Racing: Osborne: Looking back in anguish

Sue Montgomery reflects on a traumatic week for racing and its golden boy
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THE last time I passed the time of day with Jamie Osborne was at Cheltenham before Christmas. We were both waiting by the TV camera, I to grab a word with the race-winning jockey at that moment being interviewed and he, his arm in plaster after a wrist-shattering fall a few weeks earlier, to take his turn in front of the lens as a pundit.

I asked him how he was enjoying his temporary stint as a member of the media. His smile switched off in an instant and his reply revealed more about his love for his job than any air-punching or flying dismounts. "I'm hating it," he said. "I hate being here, and not there" - pointing at his weighing-room colleague - "I hate not being able to be on a horse. I hate not racing." His voice had dropped a couple of tones and contained raw, grating frustration.

Then, Osborne was grounded because of the occupational hazard of injury. Now, even if he could ride he would not be able to, as one of the trio of jump riders stood down by the sport's overlords, the Jockey Club, after being arrested last week in connection with alleged race- fixing and doping.

Osborne has the highest profile of the three and when the story of the scandal broke one of the overwhelming reactions was surprise, not so much that jockeys could be involved in skulduggery, but that he was one of those named. Talented, notably articulate, intelligent, and - according to a young letter-writer in this week's edition of the equestrian magazine Horse and Hound "drop-dead gorgeous" - he has been, in recent years at least, one of the sport's acknowledged public ambassadors. It was as if Gary Lineker had been accused of match rigging.

Osborne, 30, is a young man who has had a relatively charmed life. He comes from a privileged background, brought up near Wetherby in a hunting and farming family where ponies, and riding them competitively from an early age, were an unquestioned part of life. He graduated to racehorses while still at school (he has three A-levels; most jockeys are happy with GCSE metalwork) and had his first race-ride in a point-to-point. His 50-year-old uncle, in full hunting kit, just beat him for fourth place.

His hobby soon became his living; after a couple of seasons riding as an amateur for stables in Yorkshire - his first winner under Rules was Fair Bavard for Harry Wharton in March 1986 - he headed South and took out a professional licence before his 20th birthday. He served his apprenticeship with Nick Henderson before taking over as first jockey to the powerful Oliver Sherwood stable. He also rides regularly for two other trainers in the Lambourn area, Charlie Egerton and Henrietta Knight.

Osborne has not won the Grand National, Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle, but has taken most of the calendar's other big races. With his Pony Club background, he is a horseman first, but has become an effective and stylish jockey through application and desire. He rides his races with thought and a great understanding of horses and his recent newspaper and television contributions have been in the same vein.

He has always been pretty aware of his gifts, though one man's - or woman's - clever, confident youth is another's little smart-arse and he once provoked Jenny Pitman into smacking him in the mouth. He is known in some quarters as the pompous pilot, in others as the corduroy cavalier.

Fairly unusually for a jockey, he is the social equal of many of those who employ him and on occasions judge him, but his professionalism keeps him on the right side of playboy status. He is comfortably off, dedicated to his job, happy in his personal life. He would not be the first clean- cut golden boy to slip off the rails, but on the face of it there seems no reason why he should jeopardise everything he has worked and lives for by becoming involved in criminal activities.

No charges have yet been brought, and Osborne and the other two men arrested, Dean Gallagher and Leighton Aspell, have protested their innocence and condemned the Jockey Club's Draconian action in suspending their licences until this Thursday in the strongest terms.

One of the few certainties in this case is that last March two well-fancied horses, one ridden by Osborne and one by Aspell, were drugged to lose, but one of the oddest aspects was the early implication that the jockeys may have been involved in the doping. Apart from knowing the dangers of riding a tranquillised horse at a gallop over fences, and the fact that most jockeys like horses and would not wish to harm them, there are far less hazardous ways for a competent rider to stop a horse.

That is not something that happens too often, but it would be naive to think that it never does, and equally so to believe that jockeys never break the rules and bet. Racing, like any business involving large sums of money - particularly readies - attracts its share of spivs and temptation and it takes only a single indiscretion from a rider for the villains to have their man. At least one leading name in the modern era has lost his job because of suspicion that he was riding to order for bookmakers rather than his stable. It goes without saying that such rotten wood must be cut out if it can be identified.

The week has hardly been the most edifying for a sport that is trying to be taken seriously in its quest for extra government funding. The Scotland Yard case apart, internal discipline has also dealt with two non-triers and a pair of trainers who indulged in a public brawl. It has been a depressing time for all.