“What was he like as a father?”
The question snapped me out of my own head, a place I had been in for the duration of the meeting. The meeting for my father’s obituary.
What was my Dad like? I could say challenging, driven, ambitious for me. But that was what everyone expected, that was his outwardly appearance, how others viewed him. Only I knew him, the real him.
“There’s one memory. It shows who he really was. Who he was with me.” My voice sounded so far away. I hadn’t used it in a while, not since his death.
“I must have only been about five or six...” I go back 15 years.
It would have been a cold winter day, for I remember staring up at a vast array of tartan scarves, woolly hats and leather gloves whilst being surrounded by numerous pairs of solid boots. We were on holiday in Yorkshire, but during the late 1990s when Dad was just starting up as a racecourse bookmaker this meant nothing; if there was a meeting to go to we were there.
I’d always loved racing. I learnt my numbers watching the horses on TV, with Dad teaching me about the betting; the odds, handicaps, how different jockeys could affect the price. Maths was always my favourite subject, probably because it was his too. Plus, the allure of winning money, or anything for that matter, even at that age, was so appealing.
I watched flat racing, loved Frankie Dettori with his flying dismounts, but always preferred the jumps. It’s grittier you see, more errors can be made, there’s a greater risk of harm. It was always about the thrill, the excitement, the risk, even at that age.
On this day at the races, as with any other, the racecourse smell embraced me. That vivid aroma of horse sweat, horse polish, just plain horse really. I loved it. But there was one horse who stood out to me, who’d always been my favourite. To be honest, it was a bit of a predictable choice for a young girl, a grey.
“One Man.” The name comes readily to my tongue.
He maybe wasn’t the really obvious choice, that would have been Desert Orchid, but he came to the fore of the sport when I was born and I loved him, was in awe of him. The first few years of my life were spent cheering him on, until he had to be put down in 1998.
Dad told me what happened, he was always straight with me and explained the issue of life and death, that sometimes accidents happen in our glorious sport, that horses don’t always get up after they fall.
I thought One Man would never grace my screen again, thought I’d seen him for the last time, but at that northern jumps track there was a video stall and at my low eye level I did see the horse I’d worshipped. He was immortalised in a plastic case.
I shook Dad’s coat and showed it to him, enquiring with my crooked smile. He looked down at me, put a hand on my shoulder and said that I could have it if I earned it, if I picked a winner and he had a successful day. The video was placed back on the shelf.
We left the stall to go to the betting ring to set the stand up. Here was another world where bantering male voices dominated the air, dotted with words I only later discovered the meaning of. This was the bookies’ world. I “helped” Dad unpack the boxes before Mum decided he needed some space to concentrate.
She took me to the paddock to pick the winner I so desperately needed for the video, perched me on the wooden stall to peer over the tweed caps. This was one of the best parts of racing, seeing these vast specimens up close, the rippling muscles swathed in their gleaming coats. I chose a lively looking bay.
It lost. The second horse I picked lost too. And the next.
We went to see Dad. He was having a much better day than me, thankfully. I cheekily asked him if I could have the video, as he was doing so well. He said no, that a deal was a deal. I had to pick a winner.
The next two races were also failures. As we entered the sixth, my last hope, there was only one horse who caught my eye: a grey, obviously. If all my hopes had to go on one horse then I was aptly putting my trust in one that resembled One Man.
He won by a neck, fighting gallantly. I breathed a sigh of relief and ran to the Winner’s Enclosure to cheer him in, my own nose pressed up against the railings. Sweat steamed from his back, nostrils blazed red as he panted heavily before plunging his nose into the bucket of water in front of me. The wonderful smell of racehorse filled me.
I ran to Dad and told him. He picked me up, said he was proud. We went to the video stall and he gave me my prize.
I broke into my toothless grin and hugged his legs.
I looked up for the first time since I began my monologue. “He was generous. He always kept his promises. He would do everything he could for those he loved, just to see us smile.” I told them.
“So do you feel guilty?” My interviewer asked.
“Well what?” I bristled.
“He was killed exercising your point-to-pointer. He was riding on the gallops at his age, for you. Don’t you feel guilty?”
I stared her down. ”No. He took a risk, as he had all his life. He was a gambler. As we both were. He was doing what he loved. He was doing something for me.”