Racing: Osborne puts the darkness to flight

Hennessy Gold Cup: An emotional success may be denied by a trainer who has thrived through his own lean times; Looking back in anger but now with a renewed enthusiasm for life a rider who has endured a year of agony has an opportunity to secure one of steeplechas ing's greatest prizes.
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THE GOING will not be soft for this afternoon's Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury but that will change if Jamie Osborne and Coome Hill come up the run-in in front.

Osborne cried when the old horse carried him to success on his comeback ride at Ascot four weeks ago. It snipped the jockey away from the blackest 12 months of his life.

A racecourse accident had all but crippled him and a police investigation suggested he was a bent jockey. In his bleakest moments, Jamie Osborne temporarily retired from racing.

However, those tears were not essentially for himself, but rather for two close friends taken from us at a puzzlingly young age.

The previous occasion on which Osborne broke down was probably when the midwife sent his bottom quivering. The occurrence, it seems, may be getting rather more regular. "I actually went up the Ascot run-in in tears," he says. "As I landed over the last and I realised I wasn't going to get beat I just burst into tears. Big, hard jumps jockey becomes big wuss. And I couldn't guarantee not crying again on Saturday."

There has not been much reason for Jamie Osborne to wail before in his 31 years. His mother did not spawn a daft lad, and the boy was a riding artiste from early on. He developed into one of the most fluent and stylish members of the weighing room.

On 16 November last year, however, the Gatling gun of misfortune started rolling its barrel. That day Osborne was fired into the Cheltenham turf, a meeting of bone and earth which fractured his wrist in 15 places and punctured several vital nerves. As Osborne inspected this dreadful mess he observed that his left hand might have fallen off if skin was not attaching it to his arm.

Two ribbons of scar tissue bear testament to the many entry points surgeons have made. Yet it was not the bones snapping like a cream cracker which proved the jockey's greatest physical problem. That dark beast came in the shape of a secondary disease. "I got this form of paralysis," Osborne says. "I got to the point where I was looking at my hand and telling it to move but it wouldn't. The nerves were overriding the messages from the brain. My hand went like a claw. There was this thing on the end of my arm.

"Because I was living with it every day I didn't realise how bad it was becoming. It was only the reaction of people who I hadn't seen for a while, friends who stared at this shiny, funny-coloured claw, which made me realise how bad it was.

"I couldn't hold anything. The hand was useless. I went to Ireland to stay with a friend and we went for some lunch. I'd devised this method of slicing a steak by sticking a fork in the meat with my good hand, leaning on it with my chest, and then cutting with the knife. I'd been doing it for weeks and so it didn't seem odd to me. It did to everyone else though." Osborne began a course of injections to loosen his fingers.

By now, though, there was great pain also in Osborne's heart. His great friend, the budding trainer John Durkan, had been beaten by leukaemia. Osborne read a moving address at the funeral to mark JD's crossing over a portal. The following morning, at daybreak, there were visitors at another door, Osborne's.

Officers investigating corruption in racing and the doping of horses staged a dawn raid in Upper Lambourn and took Osborne away. The jockey believes the only reason for his temporary incarceration was the fact that a horse he rode at Exeter in January 1997, Avanti Express, was found to have been doped. It was only last week, after almost 10 months on bail, that Osborne learned he had been dropped from enquiries. No charges were ever brought against him.

"I didn't believe this could happen to anyone," he says. "That seven policemen could break my door down, clean my house out, arrest me, throw me in a cell and then keep me on bail for nine months without a shred of evidence.

"They didn't rifle through my drawers, they actually took them away. They went from top to bottom through the whole house and took every scrap of paper. They cleaned the place out. They investigated my bank accounts, my financial situation, all my telephone records. They went fishing and set about trying to find some evidence. They couldn't."

Jamie Osborne's door may have been easy enough to repair, but the occupant himself found that he too was becoming unhinged by everything the fates were throwing at him. "The first few weeks after the arrest were very busy," he says. "I was very keen to find out what was going on. Why was I arrested? What had led to it? I got consumed by that and I continue to be consumed by it.

"And the more consumed I got the less constructive I became as a human being and the less interest I had in racing. I didn't watch any racing and I got to the stage where I didn't even pick up a newspaper to see what was running.

"I went to the Cheltenham Festival and hated every minute of it. I hated being there. I went to Liverpool for two days, but that was it. I just looked round and thought to myself `half the people here think I'm crooked'.

"It was eating me up big time and I was truly depressed all round that part of the year. I wasn't taking any exercise, I lost a lot of weight and the bad thoughts about my hand kept coming back. I didn't want to see the people who had been part of my life for years. I just couldn't believe my life had become such a mess.

"I'd forgotten all the reasons why I enjoyed my job because suddenly it seemed so far away, so far in the distance that I would get back on a horse again.

"It was all a safety mechanism I had created, a bit like when a girlfriend dumps you. It's a lot easier to be indifferent to her than to accept the fact that, actually, you miss her very much. I pretended there was more to my life than racing.

"The National was another low point for me as I would have ridden Suny Bay [the eventual second]. He would have been my ride for the season. I was watching him on television feeling completely empty and, you know, I couldn't have cared if he won or lost.

"I was giving up a bit. I went home and told my parents that I couldn't get back. I felt that all I'd done for 15 years was try my arse off and I'd never betrayed anyone. I'd done my best.

"The whole buzz, the kick, the motivation was riding winners. I couldn't stop a horse from winning. I'm not there to stop horses. My driving force is to win. To think people thought of me as a cheat hurt. It was then that I was very close to walking away from the whole thing. I hated the sport."

Then a glimmer of hope emerged. "There was a turning point in the police investigation and, rather than feeling helpless and not in control of my own destiny, I felt I had an influence over the outcome," Osborne says. "Around the same time the injections in my hand were starting to have an effect, thank God.

"On nice summer mornings I started to ride Andrew Cohen's hack, this great big thing, on the Downs. I used to ride it round, tie it up to a tree, and go in and have breakfast with someone and then get on him again. I just enjoyed being back on a horse. I was getting the buzz. And it suddenly dawned on me that I wanted to get back.

"I'd hit the bottom, but once I was there I could plan my way out of it. I realised that the best way to put two fingers up to everybody was to get back riding. Once I made that decision life changed completely."

The John Durkan Leukaemia Trust Handicap Chase at Ascot was identified for Osborne's comeback. The jockey took a room at the course to thank all his supporters and friends, but was to discover that he has yet to lock out sadness completely from his life.

One of the invited guests was Rose Nugent, who had become an honorary bloke in the Lambourn bratpack of 10 years ago. "She was the only one who could do the top rack," Osborne says. "Ed Dunlop used to pass out, and the rest of us were sick."

The day before his return, Osborne saw Rose in her horse and cart and handed over Ascot tickets. It was the last time he saw her alive. Twenty minutes later, her caravan ran out of control and overturned. "I woke up on the Saturday morning and, far from being excited, I felt was it all worth it," the rider says. "So you can see what an incredible day that was. There was so much in that day for me, a chance to get rid of the frustration and anger of the previous year.

"That's why I can't thank Walter [Dennis, Coome Hill's trainer] enough. Here was a man who had turned down fortunes for his pride and joy, who eats, sleeps and breathes the bloody thing and he was prepared to let me ride the horse first time up after 11 and a half months off. I just thought: `what a man'."

The same could be said of Jamie Osborne.