Sixty Years of Jump Racing by Robin Oakley with Edward Gillespie. Published by Bloomsbury £25 Hardback
In our house, even from early childhood certain sporting memories always stood out. The FA Cup final had to be watched from ‘Abide With Me’ to the presentation regardless of who was playing. There had to be silence at 5.00 o’clock every Saturday as the tones of Sports Report faded away and my father sat down to mark his weekly failure to find fame and fortune through his football coupon.
Finally, there was the Grand National, the sporting event where as a family we could compete as one in our inability to spot a winner. The newspaper would be bought early on Saturday morning, and I would spend hours in an almost trance like state trying by mystical osmosis to define which horse would carry the weight of my shilling each way bet to victory.
Somehow we ignored what Oakley freely admits was the controversy of, at that time, a brutal course. Instead we watched transfixed, from the Melling Road to the Canal Turn as horse after horse fell, yet the potentiality of a rank outsider winning, a farmers nag, a 100-1 shot, was still possible; the ultimate underdog, carrying my shilling to victory. The fact that Foinavon managed such a feat in 1967 only served to reinforce such a glorious impossibility.
For the true racing fan ‘Sixty Years of Racing’ will revive a host of memories as it moves through races such as the Gold Cup and the National via famous horses, jockeys and trainers. But even for the ‘one bet a year’ mob there is still much in here to stir memories. Arkle, Desert Orchid, Red Rum, Kauto Star are all names remembered by far more than the committed punter or race goer.
For me Oakley is at his best when he steps outside the anticipated narrative and instead delves into the role of women in racing, the earlier lifestyle of jockeys and their often lowly status (‘Many changing rooms had no showers or even hot water, jockeys would have to change standing on newspaper on cold concrete floors) and the role that Ireland and the Irish have played in racing.
There are those who see all horse racing as unfailingly cruel, particularly jump racing. Yet without wishing to support either side of that debate there is as this book points out, ‘horses whose victories and setbacks tug at the heartstrings, horse who are adopted by the race going public and willed home by those who never had a penny on them’. Oakley does much to celebrate such stars.