A racing certainty from a born loser

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The Independent Online
Hitting The Turf - A Punting Life

by David Ashforth

(Headline, pounds 14.99)

David Ashforth managed to avoid the Royal Ascot Festival for 25 years, but this week he has to go. These days he works in the business.

Until he was 41, Ashforth had a variety of jobs that not everyone associates with a man who has a Cambridge doctorate. He worked on a car assembly line, in a foam-rubber factory and as a board man in a Ladbrokes shop. While he practised these diverse professions, he was also practising losing large amounts of money to the bookmakers.

It is the richness (or poverty) of this background that has made Dr Ashforth's Saturday column in the Sporting Life the freshest read in racing for years. One of his earliest writing heroes was Jeffrey Bernard, whom Ashforth admired for irreverence and plain-speaking. The doctor writes from pretty much the same turret and it is a measure of the fawning contributors to the sport that very little has come in between them.

Hitting The Turf is virtually a collection of Ashforth's columns glued together, so his fans will feel familiarity with many of the yarns. Its structure is about as neat as the man's flat (in which the furniture appears to be constructed out of old copies of the Life).

The passages include sketches on racing folk who have amused Ashforth. He gradually grew tired of academia ("I wanted to work somewhere totally different from Cambridge, where a don would sometimes call you into his office merely to tell you how clever you both were"), but it left him with great research nous. The subjects he wants to interview are invariably tracked down and if the good doctor gets cheesed off with racing there appears to be yet another career open to him as a bounty hunter.

Others vignettes centre on the author's personal fixation with racing and, particulary, betting. David Ashforth needs more than these 215 pages to chronicle the perilous territory his punting led him into. In fact, there was more to start with but the horrible truth so upset members of his family that the first draft had to meet with the machete.

Quite what Mrs Ashforth makes of her spouse's Peter Pan behaviour is not particularly well chronicled. In this book, she is about as visible as Arthur Daley's wife, registering just two fleeting appearances. By the tone of how hubby has run his life it may be that she deserves all the royalties that are going.

What is left of Hitting The Turf is as erratic as Ashforth's Saturday column, a book which contains some simply presented yet thoughtfully funny ideas on racing. The sport does not offer much in the way of creative literature, which makes this effort doubly invigorating. It deserves to be marketed to a wider audience than just turfistes.