Christmas Racing Books: Compelling parable of jockey who rode out the storm to find redemption
Tuesday 19 December 2006
Perhaps those recording the realities of the Turf feel an obligation to compensate for the excesses of its fiction. More often than not, certainly, they tend to bleach the lurid flavours of Dick Francis and his imitators into monotony.
Happily, there are exceptions, and this year a pair of unusually stimulating subjects has found very apt treatment. One is formally an autobiography, the other a biography, but both profit to a similar degree from the collaboration of willing subject and sensitive writer.
Until the day Kieren Fallon tries to make sense of everything - and that cannot be for a while yet, with one or two pivotal chapters still to unfold during the coming year - no jockey of the present day has more of a tale to tell than Timmy Murphy (right).
Indeed, the two have much in common, untamed talent having led both on a meandering road between fulfilment and self-destruction.
In 2002 Murphy seemed to have soiled his name irrevocably when sentenced to six months in Wormwood Scrubs after disgracing himself on a flight from Tokyo to Heathrow. He had been too drunk to remember exactly what he had done, but the prosecution made plain that it had been pretty revolting.
Yet somehow, from that desperate crossroads, he has managed to rehabilitate himself among the elite. Fallon sometimes seems to have used up nine lives, only for the relative inadequacy of his rivals to allow him a way back. As a jump jockey, however, Murphy must compete with a generation of unprecedented quality. Even his exceptional talent would not have been enough, on its own. He had to renew his view of the world and his place in it, root and branch.
In the sympathetic hands of Donn McClean, that process is reproduced with unmistakable authenticity in his autobiography, Riding The Storm (Highdown, £18.99). The idiom and the idiocies are honest. These are Murphy's own words, fashioned around his own mistakes - and in turn his own hardship, resolution and repentance. But he is indebted to McClean for the energy and rhythm of a remarkable parable.
Candour is one of the few traits Murphy obviously shares with Mark Johnston, one of the most prolific Flat trainers of modern times. In contrast with Murphy, who has been salvaged by a very singular gift, Johnston would certainly have succeeded in many other walks of life. In a way, this is a story of pride to set against one of shame. Johnston is cerebral, dynamic and imaginative. Having first qualified as a vet, he brought an innovative, restless spirit to his preferred vocation and his feisty, animated nature has greatly enriched the racing scene.
Clearly, to do justice to such a man, his biographer needs to make a fine judgement on when to lead and when to follow. And Nick Townsend has done an exemplary job in Mark Johnston: The Authorised Biography (Highdown, £18.99). He knows when to let Johnston take over, wherever his conversation might take you, but also when to restore his frank and fascinating meanderings to their proper place on a map. This book is an admirable conduit for the charisma of its subject, and an edifying reminder that it is possible to be engrossed by something as frivolous as horseracing and maintain intellectual self-respect.
Little else has appeared in recent months to invite that kind of recommendation. Paul Haigh would usually qualify, as he brings an intelligent scepticism to his work. He does tend to be a little wide-eyed in his devotion to international races, admittedly, but there are many less wholesome fixations - and as a result nobody could be better qualified to conduct a tour of The World's Greatest Racecourses (£99, racingpost.co.uk), an illustrated companion to Flat racing arenas from Arlington Park to York. It is, however, intended as an earnest tribute to the author to note that he is an irregular partner for an enterprise as grandiose as this ludicrously self-important "collector's item".
Anyone contemplating such extravagance would be far better off searching online for two fresh treatments in the United States of an extraordinary American tale.
The forgotten black jockey, Jimmy Winkfield, is the subject of two new biographies: Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield by Edward Hotaling (McGraw-Hill Education) and Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend by Joe Drape (William Morrow). If either is half-worthy of their subject, it will prove well worth reading them both.
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