealt like a street hawker in the lower reaches of the market, always emerging like a flushed housewife with an irresistible bargain, successfully bearing a colt or filly with little going for it on the page but with action and conformation to die for. Father would attempt to restore his own pride by scoffing unkindly, but Tom would wink and murmur, “wait till we get home, guv’nor.”
But like many another racing stable in the eighties, debt was to prove our bête-noire. One by one the lads were given their notice – usually by Tom, as Father sat in his study staring blankly at a pile of envelopes and gulping cognac from a tea-cup. Tom himself was the last to go, and I remember coming home from school on the afternoon he left and seeing him choking back tears as he shovelled dung from the cobbles under the Edwardian arch which led out to the paddocks. At fifteen, there is little one can say to a man of sixty-five whose dreams of a quiet retirement at a date of his own choosing have been crushed by circumstances outside his control.
Nine years later, when I crouched low on La Rochelle’s withers and scorched up the Rowley Mile to win my first classic by a short head, I remembered my internship at Lilac Place. My father was dead, my mother living with her sister in Carlisle, and I had expected nobody I knew from Whittingham to make the pilgrimage to the Guineas meeting on a sun-kissed May afternoon. But afterwards in the paddock, once I had been interrogated and congratulated by the hacks who flocked around me like crows to a carcass, Tom Vernon materialised at my side, like the ghost of King Hamlet appearing in Gertrude’s chamber, and took my gloved hand in his gnarled paw.
I took a good look at him. He was shorter now, his back bowed by hard years of lifting sacks of meal and mucking out loose-boxes. His hair was whitening rapidly, his skin was pale and mottled, and he had lost at least three teeth and two stone. But he had the glint in his eye that a man with spirit never loses, and he had somehow connived a glass of Bollinger from a passing tray. I gripped his hand warmly, and he scowled. “What have I told you, Jack,” he croaked, with the vestige of a wink, “about riding too f*****g short!?”