Racing: Books for Christmas - Getting a lift from the downside

Tales of the disappointed on the track in racing and athletics
Click to follow
ONE OF the great benefits of being a journalist is that you learn how to recognise a good book.

Years of reviewing titles gives one a unique insight into how disparate strands fuse to make an outstanding work. I am therefore able to inform that this Christmas's superior offering is Stan Hey's An Arm and Four Legs (Yellow Jersey Press, pounds 15), largely because of two factors: Stan is my mate (though not quite close enough to spell my name correctly) and I get a mention. These things count when you're reviewing.

Stan is also a very funny man, an unlikely figure from a Liverpool council estate who went to St Catharine's College, Cambridge and is now preceded at the racecourse by a rather substantial Havana.

Self-deprecation is a well-used tool on Merseyside, and Stan has got the full socket set. An Arm and Four Legs is about his dabble into racehorse ownership, which, as anyone who has embarked towards this financial iceberg will tell you, is a tremendous fount for hard-luck stories.

It's amusing and entertaining to read about Stan's travails because it's real. Racing is almost entirely about losing, yet most of the books we are fed portray winners, images of champagne flutes and strawberries. Here we get it like it is: weak Bovril, catastrophic bets and huge dry- cleaning bills for muddy trousers.

This is the most relevant racing effort since David Ashforth's Hitting The Turf, which earned my mark of five out of 10 (another mate, no mention). Like Ashforth, Hey revels in the role of the unlucky loser, which makes racing the proper game for him.

The narrative concerning the racecourse debut of one of his horses, Rowley John, is cracking and the overall emotional effect of owning horses amusingly familiar to this writer. My foray into ownership with the redoubtable Merry Wand ended with form figures PPR, and the last letter was retired rather than refused.

I didn't think I missed it until I read Hey's book, but then the attraction returned. It may be a cataclysmic waste of money, but by God owning a horse is funny. Martin Pipe and Hereford also get a mention, but it is not as complimentary as mine.

If you like spanking new pubs, with jukeboxes and wide-screen televisions, you are not the sort who is going to enjoy An Arm and Four Legs. If you like dive bars full of Jack The Ripper smoke, it will suit. If you waft away the smoke, you might even see Stan and his cigar.

I get a mention, too, in Jenny Pitman, the autobiography (Partridge Press, pounds 17.99) even if it is under the umbrella of those nasty press beasties with which Mrs P has always been obsessed.

Jenny has never grasped the fact that journalists do not write about her just to fill in the hours before opening time. People are genuinely interested in her and justifiably so.

Whatever you say about Jenny Pitman she has made it in a sport which discriminates relentlessly against both women and those from the wrong side of the tracks. Her autobiography begins with Pitman's rearing in bucolic Leicestershire, a sort of poor man's Famous Five with her family and friends.

The early passages are not so much laced with sentimentality as much as served neat. Her parents might have been plain Mr and Mrs Harvey to the neighbours, but, by Pitman's account, they are up there with Zeus and Hera. Jenny quickly establishes a character which swings between the emotional and single-minded, and it is a strength of the book that you can read it in her voice.

You would have to be a very bad man not to feel genuinely moved by the trainer's sentiments about her old horses. In addition, you would have to be rather self-controlled not to be rather amused by Jenny's belief in the supernatural.

She claims to have been mystically guided in the training of Garrison Savannah before his Gold Cup, so that her mother could watch the Cheltenham success shortly before her death. Jenny also tells us that before the void Grand National she received a premonition that all was not right. She says she does not bet and that would be unfair on bookmakers. With this sixth sense, the Cassandra of Upper Lambourn could make a fortune.

In the postscript Mrs P talks about her fight with cancer. The news, post publication, is that a recent check-up gave her the all clear.

The trouble with writing about Tony McCoy is that he will inevitably come up with something startling post publication. The paperback The Real McCoy (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 6.99) is Claude Duval's effort at updating after his original biography of last year. Even so, the outstanding McCoy has done him again with his recent controversial use of the whip. We can expect an even more swollen book from Claude next Christmas.