Racing: Forgotten hero rides again: Ian Ridley hears how John White has survived the trauma of last year's void race

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The Independent Online
AS IF they were Polaroids of a nightmare, grainy and embarrassing images recur of last year's bowlerised, elasticated World's Greatest False Race. But there amid the mayhem remains a moment of pure poignancy; the jockey John White, atop Esha Ness, so briefly believing he had won the World's Greatest Horse Race until they trod on his dreams and told him the nervous and physical energy had been for nought.

They said afterwards that the quiet Irishman was disillusioned with the whole business, that he had slunk off to his native County Wexford to start up as a trainer and forget the riding injustices of England. But while Aintree and its aftermath may indeed have hastened, even if only subconsciously, the decision to change course - if he'll forgive such a sensitive turn of phrase - the lure of Liverpool remainsstrong for White, even with all its nightmare scenarios of a year ago.

Indeed late on Friday night, he confirmed with his namesake John White, the Buckinghamshire trainer, that he would ride for him Into The Red, a 25-1 shot. As the English attempt to show anew that as well as having a capacity for the sporting cock-up - that Grand National, Test series, football against the United States - they also have a flair for organising some of the best events in the world - Wimbledon, The Open - White the rider will attempt to right his own personal wrong.

Home is now his father's stables at beautiful Bannow in the remote south-east corner of God's Own Country, where Chris de Burgh wrote his song 'Don't Pay The Ferryman' about the journey out to the Saltee Islands. Here - and the village of Kilmore, the name of the 1962 Grand National winner, testifies that this is racing country - John senior bred the plucky Bannow Rambler, winner of the 1975 Novice Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, which died last month at the age of 25. 'And Fred Winter told me I made only one mistake with him. That I didn't enter him in the Champion Hurdle itself.'

John junior - his own son John is the seventh generation - began his new career here last October after 12 years in England riding out of Lambourn and has 21 horses in training, mostly young, mostly as green as the land. 'A complete mess,' is his smiling description.

The winter, the wettest they can remember around here for a while, has been a struggle and he has sent out only some 20 runners. He has paid out pounds 55,000 for new sand gallops but says that this is nothing compared to the start-up costs in England, which he could not have afforded.

In the spacious family drawing room, a picture of White and Esha Ness soaring over a fence last year sits on a bureau, the wording telling of jockey, owner and race as is usual with these framed, proud moments. Only the last line gives it away: 'Race void' is the tiny- typed, apologetic engraving.

In the next room the family had gathered a year ago to watch round the television. 'I didn't think anything,' says John senior when asked of his reaction to what he saw unfolding in front of him. 'Me thinking anything is not going to change the facts. Sure I felt sad but you can't lodge sorrow or sympathy in this life. It does you no good.'

In his father's attitude is the reason why John junior says he now feels a desire to move on, rather than any bitterness, though along with being 'annoyed at the time', it clearly rankles a little - and with a jockey you would be surprised if it didn't - that he has received no financial remuneration. He thought the sponsors who offered a car to the winning rider might have done well out of the publicity had they awarded it anyway. He does not recall having received his riding fee and though receiving a letter from Aintree saying that they would pay jockeys' expenses, he can't remember seeing that either.

He was engaged to ride Esha Ness, trained by Jenny Pitman, by the owner Patrick Bancroft, who had studied jockeys' form at the National and seen that White, second on The Tsarevich behind Maori Venture in 1987, had not fallen in his previous nine rides at Liverpool.

White, in turn, remembered that the horse had had good form going into Cheltenham, though it disappointed there. He took the ride, believing it could be his last aboard a horse with a chance of winning, and though it was 50-1 he felt it did. The rides, after all, were drying up, only 80 that season, only five winners and only pounds 6,000, gross, earned. At 33 then (he will be 35 the week after the National) he felt he was going 'out of fashion'.

'On the day the horse gave me a great feeling going up to the start. If everything had gone correctly the horse would have been there or thereabouts anyway. It was the second or third fastest time in the history of the race,' he says. 'With the first false start - how many were there? I forget - well, we seemed to be there for an awful long time and a lot of the jockeys were a bit uptight. Me? No, I wasn't.

'You don't hear much at the start of the National, there are so many people crowding around. You can't hear people a few yards away, the noise is so bad. When we did get under way, the horse acted better than any other I have ridden round there. I thought he would win from a long way out, four or five fences from home, he was travelling that well. There was an awful lot left in the tank. A good horse.'

How and when did he realise the terrible truth? 'Dean Gallagher (the jockey of Rowlandsons Jewels), I think it was, just said 'John, I'm sorry. I think the race could be void.' It was just after passing the winning post, cantering down, which wouldn't be too far. You don't go too far past the post in the National. Fifteen to 20 seconds maybe.

'First of all you think it's a dream, don't you? At last. A lot of people have said: 'Well you must have known. You must have heard the commentary going round.' But you don't hear things like that. Once you go out into the country for the last time, you don't look in the stands where you've people sitting down and drinking tea. You are going left-handed round the bend, back down the line of fences. You've got your goggles on and you are in behind a horse, you are just concentrating on going back down them.'

Surely, even if he did miss all the early red flags, he saw people waving to him to stop. 'At The Chair I saw someone but I thought he was waving us around and I did think something must have happened, like someone had set fire to it or fallen. But you don't know. They all seemed to go on. I thought he was waving us towards the inside. There was no one there to say stop. Peter Scudamore wouldn't have stopped if he hadn't seen Martin Pipe. There were so many people standing near the fences and waving arms.'

The noise? It evokes living on the flightpath of an aiport, apparently. 'It is very loud but you get used to it. You don't hear the commentator. I must try and listen this year.' The weighing room atmosphere was simply chaotic, he says. He just sat and drank tea. 'They wouldn't let us weigh in so I knew something was up but it was about 17 minutes before they declared the race void.'

He can remember Mrs Pitman coming to to voice her opinion - 'Oh, I can, yes' - though she was not immediately the fearsome sight of some accounts. 'She was quite calm really. Just stunned.'

There followed an interview with Desmond Lynam. 'He asked me did I not notice that there were not an awful lot of horses around me? Well, you hope they have all fallen, don't you?' It may seem obvious, but you have to remember, he says, that when you are riding in the National, you are not seeing and hearing everything the way television viewers are. 'It's a different day's work.'

His day's work done, he met up with his wife, Clare, who was watching the race on a television in the ladies changing room with some of the other jockeys' wives. 'I was just willing him to pull up,' she says. 'No one wants to win like that. His first words to me? They were expletives, I think.' 'That's probably correct,' John says. 'There was so much bad language that day, you forget it after a while.'

They took a glass of champagne with Patrick Bancroft, then climbed wearily and sadly into the car and headed for home. Of all, theirs was the leaving of Liverpool to grieve. They stopped at their local Chinese takeaway in Wantage, where the staff like a bet and where they were recognised. 'They weren't very impressed,' John recalls.

The next day, their house in Lambourn, which is now still up for sale, was besieged by journalists but then it went quiet. Only twice since has White watched videotape of the debacle. 'My first reaction was I thought I must have been silly that I didn't pull up. Then I thought that the horse should go well next year.' Indeed, he hoped to ride Esha Ness again this year but the horse went lame after a comeback race at Wincanton recently.

'Now there are things you notice. The first was that after the first false start the tape was hanging down. How can you start a Grand National with tape hanging down? Someone should have said, 'Stop. Take it away and start the race with a flag.' ' Why do 40 horses have to be in a straight line, he wonders, when there are four-and- a-half miles to be run. Surely 10 yards is not going to make much difference?

Even allowing for the hard start to training, he has not regretted his move. 'You have to make your stand at some stage,' he says. 'In England, a lot of owners are going out, trainers have fewer horses to train and only eight or ten jockeys are riding a lot. From that down, there are people struggling to get rides and there are some good jockeys in that category. It wouldn't have been much fun going up and down England for one ride or two a week.'

It is his professionalism rather than any sentimentality, score-

settling or thrill-seeking that takes him back to the scene of the crime next week. 'If I didn't have a decent horse I wouldn't ride in it. I wouldn't risk going round on a no- hoper even though there's no terror in it for me,' he insists. 'John does love the National,' Clare says when he is out of earshot, and indeed he begins to warm to the appeal of the race.

'It's just a different challenge,' he says. 'The fences are not like anywhere else. You need a lot of luck going round. It's not as bad as 30 to 40 years ago when the fences were three or four feet bigger, the old jockeys tell you, but they are still big and need to be respected. With the handicaps, the better, more fancied horses are up there more. You get more finishers and the race is getting faster.'

It is the prerogative of the animal rights protesters to attend, he says, but he believes they should be confined to certain areas away from the action. He himself, though, a horseman since the age of eight - 'It may have been a mistake, though there are worse things to be done' - does not understand what they are complaining about.

'I don't know why they say it's cruel. Horses are fed every day at six o'clock, one o'clock, three o'clock and six o'clock again. They are kept warm and exercised. It's not a bad life. Horses love to race. They are very competitive. No jockey gets up on to a horse wanting it to get hurt.'

He ponders a moment then smiles. 'And, anyway what about the cruelty to the jockey?'

(Photograph omitted)