I walked unchallenged to the terrace in front of the weighing room next to the parade ring.

‘Sid Halley!’ I turned with a smile. ‘How’s the sleuthing business?’

Bill Burton, ex-jockey and now a mid-rank racehorse trainer whose waistline was getting bigger rather more quickly than his bank balance.

‘Fine, Bill.’ We shook hands warmly. ‘Keeping me in mischief.’

‘Good, as long as you keep your nose out of my business.’ He said it with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

We had ridden against each other regularly over many seasons and both of us knew that he had never been totally averse to a little extra cash for ensuring that his horse didn’t get to the line first. He would adamantly argue that he would only ‘stop’ those who had no chance anyway, what crime was there in that? I could read in his face, I thought, that he had probably not changed his ways in moving from the saddle to the saddling box.

Shame, I thought. Bill was not a real villain but rumours were beginning to circulate that he was not fully honest either. As always, it was much easier to get such a reputation than to lose it. Bill couldn’t see that he was never going to be the leading trainer as he had hoped, not because he didn’t have the ability but because he would not be sent the best horses by the most knowledgeable of owners.

‘Do you have any runners today?’ I asked.

‘Candlestick in the first and Leaded Light in the fifth. But I wouldn’t risk your shirt on either of them.’

I wasn’t sure whether he was warning me that they might not be trying their best. My doubts saddened me. I liked Bill a lot. We had been good friends and racing adversaries for many years.

He seemed to sense that I was looking deeper into his eyes than was prudent and briskly turned his head away.

‘Sorry, Sid,’ he said in my ear as he pushed past into the weighing room, ‘got to go and find my jockey.’

I stood watching him disappear through the door and then looked up in the paper who his jockey was. Huw Walker. One of the sport’s popular journeymen. He’d never yet made it to number one but had been consistently in the top ten over the past eight or nine years with numerous rides and plenty of winners. Son of a Welsh farmer with, it was said, a fondness for fast women and fast cars in that order. I hadn’t heard that he was ever suspected of ‘pulling’ — horses, that is.

In one of those strange almost supernatural moments, I looked up to find Huw Walker coming towards me.

‘Hello, Huw,’ I said.

‘Hi, Sid. Did you get my message?’ He looked far from his usual cheery self.

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Where did you leave it?’

‘On your answering machine. Last night.’

‘Which number?’

‘A London number.’ He was clearly anxious.

‘Sorry. I’m staying with my father-in-law in Oxfordshire for the Festival.’

‘It doesn’t matter. I can’t talk here. I’ll call you again later.’

‘Use my mobile,’ I said, and gave him the number.

He then rushed off, disappearing into the weighing room.

Even though it was still well over an hour to the first race, it was beginning to be rather crowded on the weighing room terrace, not least because everyone was getting close to the building to protect themselves from the rain that had begun to fall more intensely.

There was the usual mix of officialdom and Press, bloodstock agents and the media, trainers and their jockeys, both present and past. Here the gossip of the week was swapped and dirty jokes were traded like currency. Juicy rumours spread like Asian flu: who was sleeping with whom, and who had been caught doing so by a spouse. Divorce was rampant in the racing business.

I wandered among the throng with my ears open, catching up on events in racingland.

‘Such a shame about that Sandcastle colt,’ said someone in a group over my left shoulder. ‘Didn’t you hear, bought for half a million at Newmarket Sales last October as a yearling, put his foot in a rabbit hole yesterday morning and broke his hock so badly he had to be put down.’

I moved on.

‘Useless jockey, flogged my horse half to death just to get a third place.’ A large duffel-coated trainer, Andrew Woodward, was in full flow in front of a small group. ‘Damn idiot got himself banned for four days. I’ll give him excessive use of the whip on his bloody arse if he does that again.’

His fan club chuckled appreciatively but I believed him. Having once found his teenage daughter canoodling with an apprentice jockey in the feed store, he had held the hapless young man down over a hay bale and thrashed his bare buttocks raw with a riding whip. Some accounts say his daughter got the same treatment. It had cost Woodward a conviction for assault but it had won him respect.

He was a very good trainer but he had a well-deserved reputation as a hater of all jockeys. Some said that it was simple jealousy; he had always been too heavy to be a jockey himself. I had ridden for him a few times and more than once had received the lash of his tongue when results did not pan out as expected. He was not on my Christmas card list.

I drifted over nearer to the steps down to the parade ring where I had spotted someone that I did want to talk to.

‘Sid, my old mucker!’ Paddy O’Fitch was a fellow ex-jockey, shorter than I by an inch or two but a walking encyclopaedia on racing, especially steeplechasing. He spoke with a coarse Belfast accent and revelled in all things Irish, but the truth was that he had been born in Liverpool and christened Harold after the prime minister of the day. The surname on his passport was just Fitch. He had added the O’ while at school. He had apparently never forgiven his parents for emigrating across the Irish Sea to England just two weeks before his birth.

‘Hello, Paddy,’ I said, smiling.

We shook hands, the camaraderie between us as ex-jocks being far greater than that between us when we were competing day by day.

After retiring from the saddle six years before, Paddy had turned his knowledge into a business. He wrote brief but wonderfully entertaining histories of racecourses and races, of racing characters and of great horses, and then sold them as slim booklets in racecourse car parks around the country. The booklets built up into an extensive history of the sport and soon were selling so fast that Paddy had employed staff to do the selling whilst he busied himself with the writing.

He had for years been the keeper of his own unofficial racing archive when, with due reverence from the Jockey Club, the post had been made official and he had been invited to coordinate all the material and documents held in various racing museums around the country. But it was the histories that were his fortune. The slim, cheaply produced black-and-white booklets had given way to glossy colour, a new edition every month. Leather-bound holders for the booklets were a must-buy present for every racing enthusiast each December.

Paddy was a mine of both useful and useless information and, since I had taken up investigating as a career, I had frequently referred to him for some fact or other. In racing terms, Paddy could out-Google Google. He was the best search engine around.

‘What chance do you think Candlestick has in the first?’ I asked him casually.

‘Could win. It depends…’ He stopped.

‘On what?’ I prompted.

‘Whether it’s trying.’ He paused. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘I thought I might have a bet.’ I tried to make it sound normal.

‘Bejesus! Now did ya hear dat!’ He addressed no one in particular. ‘Sid Halley’s having a bet. And pigs may fly, I s’pose.’ He laughed. ‘Now if you told me dat you were having a third eye up ya arse, I might more believe ya.’

‘OK, Paddy, enough,’ I said.

‘Now don’t be telling ya Uncle Paddy lies, Sid. Now, why did ya ask about Candlestick?’

‘What makes you think it may not be trying?’ I asked instead of answering.

‘I didn’t say dat,’ he said. ‘I merely said dat it could win if it was trying.’

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