I had a fantastic life in racing – I had just two jobs and in both I was working for and with nice people. Besides the racing I learned so much in terms of general life skills from Fred Winter, Brian Delaney and Richard Pitman, and then I was very lucky again in broadcasting with Highflyer at Channel 4. Everyone who worked for Highflyer, from the boss John Fairley, whose success with Highfield Princess has been so great to follow, to Andrew Franklin, my fellow presenters and all the unsung support team. Every one of them was a quality person you would be happy to spend time with away from racing, and I’m still in touch with a lot of them. I did it for 27 years and I loved it, but when I watch them now standing out in the cold at Wincanton, I don’t miss it at all.
When I stopped riding I did a lot of books, but they were hard work and I absolutely sweated over my first, Born Lucky. With the fiction I had a lot of help from a lad called Tom Shields, and also from others with the editing, but I did all of the plots and racing scenes and quite a bit of the rest, so they were still really hard work. I just wasn’t a gifted writer and that annoyed me. I wouldn’t be fit to fill Alastair Down’s pen with ink.
Staffing is racing’s biggest problem by a mile. In my time staff would work their way up and might go from being a lad to a head lad or a travelling head lad, and so on. Although very few made it as a jockey, they were given responsibility and incentives and they had an interest in the horses and in how the stable was doing. There’s an exceptional system at Andrew Balding’s, but it’s all too rare. Lads there are taught how to conduct themselves, different aspects of riding and stable management and so on. It’s all geared up to furthering their education, and if they are good enough they get opportunities as well. If I had a horse in training, I’d want to know who was going to be riding it every day. Most lads just sit on a horse and then bring it back in again. They don’t teach them anything. I’m sure there’s still a nucleus of good lads who enjoy their jobs and give it their all, but it’s not what it was.
I don’t think we’ll ever stop the growing trend towards super stables of 200 and more. It’s a shame it’s become so tough for so many of the smaller operations, but you can’t stop people from running successful businesses and nor should you try to. The bigger stables won’t be right for every owner, and perhaps some horses slip through the net and get lost, but they attract the better riders, which is a big plus.
I’m afraid the current crop of riders are pretty moderate as a whole, although there are exceptions. Last back-end I watched six lads at Sandown all go round the first bend with their whip in the wrong hand, and one of them ran out. Very few know how to ride properly, and I can’t count the number of times I see jockeys let their rivals up the inside, which in my day was unforgivable. There’s a handful now that can ride, but a lot just go through the motions. Harry Cobden, Charlie Deutsch, Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore are what I’d call proper riders, and you could add Brendan Powell, Gavin Sheehan, James Davies, Kielan Woods and Harry Bannister to that list. There are more good riders in Ireland where so many learn through hunting. I think pony racing is part of the problem here, as kids balance on the reins and then get run away with by ponies that are too strong for them. Once you go down that road it’s very difficult to change.
Having Harry Cobden on your side is like taking 7lb off a horse’s back and I wouldn’t look further than last year’s winner Bravemansgame in the King George. Harry just lets them get on and jump, and it was just tiredness in the ground that got Bravemansgame beat in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby. He was probably beaten by a decent horse anyway in Gentlemansgame – I was pleased to see Mouse Morris win such a nice race.
I was lucky enough to win the King George twice, on Wayward Lad in 1982 and on Burrough Hill Lad two years later. Wayward Lad won a strong King George, featuring Silver Buck, Little Owl and Night Nurse, but the horse we beat was Fifty Dollars More, owned by Sheikh Ali Abu Khamsin and trained by Fred Winter, so that was particularly sweet. Wayward Lad was also in the race when Burrough Hill Lad won. We were all out to win by a short head from the outsider of the three, Combs Ditch, but the track didn’t suit Burrough Hill Lad, who was a class horse who won a Hennessy with top-weight and a Gold Cup, although unfortunately I wasn’t on him at Cheltenham.
I was President of the Injured Jockeys Fund for a few years, but I’ve stepped back a bit and I’m now what they call a Vice Patron. The IJF does brilliant work, and its importance has been brought into sharp focus by Graham Lee’s accident at Newcastle. To ride 1,000 or so winners over jumps, including in a Grand National, and then have an accident like that leaving the stalls in a Flat race just underlines the fact that you never know what’s around the corner – in life in general but in a sport like racing in particular.
Every sport in the country looks up to racing in terms of how we deal with injured sportsmen. Besides the three main amenities – Oaksey House, Jack Berry House and Sir Peter O’Sullevan House – there’s now also a smaller facility in Taunton, and the almoners work tirelessly up and down the country supporting those with long-term needs and also some who have simply fallen on hard times. There is always a spike in donations when a jockey is badly injured, but the lead up to Christmas is traditionally a vital time for fund raising and I’d encourage everyone to have a look online at the wide range of Christmas cards, calendars and gifts available.