Lord Oaksey – From ‘Horses and Heroes’
He was not nearly so cuddly back then. He was friendly but tough with a very direct intelligence. He had a lawyer’s voice but a boxer’s handshake and there was a sense of challenge about him. John Oaksey was one of us, but a man apart.
He could not help it. When I first rode against him, in Epsom’s Moet and Chandon Silver Magnum which he won on Thames Trader in August 1963, he was already a unique figure not just in racing but in sport. For he was both a big-time player, he had won both the Whitbread and the Hennessy on Taxidermist in 1958, and the finest chronicler his game had ever had. And in April of 1963 he and Carrickbeg had become one of the most epic losers in Grand National history.
By then I would have read every word he ever wrote. Three or four times a week he would file piece, often deprecating his own exploits, in the Daily Telegraph. Every weekend he would pen a full 3,000 word essay ranging over all the issues of the day in the Horse and Hound. There has been nothing like it before or since. It was elegant, informed, clear, humorous, forceful and unbelievably evocative. For me, who knew John only from afar, it was in every sense an inspiration.
The 1963 Grand National was its apogee. From the page we knew all about John taking a half share in Carrickbeg, of them being third in the Leopardstown Chase and then John being unseated at Cheltenham, of his own and the stable’s excitement as Aintree closed in. But what happened on the screen was as bitter sweet a masterpiece as broadcasting has ever produced. Beforehand the BBC took us on a low level helicopter circuit of the course over which John did a brilliantly eloquent, oratorical commentary ending with the lines “the final dregs of stamina are draining fast for horse and man alike, a hundred yards to go and perhaps another’s head appears at his knee.” In the race the words came true and within minutes of the race they were being brillantly reassembled for The Sunday Telegraph.
“It still seemed possible,” wrote John about Carrickbeg 50 yards from the winning post in the greatest, ‘live’, participatory report ever filed from a major event, “but then, like Nemesis, the worst sight I ever expect to see on a racecourse. Ayala’s head appeared at my knee.” Those words still chime now. Imagine how they rang for an awestruck young amateur as he changed opposite this short, hairy-chested but bald headed figure opposite?
The head always struck you. It was almost over large, like “The Mekon” in the” Dan Dare” comic strip. It had been bald from his early twenties and I remember the surprise when Mr J Lawrence appeared hairless as well as hatless to receive his trophy for winning the Whitbread Gold Cup in April 1958 just a month after his 29th birthday. It made him seem older and more solemn than he was. Anyway you don’t cuddle a competitor.
In fact his success in the saddle was much more down to competitiveness than class. There were many more stylish riders than him; smoother through a race, stronger in a finish. But he was calculating, unhealthily brave, and he was a winner. Somewhere I have a picture of us jumping the last fence in the 1966 Horse and Hound Cup together. There is no question that I look the sharper, tidier, more professional of the pair. But he won it – and has been reminding me of it ever since.
It was his limitations as a rider that made him such a wondrous ambassador for the game. Not for him the seemingly effortless, stylish mastery of a Mould or a Francome. John had to work at it and no one ever treasured his moments in the saddle more. He became very good at it but remained an amateur in its original, Roman “ ‘amo’ – to love” translation. He adored the game and all that was in it, and, being John, never lost a sense of gratitude for the privilege of being there.
He was like that in life. He may have been brought up to country house life and Eton, Oxford and Yale, but he and his family had a conscience. He, rightly, takes great proud in creating the Injured Jockeys Fund, but he also found it the absolutely natural thing to do. Tim Brookshaw and Paddy Farrell had been paralysed. There was no proper insurance or support system. Something had to be done. He may have been as busy as any media person but for 25 years he found time every month to sit on The Bench at Malmesbury Magistrates Court. Why not? He was his father’s son.
Of all the conversations I have had with John, the most fascinating was the first time he told me the full story of the 1946 summer holidays he spent watching his father carry out the most important judicial role in history – Presiding Judge at the Nuremberg Trials. We were running round Battersea Park in preparation for doing the London Marathon together. As we jogged the middle aged broadcaster melded back into the 17 year old schoolboy watching in awe as his father looked over the dock at Goering, and Doenitz and Hesse and the rest of the Nazi High Command. To say that this put our own efforts into perspective would be something of an understatement.
But a realisation of duty never should detract from a sense of fun. As a companion John Oaksey was classic class. As riders we knocked around together quite a bit and even had a trip to ride in Milan which included disgruntled punters trying to burn down the weighing room and the diminutive Frankie Durr stealing the tallest and sexiest bird from right under our noses in the night club. As part of the ITV and then Channel 4 team we were at times almost joined at the hip, and long journeys north would be lightened by his fund of stories not to mention great chunks of Shakespeare, Tennyson and PG Wodehouse.
Boredom and inactivity were never allowed. Just in case the delights of televising Redcar might begin to pall, John arranged for us to do the Lykewake Walk, 44 miles across the North Yorkshire moors, the day before. Our party on that first occasion was a typically eclectic Oaksey mix; Tim Richards and me from the hack pack, drama director Mike Stroud from London and the Duke of Devonshire from Chatsworth. Two years later we did it overnight between broadcasts. Next day, the credits closed with a famous shot of John’s dog Jacko giving an enormous yawn. It was not the only one.
He didn’t actually enjoy doing television that much, finding it a strain to haggle through the endlessly muddling details of form and preferring public speaking to the false intimacy of the screen. He tolerated our leg-pulling but probably stayed on a bit too long, sometimes allowing himself to be openly patronized as an old buffer by people unworthy of cleaning his boots in his prime.
Yet then as now, it was a measure of the man that he would not stand on ceremony. In Tenerife this month he was at his happiest sitting in the midst of our assorted bunch of battered old heroes. Not too many of them had been to Yale but they were part of his racing family and would always remain so. The 78 year old with the shepherds’ crook and the shuffling gait was a fair way removed from the achieving superstar of that first day at Epsom. But no one has contributed so much in between.
Mind you the “Black Dog” of depression has tried to get through the door once or twice. John had a feeling that his very evident gifts were being wasted on trivia, that his speech making ability might be harnessed to a greater cause, that his love and mastery of words might be challenged in wider fields. The break-up of his marriage was a very painful time as was his battle with his recent memory loss. When he first began to feel it slipping, he was very much into “rage against the dying of the light.” But his family’s forbearance and his own sense of the absurd has won through to where he can again look on and laugh.
He has, of course, been sorely tested by a few of us. One spring day in the 80’s he rang up and said we should go to Ireland to watch some Classic Trial. It seemed a good enough wheeze and we duly flew to Dublin, hired a car at the airport and hared off to The Curragh to enjoy proceedings. So far so good. It was on the return journey that things began to deteriorate.
John’s complexion has always been on the yellow side ever since he lost his spleen in a terrible fall at Folkestone. But soon after Newbridge he began to go green. “Brougho,” he croaked(no one else ever called me that), “you had better stop the car.” Hopes that the serious puking session which followed would be the end of things were dashed when he began to thrash around on his seat and by the time we had re-routed to a hospital in Dublin he was literally writhing about on the floor.
It was the agony of a kidney stone which was soon relieved by the surgeons only for John to face a humiliation of another kind. He had a very nice if rabidly anti foxhunting nurse who later in the afternoon allowed me to push my head through the curtains. “Lord Oaksey” she said, “your son is here.”
John harrumphed with horror at this insult to his age and family. I could wish for no greater compliment.