The death-defying element of the National is overplayed. Or so you begin to think after talking to jockeys about what it is like actually riding in the race. 'The fences are very inviting', Orkney says, to initial incredulity. 'They don't look very inviting on television because you're looking at them from the landing side and you think they're just like a big green wall. But from the take-off side there's quite a belly on them. If you're on a bold jumper it's very exciting.'
Perhaps Orkney has special vision. He is an optician, after all. About three days a week he helps people to see more clearly. The rest of the time he entrusts his own well-being to the eyesight and dexterity of dumb animals clambering round the jumping courses (mostly the northern ones) of Britain. Orkney is no shambling Corinthian, though: he recently spent over pounds 5,000 on a mechanical horse to refine his style in the saddle.
Riding in jump races, Orkney says, 'is the best fun you can have with your clothes on'. But in the National? There is no question that jockeys are even less scared now that the course has been softened, and for a minority even of the top riders, the mystique of Britain's toughest race is not something which extends to the weighing room. 'Until Mark Dwyer rode Auntie Dot, I think he was one of those who could take it or leave it,' Orkney says.
'You certainly do have a much better chance of getting round now, especially as they've levelled the drop at Becher's. Also, the top nine inches of the fences are more easily dislodged. When they go round for the second time now there are big holes in the fences, whereas if you look at the videos of 20 years ago those holes don't seem to be there.'
Orkney's experience of vaulting Becher's Brook - and surviving - with his legs wrapped round the horse's belly gained him admittance to a select club. He says: 'It was in '85 and I was riding Golden Ty in the Foxhunters' (run over the National fences). It happened very quickly. My leg went down as the stirrup snapped and I found myself lurching from one side to the other. Before I knew it I was in front of that big beech hedge of Becher's.
'I've got some pictures somewhere of the horse with his belly on the ground. He came up with mud on his chest. We finished second, but he would definitely have won if I'd been any help to him. As it was I was just bouncing around on top.'
Before the National, one of the Liverpool stewards will tell the 40 jockeys not to set off too fast. Everybody laughs when he has left the room. 'No one takes much notice,' Orkney says. 'People are hyped up, people are high. People tend to be different. The quiet ones are chatty and the chatty ones go quiet. Jockeys are superstitious, I don't know why. Some'll always put one sock on before the other, others will wear a lucky T-shirt for so long it'll practically stand up by itself.'
In the race itself, the more garrulous riders will maintain a constant dialogue, the most popular exchange being: 'You're still there, then?' Orkney says: 'Personally, I'm not one for talking. My attention is fixed on going from fence to fence.' And there, perhaps, rests the key to understanding what a jump jockey is really doing: not flirting with death, not indulging in some Eddie Kidd fantasy, but trying to meet each fence perfectly by achieving maximum concentration.
This emerged when it was put to Orkney that people think jump riders must be deranged. On the northern jumping circuit, Flat racing is said to be for 'ferrets and gnomes'. 'The Flat jockeys probably think we're nutters because they see all those awful falls,' Orkney says. 'But when you're jumping well it's a fantastic thrill. Getting round is always the No 1 priority.
'I remember riding Kersil in the National when he was a 250-1 chance. I hit the front coming into the straight for the first time. Another jockey, Norman Babbage, had taken the wrong course, and I was thinking: have I gone the wrong way? What am I doing here?'
Even he can question it sometimes.Reuse content