Tomorrow afternoon, I shall sit down in front of the television and watch the 40 runners and riders line up for the four miles and 856 yards, the 30 fences, of the world's greatest steeplechase. After the race, the presentation of the trophy (superbly sculpted by my brother Philip) and inevitable breathless interviews in the winner's enclosure, I shall switch off with some relief.
National Hunt racing was once my obsession. From the age of seven, I used to keep scrapbooks that were devoted to my 'chasing heroes – Pas Seul, Saffron Tartan, Kerstin, Mandarin, Dunkirk, What a Myth and many more.
During the days of one of the greatest rivalries in the history of racing, Philip supported Arkle while I cheered on the poor, doomed Mill House with all the bug-eyed enthusiasm that other children felt for Manchester United or Liverpool.
Jockeys were heroes, too, but it was not Fred Winter, Josh Gifford, or David "The Duke" Nicholson that I wanted to emulate. My role model was Mr John Lawrence, later Lord Oaksey, who successfully rode as an amateur and then wrote about his exploits for The Daily Telegraph with raffish, modest wit.
I dreamt of one day winning the Grand National and then being able to take my enthralled readers with me once more around the glorious two circuits of Aintree in heart-stopping, self-effacing prose.
Eventually I did ride under National Hunt rules as an amateur. While at Cambridge, I would get up before six most mornings and drive to Royston in time to ride out first lot for the trainer Willie Stephenson. Often, while my fellow students were attending lectures by LC Knights or Theo Redpath, I would be making my way to Uttoxeter, Leicester, Plumpton or Towcester, usually for a single, no-hope ride.
After university, I became one of the great army of hangers-on who work on the outer fringes of racing. I was a stable-to-stable salesman for an equestrian tonic called Equiform. I helped run an unsuccessful horse transport firm. I rode out with trainers and took what rides I could.
Scenes from some of the races I rode remain with me to this day with the vividness of early love affairs, but not the pleasure – turning for home in the lead in my first ride under rules at Huntingdon, rising at the third last at Warwick stride for stride with Terry Biddlecombe on Fearless Fred, making way through the field in an amateurs' flat race at Ascot in a disastrously ill-judged late run on Mile-a-Minute.
These are not, sad to report, fond memories. I was no better than adequate as a jockey and came second so often that it began to seem psychologically significant. The need to be successful meant that somehow fun got lost along the way – the sheer exhilaration of riding a good horse at speed over fences or hurdles was something I experienced schooling at home on the gallops but never on a racecourse.
Wasting – the need to keep your weight down with the help of various disgusting or debilitating pills – disagreed with me. I felt generally out of place in the world of racing, like someone who discovers in his first job as a salesman that he can't sell or, coming to work in the City, that he dislikes wearing a suit. To this day, the term "amateurish" has a particular, painful sting for me.
At some point in the early Seventies, I was offered a job working on a wildlife film in India, a trip that would mean missing the chance of riding Willie Stephenson's Holder around Aintree in the Liverpool Foxhunters. A month later, I listened to the race on the BBC's World Service in a forest hut in Madhya Pradesh.
Holder fell. I experienced a shaming sense of relief. It had been a close-run thing, but I had escaped from racing at last.Reuse content