There's a certain glory in refusing to act your age

Singing the praises of little heroes
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The Independent Online

It was probably an above-average weekend for sporting headline-grabbers - Mika Hakkinen at Spa-Francorchamps, Martin O'Neill at Parkhead, John Whitaker at Hickstead - but, for me, the true hero of the past few days was Trevor Radford, an amateur jockey who, at the time of writing, lies in a critical condition in Southampton General Hospital.

It was probably an above-average weekend for sporting headline-grabbers - Mika Hakkinen at Spa-Francorchamps, Martin O'Neill at Parkhead, John Whitaker at Hickstead - but, for me, the true hero of the past few days was Trevor Radford, an amateur jockey who, at the time of writing, lies in a critical condition in Southampton General Hospital.

On Saturday, Radford was riding in what was to be his farewell race, the Richmond-Brissac Trophy at Goodwood, before his horse Landican Lane was sent to the Ascot Sales and he hung up his boots. Five furlongs out, he fell.

Although he was able to walk to the paramedics' vehicle, he became ill in the weighing-room and, having been taken to hospital, was found to have suffered a serious brain haemorrhage. Trevor Radford is 64.

When I first read in the Sunday papers that a "veteran amateur" had been injured, I was surprised that I had never heard of him - many years ago, I used to ride as an amateur myself. Accounts of Radford's career revealed the reason for this: before his comeback last year, his only race under Jockey Club rules had been back in 1953. During the 1990s he rode in Arab races and, since gaining an amateur licence last year, he has raced six times on Landican Lane. His best result (ninth in a field of 11) was at Lingfield in January.

At first glance, this all looks rather peculiar. Racing is a high-risk sport, requiring fitness and judgement. Although a Jockey Club spokesman has since argued that Radford had proved his competence riding under Arab rules and Willie Carson has said that he was "a lot fitter than many 25-year-olds", the decision to grant him a licence looks, with the benefit of hindsight, a touch rash.

Personally, I admire his courage - not so much for riding a half a ton of horse-flesh at racing speed at an age when he might be expected to have opted for a sit-on mower, but for defying social expectations.

There is something enviably bloody-minded, at a time when youth is universally revered, about a man in his mid-sixties stepping into the paddock and braving the disapproval of the smug, safety-first majority who prefer to watch from the stands.

These days, undignified old age, when revealed in any public arena, is regarded with distaste. A few dogged veterans are accorded grudging respect - George Foreman, Thora Hird, the Cuban pensioners from the Buena Vista Social Club - but, on the whole, we prefer old folk to go quietly and without a fuss. It is embarrassing to watch age's inevitable victory enacted in public, as it is when men like Trevor Radford refuse to fade into the background.

I should perhaps confess that there is a minor, personal subtext to all this. Eight years ago, I was offered the chance of a Radford-like return to the saddle - not at Goodwood and Lingfield, but in a few point-to-points on a horse owned by my parents.

I was profoundly tempted. My racing career had not, in the end, been a great success; I thought that maybe it was not too late for me, then approaching my mid-forties, to sign off in style.

But it was. My brother, a professional jockey, gave me a ferocious lecture. I convinced myself that to risk injury at a time when I was trying to make my way as a freelance writer was irresponsible to myself and to my family.

Lastly, and I fear most tellingly, the idea of taking instructions from my parents in the paddock did not appeal. The horse was ridden by someone else and won several races, and ever since I have half-regretted taking the grown-up course. So, for me, Trevor has earnt his heroic status - not only as the garage mechanic who rode at Goodwood, but as a man who, gloriously, refused to act his age.

* terblacker@aol.com

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