Racing: Fox's refuge on the bright side: A senior jockey's relaxed outlook is unaffected as an injury allows him to reflect on 22 years in the saddle. Richard Edmondson reports

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The Independent Online
IT COMES as no surprise that when Richard Fox discusses the worst fall of his career and the one that has divorced him from racing until next season, the narrative is closer to farce than gravity.

When Fox was unshipped from Athar at Salisbury nearly two months ago and broke his femur, the longest and thickest bone in the body, the most jocular man in the weighing room was removed from Britain's racecourses.

'It was a very humid night and the filly was absolutely black with sweat,' the jockey remembers. 'When I went to make a move in the straight the saddle just slipped round in one movement and she scissor-kicked me on the way down and flipped me in the air.

'I know the brain doesn't have an accurate memory for pain, but I can't remember anything being as bad as that was. It was the worst I've ever had in over 22 years and I've had about 20 race falls.'

At this point in the recollection the serious reportage stops and Fox follows his ethos that 'I'd rather see the funny side'.

'The annoying thing was that they cut through my racing boots, which are pounds 80 a pair, with these great big shears,' he says. 'I was in a haze with the gas they gave me and I couldn't get any words out. I was just thinking, why the hell are they cutting my boots off? There's a zip at the back, why don't they use the zip?'

This episode will soon be absorbed into the patter that Fox delivers as an after-dinner speaker or in sponsors' tents at the racecourse. Already in the show is the story of how a young Fox arrived in Newmarket looking for digs and was directed towards the home of Lester Piggott. 'When Lester opened the door I said 'can I stay here?' He said 'yes you can stay there' and shut the door.'

Or the time when Fox rode a winner in Trinidad on Devil Woman for Bob Marley. 'As he came into the paddock he sneezed,' the Irishman says. 'I was high for nine days.'

And there is another recent addition concerning the two pensioners who wrote to Fox in hospital saying they had been backing his horses for 20 years. 'What they failed to mention was that they used to have a big house on the mainland and they now live in a caravan on the Isle Of Wight,' he says.

Fox enjoys being a funny man, but, perversely, is never more serious than when his sense of humour is under the microscope. Like Lanfranco Dettori of the younger jockeys, Fox is disturbed by the assessment of some that ostensible good humour is a barrier to professionalism in the saddle.

'I heard someone say once that Foxy (the jockey often talks of 'Foxy' in the third person) would be better off if he didn't joke so much,' he says. 'I found that incredible.

'I just can't understand the attitude that unless you're going round with a long face you can't possibly be doing your job. I'm afraid we've all got our own characters and we've all got our own way of counteracting nerves, and I'd rather have a laugh than sit in the corner of the weighing-room shivering.

'I'm certainly not going to go round miserable in life just to suit people with an archaic attitude and I'm certainly not going to take any notice of the fuddy- duddys.'

Fox's contention is that he would never had made it at all if his attitude had been as slapdash as some consider it. 'I don't want to play the violin but when I went up to Seamus McGrath's stable in 1968 all I had was the pair of wellies I was in and three bob in my pocket,' he says.

The Irishman was further educated by one of racing's most celebrated mentors, 'Frenchie' Nicholson, who had a sobering prophecy for his apprentice jockey. 'Frenchie told me straight: 'Foxy you won't be champion jockey, but you'll always make a living'. I was a bit spunkier then and I promised to prove him wrong, but 15 or 16 years later he's not far out. At 38 you begin to accept your fate.'

In between, Fox has gone the way of many jockeys, enjoying fruitful phases such as the 1975 season when he rode 63 winners, but ultimately being sucked down into the ranks of the journeymen riders.

'It's strange because in the 1970s when I was riding a lot of winners people thought I was brilliant, but now I'm not riding as many winners people don't think I'm any good. A fella came up to me one day and said straight as a die 'what happened to you, you used to be good'. That made me realise how people were starting to look at me despite the fact I'm more confident and have more knowledge about riding than ever I did in the Seventies.'

As he struggles around his Newmarket home, his manoeuvrability limited by the scaffolding on his leg, Fox has as much time for thought as he has ever had. As he is one of the weighing-room's least nervous inmates, it is a little incongruous to seem him dipping into a cigarette box with uncomfortable regularity.

The jockey insists he will eventually get back in the saddle, but it is instructive that when he discusses his career it is always in the past tense. 'Being on the sidelines has given me a chance to just sit back and reflect a little bit on 22 years,' he says. 'You look at how much further you can progress in the game and at the moment I'm weighing up the pros and cons.

'If this is as far as I go in my career that'll do for me. When I look back I see all the lads that never got to the track, never mind ride 600 or 700 winners. Relatively speaking, I think I've made an impression on the game and relatively speaking I've been a success.'

(Photograph omitted)