I don’t remember it, but when I was 6 weeks old, I won the Placepot at Ascot’s December jump meeting with a bet taken out in my newly-given name. It is referred to every year on that day, so I am very familiar with the story. At the time, everyone joked that it would be the start of a lifelong love of gambling, and it is true that I do seem to have a rather highly-developed bent towards an, ‘opportunity’. I don’t remember the actual event, but I do wonder if through the telling, it has altered me.
I remember the chilly, winter’s day when a horse my father had a share in won at Kempton. But it’s not his joy with his ‘Saturday horse’ that I think of, it was the heartbreak and shock when my best, pink racing jacket was ruined when one of the other ecstatic owners tripped and threw what felt like a bucket of red wine all over me. I simply couldn’t understand why he’d done it at the time, but now that I am more experienced in Life, I have my suspicions.
I don’t remember it, but I am able to appreciate and marvel at Arkle’s supremacy by what happens to men like my grandfather when they talk about him. Whenever someone dares to suggest that a modern-day horse compares with Arkle, Grandpa has the same expression he wears when Jeremy Corbyn comes on television, and swiftly dismisses the preposterous notion, through disbelieving snorts at the thought of it, like a horse highblowing on its way to the start.
I remember being at Newmarket on that amazing day when Frankel won the 2000 Guineas. From the start, he’d bossed it, and by half way you could hear the building cheers of the enchanted crowd, like the rising roar of an airplane before flight. As the finish loomed, the jockeys far behind Frankel urged on their horses whilst Tom Queally sustained the same stillness he had adopted throughout the race, but lifted his whip in an almost theatrical gesture as if to remind Frankel that although he was alone, he was still racing. My friend and I saw this as a fine excuse for nipping off to our usual, the racecourse tobacco kiosk, where we would stock up on as much chocolate as we could carry!
I do not remember an episode which has reached fairy tale proportions for me, and I am sure will be passed on to my own children. Whenever Grandpa sees the replay, he groans in a heart-wrenching tone that he can’t watch, he can’t watch, which is intriguing as he stares at the television as he says it. The race that caused him to lose his voice, and all faith in the world, was the 1973 Aintree Grand National. After placing a large bet on Crisp months in advance, Grandpa was brimming with confidence when Crisp, despite carrying the largest amount of weight, was dominating the race. He practically cashed in his money when Crisp had acquired a 20 length lead with only two more to jump – there was no hope for any other horse. It was not until the final fence that the gruelling weight Crisp had lumbered round caught up with him, and as he started to gallop up and down on the spot, Red Rum, carrying only a couple of feathers that day according to family folklore, managed to skip past Crisp to win his first oftthree Grand Nationals. Even though I wasn’t there, I can hardly bear to watch the race having seen the heart breaking effect it has on my Grandfather every time it is mentioned.
I remember, far too well, that dreadful year when my parents went gaily off to Cheltenham Festival, leaving we children with a beastly Scottish child-catcher. Each night they would telephone, full of jollity about their marvellous week and with no ears at all for our desperate hissings down the line about our suffering. My little brother would sit behind the old trout in the car, oblivious to her eagle-eye watching him in the mirror, and pretend he was in a boxing match as he threw silent punches at the back of her seat, whilst I would be in agonies of embarrassment, yet feeling that she thoroughly deserved it. As soon as we had struggled through her vile, vegetarian cooking, she would announce triumphantly that it was bedtime, no matter what the clock said. It was almost enough to put me off racing, and March always fills me with dread.
I don’t remember Remittance Man, but I feel that I knew him. I’ve seen beautiful photographs of magnificent leaps in a loo I know well, and I love hearing about Nobby, the sheep who accompanied him everywhere to keep him calm, and the fear that something called Foot and Mouth Disease might claim him. Yes, I feel I knew that marvellous horse, even without meeting him.
I remember meeting Sir Henry Cecil, before he was a sir. I was very small, and he was as tall as a lamp-post, but he held his head over like a snowdrop so that I could hear him. He showed me a magical room where all his owners’ colours were kept on hangers, and other raceday paraphernalia was impeccably stored.
My point is that you do not necessarily have to meet someone, or see something to have an impression, and then a memory which you can savour and relish. You can have read their books, or watched them over the years, or have just been told about them from people who knew them first hand. So many wonderful stories abound from the world of racing in this way. I did not meet Martin Wills, but I, along with many others, will certainly remember him.