‘But you must think it may not be, else why say it?’

‘Rumours, rumours, that’s all,’ he said. ‘The grapevine says dat Burton’s horses are not always doing their best.’

It was at this point that the first of the day’s deaths occurred.

At Cheltenham, one end of the parade ring doubles as the winner’s unsaddling enclosure and there is a natural amphitheatre created by a rise in the ground. A semicircular concrete-and-brick stepped viewing area rises up from the rail around the parade ring. Later in the day, this area would be packed with a cheering crowd as the winner of the Gold Cup returned triumphantly to be unsaddled. This early on a wet afternoon a few hardy folk stood under umbrellas watching the comings and goings at the weighing room and waiting for the sports to begin.

‘Help! Help! Somebody help me!’

A middle-aged woman, wearing an opened waxed jacket over a green tweed suit, was screaming from the bottom of the stepped area.

All eyes swivelled in her direction.

She continued to scream. ‘For God’s sake, someone help me!’

Paddy and I ran over to the rail on the inside of the parade ring from where we immediately could see that it was not the woman but the man she was with who was in trouble. He had collapsed and was lying at her feet up against the four-foot high chain-link wire fence that kept the crowd away from the horses. More people had moved to help on her side of the fence and someone was calling for a doctor.

The racecourse doctor, more used here to treating injured jockeys, ran from the weighing room, speaking rapidly into his walkie-talkie.

There is nothing like a medical crisis to bring the great British public to stand and watch. The viewing area was filling fast as two green-clad paramedics came hurrying into the parade ring, carrying large red backpacks. The chain-link fence was in their way so, against the advice of the doctor, an enterprising group lifted the poor man over the top of it. He was laid on the closely mown grass, exactly where the afternoon’s winners would later be.

The doctor and the paramedics set to work but quite soon it became clear that they were fighting a losing battle. The doctor put his mouth over the man’s and breathed into his lungs. What trust, I thought. Would I put my mouth on that of a complete stranger? One of the paramedics took over from the doctor with a blue rubber bag that was connected to a tube down the man’s throat while the other placed defibrillator pads on his chest. The man’s body jerked as the voltage was applied but lay still and lifeless again afterwards.

They went on trying for much longer than I would have expected. They took it in turns to force air into the lungs or compress the chest. Almost half an hour had passed before they began to show signs of giving up. By then an ambulance had driven into the parade ring and a stretcher had been made ready. The man was lifted on to it but it was clearly all over for him. The urgency had fallen away from the medical movements. Another heart attack fatality, just one more statistic.

With the departure of the victim accompanied by his grieving wife, the crowds drifted away to the bars to get out of the rain, tut-tutting about the shame of it and the need to look after our bodies. Sales of crackling at the pork-roast stall didn’t seem to be affected.

I watched the first race from the Owners and Trainers Stand. The Triumph Hurdle is the blue riband event for four-year-old novice hurdlers over a distance of two miles and a furlong. The start was impressive as the twenty- five runners spread right across the course, resembling a cavalry charge to the first flight of hurdles. I found that I was paying particular attention to Huw Walker on Candlestick. The runners were still bunched together as they galloped fast past the grandstand for the first time. The climb to the highest point of the course began to sort them out and there were only half a dozen or so in with a chance as they swung left-handed and down the hill. Candlestick was third going to the second last where the leader got too close to the hurdle, hit the top and fell in a flurry of legs. Huw Walker pulled left to avoid the carnage and kicked Candlestick hard in the ribs.

It was one of those finishes that gives racing a good name. Four horses jumped the final flight abreast and the jockeys almost disappeared in a whirl of arms and whips as they strove to get the final effort from their mounts. There was no question that, this time, Candlestick was trying his best with Huw Walker driving hard for the line. His labours were well rewarded as they flashed past the post to win by a head.

Pleased, I walked back to the paddock to see the horse come back in, only to find that the trainer Bill Burton was looking like thunder. It seemed that a win was not in his game plan. If he’s not careful, I thought, he will confirm to all those watching that the rumours are true.

I leaned on the rail watching Bill Burton and Huw Walker unsaddle the sweating horse. The steam rose in great clouds from the animal’s hindquarters but even this did not hide the animosity between the two men. They seemed oblivious of the thousands around them as they stood toe to toe beside the horse, shouting insults at each other. From where I was standing I couldn’t hear the complete exchange but I clearly caught a few ‘bastards’ as well as some other, less flattering adjectives. The confrontation appeared to be heading towards violence when an official stepped between them and pulled Bill Burton away.

Huw looked in my direction, saw me, shrugged his shoulders, winked and then smiled broadly as he went past me to be weighed.

I was standing there wondering what to make of all that when I was slapped hard on my back. Chris Beecher, mid forties, balding and overweight. A journalist and a pain in the neck — and the back.

‘How’s that fancy hook of yours?’

He didn’t seem to realise that it was one of those questions one shouldn’t ask. Rather like enquiring if that strawberry birthmark on your face goes brown in the sun. Some things were best left alone. But Chris Beecher made his living hurting other people’s feelings. Gossip columnist was his official title. Rumourmonger would have been more accurate. He was responsible for the Diary page in The Pump, a daily and Sunday newspaper that I’d been at odds with some years ago. Half of what he wrote was pure fiction but there was enough truth in the rest that many believed it all. To my sure knowledge he had been the direct cause of two divorces and one attempted suicide during the previous twelve months.

My fancy hook, as he called it, was a highly expensive myo-electric false left hand. What the jagged horseshoe had started had been well and truly finished by a sadistic villain and I was now the proud owner of a state-of-the-art 21st-century hook. In truth, I had learned to do most things one-handed but I tended to wear the false limb as a cosmetic defence against people’s stares.

‘Fully charged and ready for action,’ I said, turning and offering my left hand for a shake.

‘Not bloody likely! You’ll crush my fingers with that thing.’

‘I’m good at picking up eggs,’ I lied. In truth I had broken dozens of the bloody things.

‘I don’t care,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard stories on the grapevine of you hitting people with that and, by all accounts, they stay hit.’

It was true. I’d broken a couple of jaws. No point in fighting clean when I had a ready-made club firmly attached below my left elbow.

‘What do you make of that little exchange between trainer and jockey?’ he asked, with apparent innocence.

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

‘Ah, come off it,’ he said. ‘Everyone must have seen that tiff.’

‘What’s the story, then?’ I asked, equally innocently.

‘Obvious. Walker won when he wasn’t meant to. No stable money on the nose. Bloody fool.’

‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Walker or Burton?’

‘Good question. Both of them, I suppose. I’ll be surprised if the Stewards don’t have them in, or the Jockey Club. Fancy a beer?’

‘Some other time. I promised my father-in-law I’d go and have a drink with him.’

‘Ex-father-in-law,’ he corrected.

‘No secrets on the racecourse, not from you, anyway.’

‘Now you’re really joking. I couldn’t beat a secret out of you if you didn’t want to tell. I’ve heard that on the grapevine, too.’

He had heard too much, I thought.

‘How’s your love life?’ he asked abruptly.

‘None of your business.’

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