Officers, gentlemen and a Grand National flag chap

David Lister@davidlister1
Monday 14 June 1993 23:02

IT'S the rich what gets the pleasure. It's the poor what gets the blame.

And poor Ken Evans certainly did. The Grand National fiasco was nearly all his fault, the inquiry committee's report to the Jockey Club has decided. He apparently neglected to raise his flag and send the horses back on two occasions.

He disagrees. The committee, headed by the High Court judge Sir Michael Connell, does not do anything so vulgar as accuse him of lying.

Sir Michael, instead, calls on his judicial experience to explain: 'Lying has within it the suggestion of intentionally deceiving. There's room, as anyone familiar with the courts will know, for people's recollection of events to change as time goes on, so that they come to believe that that which they are telling you is true.'

Thank you, Sir Michael, for a delicious contribution to the English language; not as pithy as that other celebrated euphemism 'economical with the truth', but just as memorable for combining devastating character assassination with languid urbanity.

The Grand National starter, Captain Keith Brown, senior starter of the Jockey Club, is exonerated of all blame apart from letting the horses get a little too close to the tape, though, as anyone familiar with the courts will tell you, that was probably the horses' fault for failing to recollect how far they should be from the starting tape.

Those of us who follow racing had some private wagers on the verdict, back on Grand National Day. Mr Brown was a captain, an officer. Mr Evans was poor bloody infantry. Odds for surviving the inquiry: Captain Brown 4 to 5 on; Mr Evans 9 to 1 against.

But not before a pernicious sting in the tail. The inquiry's report states that the committee suspected that Mr Evans was primarily concerned to leave the course as soon as possible because of the proximity of his selected position to the starting point.

Or, in the language of the four ale bar, he ran. The sort of thing to sour the taste of the port in the officers' mess. But, then, what can one expect of the other ranks?

Horse-racing, God bless it, is the last class-divided sport in Britain. You'll see it in its purest form at Royal Ascot today, with the gradations going all the way from top hats and morning suits in the Royal Enclosure through the lounge suits in the private boxes down to the families in the cheapest enclosures - usually a good furlong from the start and, literally, on many courses, on the other side of the track. At York, the Ascot of the north, Yorkshire society gathers over cream teas in the members' enclosure; those who have never danced at Castle Howard make do with fish and chips in the grandstand bars.

Indeed, go to any race meeting and you are reminded of that classic sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. We, say the Jockey Club, owners and local society, with their members' badges, look down on them. We, say the trainers, and badgeless racegoers in tattersalls, look up to them and down on them. We, say the jockeys, and bookies and punters in the cheaper enclosures, know our place.

In what other sport, in what other walk of life, will millionaire celebrities such as Lester Piggott and Pat Eddery be addressed by their surnames, and doff their caps and say Sir, not just to the owners in the paddock, but sometimes even to television interviewers?

The few times that cameras have been allowed into a stewards' inquiry we have been given some wonderfully theatrical moments of skilled sportsmen looking at the floor with their hands behind their backs, to receive the chastisements of the retired Army officers seated behind the desk.

At the Derby, the winning jockey at least gets on to the podium. Normally, like the horse, he receives a pat on the flank and it's on with the next race.

But horse-racing reflects life. The class system's modulations in the sport are becoming more complex as sponsorship muddies the waters. The owner of the Derby winner must have been a little perplexed, given the presence of Her Majesty the Queen at the course, to receive his trophy from another lady, the area director of Ever Ready, the race's sponsor.

The fundamentals of racing were on this occasion left intact: it was the owner who received the trophy.

It's all great theatre. And by coincidence, Andrew Lloyd Webber, reflecting on the postponement of his latest musical, says: 'My cast and colleagues feel like athletes at the peak of fitness whose race is suddenly postponed; and I am contemplating writing a musical about the Grand National.'

I suggest Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Michael Connell, Paul Eddington as Captain Brown, and either Ronnie Corbett or Norman Wisdom as the luckless Mr Evans.

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