We stride out through the glass walls of the Aintree weighing room and walk through the organised chaos that is Grand National day. Down the steps into the parade ring, get the picture and set off to try and find my connections among the shifting crowd.
Finally time is moving along at the right speed again. Tip my cap, shake some hands, smile. It’s all just getting in the way. The bell rings and I set off to find my partner. Jump up into the saddle and walk out under the stand, in between the well-wishers, the punters and the drunks.
The parade goes surprisingly quickly and smoothly, just like a party when you’re enjoying yourself. Gallop down to the first, have a look, turn around and gallop back. Other horses are galloping past me, beside me, against me. The circle moves and drifts, I just try to keep the jockey in the pink silks in my line of sight. My back protector feels a little tight but I find myself cracking a smile. The crowd starts to come to life. The circle is becoming a line, the walk becoming a trot. “Not yet” the microphone tells us. We keep coming. “All right, away you go!”
And we’re off. The crowd is drowned out by the thunder of hooves. We’re away nicely, just tracking the pink silks. Middle of the pack, on the inner middle of the track. Right where I want to be.
We’re rattling along but somehow I thought we’d be going faster. The Melling Road flashes under us. The first fence is rushing to meet us, here we go. A stride comes, Dooney’s takes it and we’re over. Land, look for some space, get into it and aim for a clear spot on the next fence.
Almost immediately we’re over it too. Just on our right a chestnut crumples and splashes along the ground but we whizz past him just before he rolls our way. Luck must be in. It must be how the RAF boys felt when one of their squadron went down. Hope he’s fine but too busy minding my own hide to check.
The ditch appears next, the stride looks long. I sit and let Dooney’s choose. He’s been here, done it, he knows what he’s at. He shortens, lifts quickly, touches down and gallops on. The pink silks take it half way up, there’s an almighty thump, he stays up but drops out of view. I’m a robin without an eagle now.
We’re in the first ten I reckon. The ground seems to fly by, another fence comes straight away, no time to think. We glide over the fourth, meet the fifth in our stride and wing it. Now for Becher’s.
Everything has gone to plan. We’re nicely handy, chasing the leaders, on the inner of the middle and jumping well. Anything could happen now, we’ve as good a chance as any, it’s the National after all. The horse in front of me drifts right, squeezing my space between the other horses. I guide Dooney’s to the left. We’ve a clear view. Stride looks a little long again. Your call Dooney’s. He goes for it, lifts, then doesn’t. Shit. Bang. Mane. Blue, green, arms.
I’m standing up, talking to someone, about something. There’s a field of horses galloping in the distance. I turn around to pick up my stick. There’s a dark horse on the ground, head facing the fence, away from me. Don’t be my horse. Please.
I run around and there’s the white splotch on the forehead. It’s Dooney’s. He looks okay, not in distress. I look at his legs. Nothing broken. Good, good, bloody great actually! He’s only winded. I go and undo the girth. Suddenly we’re surrounded by green. There’s people running in around Dooney’s.
“Sure he’s only winded” I tell them. “Not so sure, son” says the vet “ Look at his tail” It’s loose and floppy. Someone pours a bucket of water over Dooney’s. He lifts his head and moves his front legs. But his back legs don’t move.
The people begin to shout. A rope is slung around his legs. Whistles sound nearby, lots of them. The thunder gets nearer and nearer until the field storms past. A loose horse jumps the fence and misses us by a few feet. People are still shouting. My shoulder is pumping.
I can’t keep a train of thought. Someone hands the vet a small black case. Fuck. I look at Dooney’s quickly and walk down along the fence. Other jockeys are watching the end of the race, I couldn’t care less. Pop. Turn left. Walk. Stupid fucking race. Why Dooney’s? Why me? I’d gone over the race a million times and never thought of this.
Jeeps and buggies offer me lifts. I hear them but don’t see them. “No” I grunt. I can’t say more than one word. That’s it, I’ve had enough of this riding crap. I’m going home. I want the next flight home. I don’t care about the horse in the bumper, let someone else ride him. Ah not Dooney’s. Damn race. He wasn’t some horse I’d swung my leg over a few times. He’s been in the yard six years. I’ve seen him win his bumper. Win his hurdles. Get injured and come back. Seen him win over fences. Seen him fall over fences and get back up. He was my first winner over fences. He was a gent. That’s it, I’m giving up, I’ve no interest in this anymore.
I just keep walking. “You’ve got to keep your chin up” says a voice beside me. A jockey in white and blue silks. “It’s outside the back door” No it’s not. He’s down behind Becher’s. I keep growling the lump out of my throat.
We’re back at the stand, amongst the well- wishers, the punters and the drunks again but I don’t see them. I’m not seeing or thinking anything, just walking and concentrating on left foot, right foot. Everyone is in my way. A reporter asks me for a comment on my race. Are you serious! I don’t have the energy to be angry with him.
Back in through the glass walls into the weighing room. I slam the door open. Didn’t mean that. There’s people everywhere watching replays and discussing the race. I feel sick. I walk through to the smoking area outside the weighing room.
I find a seat. Sit down. Close my eyes. Deep breath in through my nose. Fuck fuck fuck fuck. Dooney’s. Ah fuck. What the hell happened? I don’t know. He didn’t get an inch off the ground. What’s to be gained by going home? It happens. Happens to everyone and everything. Suck it up. He didn’t suffer, he knew nothing about it. There are worse ways to go.
Nothing I do will change what happened. The sooner you get up and get on with things, the easier it is. Go out and win the bumper, take something home from the day. Open my eyes. Breathe out. Stand up. Walk back into the weighing room.