When the imposing bay, Relkeel, the joint-favourite for racing's hurdling crown, appears at Prestbury Park he will be greeted by Brigadier Charles Barnet Harvey, DSO. The man known as ``the Brig'' has earned three nicknames in his life and the thanks of birthday candle manufacturers. He is 95 this year.
For those who like The Lost Valley stories, or tales of strict lifestyles in Tibet, the Brig has a disappointingly prosaic explanation for his longevity. "You should eat and drink lots," he said. "Of anything."
This may explain his most celebrated sobriquet. At 21, when riding in an Irish steeplechase and at a time when he was known as CB, he put up overweight. "You're a fat little pig," a senior officer in the army said. "You're as bad as Roscoe [Fatty] Arbuckle [the silent screen comedian]." From that moment, Charles Barnet was jettisoned and the Brig became known as Roscoe.
His life, as the figures suggest, has been enough for two men. Behind the facade of a small, wiry frame and thick glasses, is a man who has proved his bravery in both the point-to-pointing and battle fields. After the war he became first a Jockey Club stewards' secretary and then the senior stewards' secretary, for 18 years one of the instigators of racing's rule book. He remains a member of the Jockey Club.
The Brig may be gone 94 but he is not gaga and keeps up, as our initial exchanges proved. "Good fight that the other night wasn't it," he ventured (Roscoe was formerly on the British Boxing Board of Control) as I arrived at his Gloucestershire home. "Pity about the American fellow."
Around him were the signs that the Brig does not spend all day staring into space. The Sporting Life and form books were spread on the table and the telephone was close to hand. (In the loo was a signal that vanity remained: a mirror bearing the inscription "Yes, Roscoe you look terrific".)
A tartan rug over his legs, the Brig explained how he would watch Relkeel work the following week. He looked forward to Cheltenham but not his wheelchair, which has only recently become a requirement. "It's most dull," he said.
Relkeel is trained by David Nicholson, who, as "the Duke", completes the most titled team at the Festival. "I've known David for some time, knew his father," the Brig said. "Some people think he's big-headed. But I don't."
It must be strange being Roscoe because none of his old mates are around any more. Indeed, many of their children are probably not with us. But, like another celebrated veteran, the American comedian George Burns (who when asked why he kept dating younger women replied that all those of his own age were dead), he sees this as a humorous outlet.
"Everyone seems to keep dropping off the perch don't they," he said.
The Brig's army career was gloriously enough bizarre to invite parody. India, in the days of the Maharajahs, was his favourite posting with the 10th Hussars, when he had 40 servants to look after him and his family. (On the entertainment side on the sub-continent was a chap called Bandsman Norman Wisdom).
"I liked it there with the good racing and the good polo, but I didn't like the war in Europe," he said. "All that going through the countryside knocking everything down and those poor, wretched women with babies in their arms. The desert was better. It was just sand and bedouins."
India was where Roscoe made his name as a pig-sticker, hunting boars up to 3ft high, 300lbs, and bearing corkscrew tusks. He liked to show he had got the better of these encounters by carrying the tusks on his car.
Later he was at El Alamein ("that Rommel was a good chap, he didn't like Hitler very much"), the liberation of Belsen and the capture of the traitor Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce). Through all this time the bullets flew, and missed, most fortunately in a European skirmish.
He may have lost a few narrow finishes in the pointing field, but the Brig will ever be grateful for the close decision that went his way in Holland when a bullet grazed the inside of his upper thigh. "Another eighth of an inch and I'd have lost my balls," he said. Days later, a colleague's message of relief read: "Lucky it was a cold day."
The Brig bred Relkeel, but admits in his office that there is another who knows more about the horse. He presses the bell on the wall and shouts for "Willetts". The man who arrives is almost 81 but could pass for 20 years younger. Trooper Roger Willetts, from Stourport in Worcestershire, joined the 10th Hussars in India in 1932 and has been with the Brig ever since, as driver and batman and now, in civvy street, as his groom. "But I just potter around really," he said.
The Brig recalls: "When he was a young horse Relkeel would only come to me and no one else. I knew he could jump when he kept escaping."
The Brig himself has faith in his finest ever National Hunt horse. "You journalist people will probably say he has not beaten much and you might be right," he said. "But I like him and I might put the champagne on ice."
It has been champagne (as well as horses and bullets) all of the Brig's life, but even the most committed of socialist guerillas would find it hard to dislike the man, despite his love and enveloping of all things conservative.
At conversation's end the Brig complimented me on my jumper and gave instructions on how I should return home. Outside the blue-shuttered Regency home, Willetts showed me to the gate. "I've been with him since 1932 you know," he said. "He's been a bloody good boss." It might be quite nice if the Brig wins the Champion Hurdle.Reuse content