Ask him now about the milestones of his journey through the surreal vortex of blackmail, corruption and the darkest nooks and crannies of the criminal justice system, and he will trot them off like form in the day's handicap hurdle. Not many in the weighing-room can number arrest, a potentially career-ending diagnosis of an injury and the death of a trusted friend in the space of six days, but, by the time the officers of the Organised Crime Squad burst into his remote cottage at Lambourn in the early hours of 27 January, whisking him away without the price of a cup of tea in his pocket and setting in motion a paper chase part Whitehall farce, part Kafkaesque state, the traditionally weary humour of the jump jockey had begun to wear thin. Not even his weighing-room colleagues could conspire in such an elaborate practical joke.
Yesterday, on Hallowe'en, every one of the ghosts was exorcised in a final chapter which no self-respecting thriller writer would have dared to pen. In a race dedicated to the memory of John Durkan, Osborne's closest friend who died of leukaemia, Osborne and the faithful Coome Hill ploughed to victory through the Ascot mud, providing as eloquent an epitaph to Durkan's premature death as anything the jockey had summoned as he delivered the oration at Durkan's funeral last January. Osborne, on the verge of tears throughout the presentation ceremony, broke down during the post- race interview, unable to translate into words the emotional meaning of such a victory. "I've got more pleasure out of winning that race than any other race I've won," he said.
That it should be won on Coome Hill, himself an invalid for the last 11 months, and on whom Osborne had won the 1996 Hennessy only added lustre to the romance. As he passed the winning post, a victor for the first time since Senor El Betrutti won at Cheltenham last November, Osborne raised his left arm in the air. If Inspector Knacker needed to know the whereabouts of J. Osborne, who is still technically on bail, they only had to cock their ear to the wind as a bedraggled Ascot crowd forsook the comfort of the bars to cheer the heroes into the winners enclosure. The John Durkan Leukaemia Trust, set up by the Durkan family to construct an Institute of Molecular Medicine at St James's Hospital in Dublin, will receive Osborne's share of the prize money, but the benefits to Osborne's morale are less easily calculated.
Sitting, mud-spattered and deliriously happy in the corner of the weighing- room after the last, Osborne tried to encapsulate his last year. At the lowest moment, he turned his back on racing, refusing to watch it on television or read about it in the newspapers. "I suppose it was like a childhood love. I'd given everything to racing for as long as I can remember and I'd always tried really hard and I've never betrayed anyone. Then suddenly it turns round and dumps me. I suppose the easiest way to cope with what I was going through was to hate my sport and I did for a time."
On the day John Durkan died, the doctors told Osborne he was suffering from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy in his wrist, a potentially untreatable nervous disease. "My hand was shaped like Emu, I couldn't move the muscles," he recalled. Six days later, he was arrested on suspicion of race-fixing and doping and questioned for 12 hours in Reading Police station. The police could not have fingered a more unlikely culprit, but racing being racing the rumours were soon spreading. "No smoke without fire" will not feature among Osborne's aphorisms over the next few years. Osborne quickly sifted friend from foe, among the former Oliver Sherwood, his trainer, who threatened to quit training if Osborne was proved guilty, and Walter Dennis, the trainer of Coome Hill, who diverted his horse from Wetherby to Ascot to fulfil Osborne's dream. The one regret of his return yesterday was that he could not repay the favour on Sherwood's novice hurdler, Sherganzar, in the opener.
The credits for Osborne's rehabilitation could roll on forever. Among them would be the big grey hack of Andrew Cohen's on whom Osborne began to renew his love affair with racing. On summer mornings, he would take the horse up on to the downs, watch the Flat strings work and feel the sense of anticipation on the still air. Slowly, he returned to the routine he knows so well: riding work and searching for rides. He knew he was back when Pat Taylor, his valet, rang to give him a bollocking about the state of his kit, which had mouldered unwashed and unused in his racing bag for the past 11 months.
"The reason I'm coming back is because I've missed the buzz I got from winning races," he said. "That was the thing. When you're in love with that feeling there is no way you can go out with the intention of not winning races.
"I've changed. I used to worry about all the political problems and how I could sort them out. I'd go round the bend worrying about them. Now, I'm determined just to enjoy myself. My appetite is still the same. If someone said it looked as though I had never been away, that would be the best accolade I could get." As Osborne sneaked up Norman Williamson's inside round the final bend to push Coome Hill back into the lead, there was really no need to voice such an obvious opinion.Reuse content