Racing Books for Christmas: Shooting from the lip into the foot: Carson's frank account of his career makes his loquaciousness a mixed but enjoyable blessing: Richard Edmondson reviews some recent works of fact and friction about the Turf

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The Independent Online
JOURNALISTS like Willie Carson because he cannot stop himself. Down the years the Scotsman has appeared outside the racing pages more times than almost any other jockey, in stories concerning an illegitimate child, a divorce and public support for the trainer ousted by The Queen, Major Dick Hern.

Absolute truth has staggered into a ditch along the path of these incidents finding their way into print, leaving Carson with an inculcated mistrust of the media. But even more ingrained in him is the need to air opinions, and if an interrogator can crank him up, a lively journey is guaranteed.

It should come as no surprise then that Willie Carson Up Front (Stanley Paul, pounds 16.99), the jockey's autobiography with Brough Scott, should be composed of fairly frank material. What is unforeseen, though, is the lengths to which Carson follows a credo that honesty is all.

It is said that there were times when Carson was so brutal about his family during the taping of his recollections that even those who were compiling the book (and stood to gain most from these revelations) invited him to reconsider his comments.

The jockey said no, and the complaints he had after the book was published were not that he was shown in a poor light, but that there was a smattering of spelling and minor factual errors.

Thus, Carson's thoughts on his three sons were committed to paper. 'They're all stupid, the whole lot of them,' he says. 'None of them would listen to any advice that I gave them.' And he also details the occasion when his illegitimate daughter sent him a wedding invitation which was swiftly conveyed from doormat to dustbin.

What Carson defines as 'honesty' is in fact a route march over normal sensibilities, and in this pursuit he shoots himself in the foot only after scoring direct hits on every other part of his anatomy.

This is not to say that Willie Carson Up Front is an unenjoyable book. The candid thoughts of this particular sportsman are an enlightening departure from the antiseptic tedium and hagiography of other autobiographies and biographies.

Scott, one of the very few who can faithfully portray the excitement of his racing days in print, contributes skilfully at the beginning of each chapter, even if his assertion that 'you should always leave them wanting more' is taken a little too far in the overall production of fewer than 150 pages of narrative.

Marcus Armytage, like Scott, has made the jump into the writing ranks and he too conspires with a champion in Hell For Leather (Partridge Press, pounds 14.99), the story of Richard Dunwoody's first championship year. But similarities are hard to find after that.

A single year of the effusive Carson would probably contain as much fireworks as the career of the more subdued Dunwoody, but Armytage has had to work here with the spans of time the other way round.

While the champion jockey is often bracketed with the socially mobile John Francome for his finesse in the saddle, the Ulsterman's character is probably a lot closer to that of Peter Scudamore. A winner for them would lead to thoughts of the next; for Francome it led to thoughts of the party.

Armytage delivers plenty of atmosphere and there are seamy passages, when Dunwoody is suspended for overdoing the toasts after his 'O' levels and then incarcerated after a bit more glass-raising at a Jockeys Association gathering, but much of this is too close to the mundane.

It is perhaps unfair to expect sportsmen to be thrilling in public and private - even Superman could not manage that - but Dunwoody's story does not have enough entertaining foothills as it builds up to his personal peak.

Perhaps this does the reader a service. Perhaps the repetitive early starts, countless hours travelling and minimal time for celebration this book outlines is what it takes to be a champion. Perhaps the champagne and strawberries, and appearances in the winners' enclosure are just like Superman in his red and blue ensemble: the only bits the public wants to see.

There is plenty to see in Andrew Sim's English Racing Stables (Ian Allan, pounds 25.00), in which the author has also taken many of the photographs. Pictures of racing yards (the most photogenic of sporting trial-grounds) always make for good browsing and Sim also provides a historical perspective of the 40 stables he visited.

The book's title, unfortunately, also provides the sort of annexation seen lately when Vintage Crop won the Melbourne Cup 'for Britain'. Chapter 36 of English Racing Stables considers Linda Perratt's Cree Lodge yard at Ayr.