Shirl was the horse's name. Before her eminently soft assignment at Sussex's forgotten and forgettable seaside track, this unpromising three-year-old filly had finished 14th in a handicap at Leicester and was beginning to be thought of as a disgrace to the family of her sire, the 1978 Derby winner, Shirley Heights. As she set off at 33-1 for one of the worst races of the 1992 Flat season, only the local slaughtermen could have paid much interest.
Unless, that is, you had looked at the name of her trainer. Gareth Charles- Jones had just seven undistinguished animals at The Coach House Stables, Wantage, but the fact that he was in residence there at all was a miracle of fortitude and faith.
While he had been helping Jessica, his wife, face the prospect of life in a wheelchair following her fall in a race at Southwell, Charles-Jones had been diagnosed as having cancer of the lymphatic glands, and neither looked much of a bet to penetrate the ultra-competitive world of racehorse training. The magazines and the tabloids had pored over their story before passing on to the next weepy tale of human misfortune, leaving Gareth and Jessica to endure unimaginable discomfort among the wreckage of two riding careers.
Shirl was their first winner on the Flat. The following week, a streetwise 10-year-old called Pigeon Island seemed also to be respecting divine directions when winning another tiny race at Plumpton, and in both moments, the Piggotts and the Sheikhs and the money-guzzling rituals of Newmarket and Ascot retreated into insignificance. People had said that only the incurably sentimental would send horses to such a yard.
There was no mawkishness at Brighton. Nobody cruelly bent down to speak to Jessica Charles-Jones and nobody patronised Gareth with any how-amazing-that-you-could-do-it condescension. Shirl's win under the panting apprentice, Patrick McCabe, produced the same polite, bowling green applause that greets every victory on those mid-week afternoons high on the Sussex Downs.
Then again, nobody put in a bid for Shirl when she was auctioned after the race, and the Charles-Joneses were able to ship her back to that depopulated training yard in Wantage. Stiffly, ready for combat, we watched for any upraised arm or nodding head at that sale.
Nobody would have dared.
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