It’s just possible that the meteorological records will contradict me, but I’m quite convinced that it never rained when I was growing up. I say that because I was very much an outdoors kid, generally doing something that involved a ball, and I have no recollection of rain ever stopping play.
We certainly had snow, and we welcomed it, because that was when the nearby hilly green field – where, ordinarily, sheep would safely graze – became a pure white mountainside that positively invited the youth of the neighbourhood to defy death by careering down it on home-made, patently unsafe conveyances. Trudging back to the top of that steep incline wasn’t much fun, but it was worth it for the thrill of the next descent. Needless to say, the health and safety spoilsports wouldn’t allow such enjoyment these days.
Now, when I see any of my grandchildren glued to the TV or lounging around playing a computer game, I think of them as creatures from another planet. In my youth it would take something really special to keep me indoors.
I was much more fascinated by the other set, comprising two races at Newmarket in the spring, two at Epsom in the summer, and one at Doncaster in the autumn
So why was it that I hardly left the house between January 2 and 15 in 1962, and how can I now be so certain of that fact? The evidence is incontrovertible, plainly set out in blue and white. I was writing a book.
My school reports faithfully reflected my attributes as a student. I did just enough to get by in the subjects that I could grasp or to some extent held my interest, and I didn’t even try to cope with mathematics, having decided early – and correctly – that I would never need more than basic arithmetic to get me through life quite adequately.
Unfortunately, the subject that I studied most assiduously and enthusiastically did not feature on the school curriculum. It included its own version of the Classics in the Latin and Greek languages, but I was much more fascinated by the other set, comprising two races at Newmarket in the spring, two at Epsom in the summer, and one at Doncaster in the autumn.
A seed had been sown when I purchased the News Chronicle Racing Annual in 1956, and in the years that followed I eagerly lapped up all the information I could find on the history of those five great events, much of it from various items picked up cheaply in second-hand bookshops. It became an obsession.
What I really wanted was something that apparently did not exist. That was a book that provided a ready reference to the results of all five Classics from their inception, listing the first three home, along with owners, trainers, jockeys, starting prices, distances, times, fully indexed, and with sundry other relevant items of interest. As there was no such book, I decided to write the thing myself. In longhand. In biro.
I had a lined hardback notebook with 304 pages, which I calculated, using basic arithmetic, would be enough for the results of all the races run up to the end of 1961 – 153 editions of the 2,000 Guineas, 148 of the 1,000 Guineas, 182 of the Derby, 183 of the Oaks, and 185 of the St Leger. My arithmetic was sound. I had space for all that, plus the detailed indexes, and I could add useful appendices that incorporated data relevant to the races as a series. I even had two pages left for errata and addenda.
I dare say I wore out more than one blue biro before I came to finish my self-imposed task by appending on the title page the dates when I had begun and completed it. Was there ever such a labour of love? It could never be published, it was going to be out of date within a few months, and, mad keen though I was, it was not an exercise I could ever see myself repeating.
If my father had known what I had been doing, he would have said that nobody could ever have wasted a fortnight quite so comprehensively, but he never knew and I didn’t have to justify my action. To my mind it was something that I had to do, it mattered, and I couldn’t have occupied my time more usefully. It was of no consequence if anyone else thought differently.
Of course, I had other sporting passions, and as well as playing football, cricket and tennis, I had become immersed in the history of those pastimes and could quote all sorts of trivia connected with them. (Don’t ask me why, but off the top of my head I can still recite the Blackpool team that won the 1953 Cup Final.)
But racing was more important than all other sports, it had a far longer history, it had mattered for many more generations of fans, and the Classic races did not just represent the peak of attainment within the sport; they had been crucial in the development of the thoroughbred, the man-made English creation that had become the source and foundation of a sport taken up and celebrated all over the globe.
Nations all over the world had paid homage to England’s series of Classic races by establishing their own counterpart events. They recognised the value and significance of what England had instigated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so why wouldn’t I hold the English Classics in reverence and want to celebrate their rich tradition in some way? Was it so odd that a 17-year-old lad who had never been near Newmarket, Epsom or Doncaster should fill two whole weeks with the compilation of data about the most important races contested on those courses?
Well, yes, it would have seemed odd to anyone else who might know about it, but nobody did. It was my private project, carried out for my own use and reference, and I’ve never shown it to anyone. I had forgotten all about it until the other day, when I found it tucked away at the end of a shelf that had long since been in need of some dusting and polishing. Heaven knows when I would last have referred to its contents for some information; maybe the late 1960s.
But I know that penning – literally penning – that book was necessary at the time. I had been obsessed with the history of the Classic races, and of the horses and the horsemen who had been associated with them. I had been collecting the autographs of Classic-winning jockeys and trainers; I had made Fred Archer the subject of my French ‘A’ level essay; and I had passed ‘O’ level History largely because I remembered dates by associating key events with the Derby winner of their year.
What I had sussed, even as a callow, naive teenager, was how the Classic races exemplified the fact that history was not just about the past. These were events which had all flourished for well over a century, they had mattered not just to the breed and its development, but also, each time around, to countless human beings, whether they were professional horse-folk or simply interested parties who followed the sport for whatever reason. And what all that meant – the tradition and the continuity – was that every renewal of these races represented a slice of living history.
I was well aware of that in January 1962, when I was a schoolkid, living in the sticks, with no idea what life had in store for me. But I had a dream. Somehow I had to contrive being on the course at a Classic race, getting to experience living history, to feel a connection with something special that had existed for generations and would exist for further generations, perhaps in perpetuity.
I couldn’t know how not much more than a year ahead, by a colossal fluke, I would land a job that made things possible, and that in just 18 months’ time I would share in my first slice of living history, watching Ragusa win the St Leger. I penned some notes to myself that day about the experience, and I still have them somewhere. They were about having realised an ambition and wanting more of the same.
My magnificent obsession persists, and a personal landmark was reached a month ago when I attended my 250th English Classic. And a day later my 251st. I don’t suppose that constitutes any kind of record, but it does amount to a lot of living history that I have been privileged to witness.