Racing: Veteran Carson insists he is not the retiring type: After more than 3,500 wins, the master of Minster House tells Richard Edmondson why his commitment remains as strong as ever

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE ELECTRIC gates protecting Minster House swing open and three Jack Russell terriers - Chester, Diva and Roodeye - emerge snapping from the main building. Small, combative and unswerving, the dogs give a clue as to who their master might be even before you reach the keyhole.

Inside is a man whose infectious attitude shrouds the fact that he is now almost 51 years old and nearly at the terminus of his sporting career. Inside is Willie Carson.

Today the Scotsman will ride Muhtarram, the favourite, in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, but what many want to know is how many tomorrows remain for Carson.

'People have been trying to retire me for years now,' Carson says. 'But I'm not going yet. I can still get the job done.'

His huge Gloucestershire stud is testament that Carson has been getting jobs done for some time now. Yet there were times when this son of a Stirling banana packer had only dreams as his currency.

Some of these tales are almost Pythonesque; for example, he is surely the only teenager ever to take a drop in wages after being a newspaper boy. Carson's recollections of life as a stable lad at Gerald Armstrong's yard at Middleham makes one wonder why Botany Bay had to be founded.

Carson hardly even saw a horse when he began work in North Yorkshire, the first month of his apprenticeship being taken up by a course in how to use a broom to best effect. A treat for the lads was cooking chips on a shovel.

These days, of course, his lifestyle could hardly be more different. But one thing has never changed, and that is the little man's habit of vocalising almost every thought that comes into his mind.

If he can be remembered for one attribute, Carson would choose truthfulness. 'I'm not liked by some people because I tell the truth,' he says. 'Owners don't want to hear that their horse is useless, and when I get off horses trainers are always trying to get me away from their owners in case I say too much. It might be brutal, but I always tell the truth.'

Carson feels compelled to speak his mind even if it means overriding any form of social protocol. Thus, while Carson cherishes his parents, Tommy and May, who now live with him near Cirencester, he talks with a detached coldness about his three sons. 'My family has been a big disappointment to me,' he says. 'I'm disappointed in my sons because they didn't listen to what I said and it's gone wrong for them.

'I suppose it was difficult with their mother (Carole, his first wife) telling them one thing and me another. It might even have been my fault . . . '

Carson's main grouse with his offspring is that he believes they have not tried hard enough. 'I started off trying to achieve and I'm one of those people who just keeps trying to do that and can't stop,' he says. 'I have to improve, improve, improve.'

He talks unashamedly of how he has also tried to improve his social position, of how one day he decided he wanted 'to be more middle- class'. But while monarchs and moguls have been happy to have the little man on their thoroughbreds, Carson recognises the portcullis into their private world will never be raised for a man of his origins.

Carson has recently had correspondence from Buckingham Palace following criticism of the Queen, whom he blamed for removing his old partner, Major Dick Hern, from her West Ilsley training centre. The jockey has said the Queen 'made a mistake' and sticks to those words, though he adds that he is an ardent royalist and his proudest moment in racing was winning the 1977 Oaks on the monarch's Dunfermline.

Despite this Palace disapproval, Carson will march on with a simple tenet in his mind. 'All you can do in life is keep your head down and work,' he says, which may go some way to explaining his riding style.

There are too many wins (more than 3,500 of them) and too many Classics in Carson's locker for him to be anything other than one of the best jockeys of recent times, but his main talent has always been that of giving the impression that he is trying harder than anyone else.

For decades spectators have been warmed by the sight of the Scot rowing away with manic belligerence, the crown of his head virtually pointing through the ears of his mounts, the representation of a punter's pal.

But for how much longer? The jaunty Carson who scuttles out of Britain's weighing rooms throughout the season looks as though he could go on for ever, but when you see the other person, peering over half-rim spectacles in his study, you realise that here is a man of 50.

The man who used to buy his clothes from Harrods' boys' department also wears various moods. On form, he is the animated, teeth-baring personality of television interviews and the Question Of Sport captain's chair, but in darker times, and they have been more frequent since he fractured his skull in a fall at York 12 years ago, he can be a morose and difficult character. 'His moods are totally unpredictable,' says one who knows him. 'He can be low after a good day at the races and, at times, when luck seems to be going against him, he can be as chirpy as ever.'

Carson is becoming accustomed to parrying questions about retirement. 'I do get aches and pains these days, but I haven't talked to anyone about retiring yet,' he says. 'For a start I wouldn't know what to do. As someone said, retirement's fine as long as you've got a job to go to.'

In the grounds of Minster Stud, Carson looks as though he could slip easily into armchair land. He watches over his band of brood- mares and feeds the exotic ducks he has collected, the pairs of Cinnamon Teal, Bahama Pintail and Red- crested Pochard.

By their pool is a garden bench, a 50th birthday present to Carson from his parents, inscribed 'to Billy'. It is a little unnerving to discover that the man before you is not Willie (the Christian name given him early in his career by a journalist) Carson at all, but Billy to all his childhood acquaintances.

If anything is to jerk Carson back from the slippers it is probably the thought that he would be retiring while his earning potential is still high. Conversation with Carson would delight those who stereotype both jockeys and Scotsmen as people for whom money is never far away from the agenda.

The jockey moans when he feels he is not getting his dues, not least about his recently published memoirs, which have coincided with the thoughts of another fearsome careerist. 'Maggie Thatcher's getting three and a half million for her book and I'm getting virtually nothing,' he says. 'And I'll get into more trouble.'

Carson, however, is aiming to catch up with royalties. It was suggested that when his book was published a definitive retirement announcement would help sales. 'I know what you're saying and I'll go along with it,' he said. 'But let's save it for the paperback.'

(Photograph omitted)