HORSE AND HOUND
NOT AS GOOD AS THE OLD DAYS
Don’t ever let them tell you things were better back then. Most certainly not in 1963, when the whole country was gripped by frost and snow from Boxing Day until early March, all racing was cancelled, the only hunting was on foot, and the main way to exercise horses was to make a ring of soiled straw in the frozen paddock and trot round hoping that the ever fresher creatures beneath you would not buck away into the snow which was sheet ice underneath.
Standing at a brutally cold but fully functional Warwick racecourse on Saturday there were a lot of other things way better than 1963, the year I set off on my own career as a jockey. For the race goer there was a surprisingly large, warm and efficient grandstand and, just a space age dream in the old days, a big screen TV in front of it so you could actually see what happened when the runners disappeared at the back of the hill. For the horses, there were luminous take off boards to help them jump and plastic rails if disaster struck. For jockeys there was a weighing room with more than one loo (my proudest contribution when jockeys rep) and an ambulance service of almost F1 support. And for all of us, the clothing was much better.
Ah yes the clothing. In 1963 one had never heard of Goretex, of riding boots that didn’t leave your feet as blocks of ice, or of gloves that were only even money against frost bite. Package holidays had not yet enfranchised the Alps and the subsequent mass marketing of skiing kit. Not all the stable lads trotting round at Newmarket last weekend will be en route to Val d’Isere but every one of them will have at least one piece of clothing whose improvement stems from the ski slopes. Their situation, however imperfect, would have been infinitely superior to the flat caps and shivering woollens of the 16 apprentices who were on strike at the start of the big freeze up 50 years ago.
Knowledge has been the thing and that applies to a lot more than better kit although it is a remaining personal sadness that the huge improvements the racing world has made with better helmets for head injuries are still ignored by the flat-earther traditionalist of the hunting field pictured all across this magazine. The jockeys walking out to ride at Warwick may have been collectively much taller and therefore more weight challenged than my day but they are far fitter, far more nutritionally aware and, frankly, much more skilful than we were.
Of course we are not talking about the Fred Winters, Stan Mellors and Terry Biddlecombes who were the stars of 1963. Their horsemanship, determination and flair would have made them giants in any era just as George Best and Pele would have matched Ronaldo and Lionel Messi today. But today’s jockeys are far closer to their horses than back then when we marvelled at Johnny Haine because he didn’t slip his reins.
Nowadays nobody slips his reins over a jump except in extremis and I don’t believe they get unseated any more often than we did with our more upright style. Nobody better typifies the mature orthodoxy of the current method than Noel Fehily and the ride he gave little Pete The Feat over the 20 fences of the Betfred Classic was a perfect example. His body and arms moved with the flow of the leap, the stirrup iron not rammed through to the ankle but on the ball of the foot, the whole movement more fluent for horse and rider than I promise you it was in yesteryear.
If you think there is an edge to the thoughts above you are absolutely right. For to stand there last week was to remember another cold and gloomy Saturday at Warwick, a big, brave but clumsy horse called Bonnie Highlander in front with just the last two to clear. He didn’t. I went to Warwick hospital and another life. In the ambulance the best they could do for the pain was a piece of wood between the teeth. The guy in the next door cubicle didn’t make it at all. Fifty years from the freeze up, my biggest thought has to be – gratitude.