clearly a topic much discussed in the past.

‘Charles, take young George here inside and find him a glass of fizz,’ said Lord Enstone. ‘I want to have a word with Sid in private.’

It was clear that young George didn’t actually want to be taken off for a glass of fizz or anything else.

‘Promise I won’t listen,’ he said with a smile, standing his ground.

‘Dead right, you won’t.’ Enstone was losing his cool and with it his cultured RP accent. ‘Jist gan’ in there with Charlie, bonnie lad, I’m askin’, OK?’ Pure Geordie.

A few years previously, I’d also done a check on him for a horse-owning syndicate that he had wanted to join. Jonny Enstone was a builder. He had left school in Newcastle aged sixteen to become an apprentice bricklayer with J. W. Best Ltd, a small local general building company owned by the father of a school friend. Within two years he was running the business and, soon after, he bought out the friend’s father. Expansion was rapid and, under the banner ‘The J. W. Best built house you’ll ever buy’, Best Houses marched north, south and west covering the country with smart little three-and four-bedroomed boxes from Glasgow to Plymouth and beyond. Jonny Enstone had become Sir John, then Lord Enstone but he still had his hands on his business. He was famous for arriving very early one dark morning at a building site some two hundred miles from his home, and personally sacking anyone who was even a minute late at seven o’clock. He then removed the jacket of his pinstripe suit, rolled up the sleeves of his starched white shirt and worked the whole day in place of his fired bricklayer.

‘Now, Sid,’ RP fully restored, ‘I need you to find out something for me.’

‘I’ll try,’ I said.

‘I’ll pay you proper rates. I want you to find out why my horses aren’t winning when they should be.’

It was something I was regularly asked to do. I inwardly sighed. Most owners think their horses should be winning more often than they do. It’s a matter of ‘I paid good brass for the damn thing so why doesn’t it start repaying?’

‘I think,’ he went on, ‘my jockey and trainer are stopping them.’

That was what they all thought.

‘Move them to another trainer.’ I was doing myself out of a commission.

‘It’s not as simple as that, young man. I tell you, my horses are not just not winning when they should, they’re running to orders that aren’t mine. I feel I’m being used and I don’t like it.’ I could suddenly see the real Jonny Enstone beneath the Savile Row exterior: powerful, determined, even dangerous.

‘I’m in racing because I like to win,’ he emphasised the word. ‘It’s not the money that’s important, it’s the winning.’

Why was it, I thought, that it was always those with plenty of it who believed that money was not important. To the hard-up punter, a place bet on a long-priced runner-up was much better than an ultra short-priced winner.

Peter returned with a fresh glass of champagne for his father as a peace offering, their earlier little spat obviously forgiven.

‘Thanks, Peter,’ said Lord Enstone. He took a sip of the golden fluid.

‘Who trains your horses?’ I asked. ‘And who rides them?’

‘Bill Burton and Huw Walker.’

I stayed to watch the Gold Cup from Lord Enstone’s box. The balcony was heaving with bodies pressed up against the front rail as everyone strove to get a view of the supreme challenge for a steeplechaser, three and a quarter miles over 22 fences, all horses carrying the same weight. The winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was a true champion.

I had ridden eight times in this race and I knew all too well the nervous anticipation being experienced by the jockeys as they paraded in front of the packed grandstands. This was one of only two or three really big jump races in the year that put the winning horse and jockey into the history books. For a horse to win this race more than once was the stuff of dreams. Winning it three times put the animal into the legend category.

Oven Cleaner, in spite of his name, was aiming to join the legends.

He was a big grey horse and I watched him canter down to the start with the others. I wondered if I would ever stop being envious of those doing what I still longed to do. I had not been born to the saddle and had never sat on a horse until I was sixteen when my widowed mother, dying herself of kidney cancer, had taken me to be apprenticed to a Newmarket trainer simply because I was very small for my age and I would soon be an orphan. But I had taken to riding like the proverbial duck to water. I found the bond between horse and rider exhilarating, especially when I realised that I could read their minds. When I discovered that they could also read mine, I knew I was part of a winning combination.

And so it had been until it all fell apart. A jockey feels a horse not through his feet in the stirrups nor through his arse on the saddle but through his hands on the reins connecting like power cables to the horse’s mouth, transmitting commands and data in both directions. With only one hand, it was like a battery with only one end. Useless — no circuit, no transmission, no data, no go. At least, no go fast, which is what racehorses and jockeys are supposed to do.

I watched the field of the best steeplechasers in the world gallop past the stands on the first circuit and positively ached to be amongst them. It had been ten years but it felt like only yesterday that I had been.

Oven Cleaner cleaned up. In his trademark manner, he looked to all to have left his run too late but, to a deafening roar from his tens of thousands of faithful supporters, he charged up the hill to win by a whisker.

The crowd went wild, cheering and shouting and even throwing their soggy hats into the air. The big grey nodded his head in approval as he took the applause on the walk to the winner’s unsaddling enclosure. He was a hero and he knew it. Grown men cried with joy and hugged their neighbours whether they knew them or not. The only unhappy faces were the bookies who would lose a fortune. Oven Cleaner was a national icon, and housewives had bet the housekeeping and children had loaded their pocket money on his nose. ‘The Cleaner’, as he was affectionately known, was a god amongst racehorses.

The cheering rose to a new height as the legend was led into the unsaddling enclosure by his euphoric lady owner.

Then the legend died.

Tears of joy turned to tears of despair as the much loved champion suddenly stumbled and collapsed onto the grass, pulling down his owner and pinning her leg under his half-ton bulk. The crowd fell silent, save for a group of celebrating punters at the back still unaware of the unfolding tragedy. The screams of the horse’s owner, her ankle trapped and crushed, eventually cut through to them too, and they were hushed.

Oven Cleaner had given his all. His heart, so strong in carrying him up the Cheltenham hill to victory, had failed him in his moment of triumph.

Willing hands managed to free the poor owner but she refused to leave for medical treatment on her broken ankle, cradling the horse’s head in her lap and crying the inconsolable tears of the bereaved.

I watched a vet examine the animal. He placed a stethoscope to the grey-haired chest and listened for a few seconds. He stood up, pursed his lips and shook his head. No paramedics, no mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, no defibrillator pads, no cardiac massage, just a shake of the head.

A team of men hurried in with green canvas screens that they set up around the still steaming bulk. No screens, I thought, for the poor human victim who had died on the same spot not three hours before. But the screens were not really necessary. Whereas, earlier, the crowd had grown to watch the human drama, now they turned away, not wanting to witness the sad end of such a dear friend.

Deep gloom descended on the racecourse. It was not helped by an objection from the clerk of the scales because Oven Cleaner’s jockey had failed to weigh in.

‘How could I?’ he protested. ‘My bleeding saddle is still on the bleeding horse halfway to the bleeding glue factory.’

The ‘bleeding saddle’ in question had, in fact, been removed by the trainer when the horse had collapsed and had been placed out of sight under the cloth-covered table used for the presentations of the trophies. An uncommon amount of good sense broke out when it was agreed by the Stewards that the jockey, finally reunited with his saddle, could weigh in late.

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