Thursday, March 30, 2017

The worst of days

In a small amount of weeks it will be 30 years since I moved to Newmarket.  It was meant just to be for three months, but I'm still here.  Thirty years represent, at this point, 60% of my life, but really the past 30 years almost seem more than that.  Childhood and early adulthood seem to occupy only a very small part of my memory-bank, which is odd as in one's first couple of decades a year is a very long time with plenty in it, while nowadays it's nothing.  Anyhow, 30 years ago I moved here, knowing virtually nobody.  I can only think of three people who currently live in Newmarket whom I knew before moving here.  One of these is Allan Mackay.

Unlikely though this sounds, I rode my horse Black Rod in the Norwegian Grand National at Ovrevoll in Oslo in October 1986, on the same day that Dancing Brave won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp.  That meeting was not only Norway's biggest day of jumping but also of Flat racing, as the card also featured the Oslo Cup.  There were some horses there from Britain and Ireland, Flat and jumps; and some jockeys too.  There were more visiting jumps riders, but also a handful of Flat jockeys from Britain and Ireland.  I remember John Reid being there, riding dear old Gulfland, best remembered for being ridden by Princess Anne in amateurs' races, for Gavin Pritchard-Gordon; and Allan Mackay was riding there too.

Move on seven months, and I moved here.  I was working for Ian Matthews in the second stable down Hamilton Road, Southgate Stables.  Next door, the first stable in the road, was Loder Stables where Eric Eldin trained.  Allan, Eric's son-in-law, was the stable's jockey; and Jimmy Quinn, who had moved down from Malton at the end of the previous year from Pat Rohan, was the apprentice.  I hadn't seen much of Allan at all at Ovrevoll, but the first day I passed Eric's string, he called over, "I know you.  I met you in Oslo.  You rode in the Grand National.  Are you up here now?"  It was remarkable that he remembered me.  Remarkable and hugely appreciated.  I knew nobody and nobody knew me, so a friendly face and a friendly welcome was hugely appreciated, particularly when the friendship and the welcome came from someone whom everyone knew, everyone respected, everyone liked.

Roll on 30 years, and Allan's always been around.  He finally dropped off the public radar when he eventually finished race-riding, but he only did that once he was in his 40s and once his sons Jamie and Nicky, both of whom he had been taking out riding on the Heath as soon as they were in short pants, were established race-riders themselves.  I am sure that there were races in which all three rode.  The race possibly I most remember him riding was the Weatherbys Super Sprint at Newbury when he rode a little Rock City filly called Veesey (who ran OK but finished unplaced) for us down the bottom of the weights. Predictably the other jockeys had weighed out and there was no sign of Allan, which was disconcerting in a big race when there's a big field and you're on a light weight.  As luck would have, it Willie Carson's mount was a non-runner, so he half-heartedly agreed to stand in if Allan didn't appear.  Willie got himself ready and sat on the scales - and then Allan strolled through the doors of the weighing room, 16 minutes before post-time.  No worries.  Allan, ever the master at keeping his head when all around him were losing theirs and blaming it on him.

Anyway, eventually Allan packed in the race-riding, a thousand and one hair-raising stories in the memory bank, stories which with anyone else you wouldn't really believe, but as it was Allan you knew not only that they were true, but that you were probably only getting the toned-down versions of them anyway.  But while Allan's name eventually ceased to be in the papers, for anyone who knew him, and that is pretty much everyone, he has never dropped off the radar.  He's always been there, ever the friend for anyone who needs friendship, ever the giver of a cheery greeting just when you need a smile or a word of comfort, ever the larrikin, ever the wheeler-dealer, ever up to something which only he could be up to, ever doing something which you can hardly believe is true, ever Peter Pan

Funnily enough, about a month ago I took a photograph (which lies in the first paragraph of this chapter) of Allan riding a 12:2 pony on Hamilton Hill, a pony which his 14-year-old daughter was going to ride in a pony race at the end of the following week.  If you didn't know how small Allan is, you might have thought that this was a man on a small horse, rather than a small pony, and I put this picture up on Facebook with a caption purporting that Allan was ripe for a come-back, preparing this 'little two-year-old' for the two-year-olds' seller at the first Musselburgh meeting.  There was, of course, no truth in that report - not that, with Allan, you could ever rule anything out 100% - but tragically now it's even more certain not to be true.

On Saturday morning we heard that the Southfields all-weather, which runs up from the trotting rings past the farm to the Rubbing House, was closed because there had been an accident.  After a while it was still closed and the air ambulance had arrived.  Then it was still closed, and the air ambulance was still there.  It was clearly very serious.  Whoever had been hurt had clearly been hurt very badly.  Eventually the helicopter took off and the canter re-opened.  The world continued to turn, even if the as-yet-unidentified victim of this accident might be finding it turning in a very different way.

We now know that that air ambulance had come for Allan.  As far as I can gather, he had been riding a horse for Michael Wigham in a routine, totally straightforward canter.  The horse apparently stumbled while pulling up, which doesn't sound much.  But then it probably didn't sound much when Brian Taylor's horse stumbled on pulling up after a race in Hong Kong, and that fall killed him.  This fall hasn't killed Allan, but it seems that he has suffered dreadful injuries from the horse knuckling over and landing on him.  He doesn't know about it yet as he is, I believe, still in an induced coma, but when he comes round he will almost certainly find himself facing up to a life very different from the one which he has lived - well, more than lived - for the past 57 years.

There have been too many accidents recently.  Freddy Tylicki and George Baker have both suffered very serious injuries, and now Allan too.  The full extent of the damage will become clearer as the days pass, but it is already clear that they are bad.  It is also clear that the Injured Jockeys' Fund is, as ever, a tower of strength for jockeys and ex-jockeys in their hour of need.  A tower of strength, a tower of kindness, a tower of practical, financial and moral support.  Freddy and George will both have the additional help of the Professional Riders' Insurance Scheme, but Allan, as an ex-jockey, no longer has that safety net.  Happily, he too has the Injured Jockeys' Fund, and will have it for life.  And he has a loving family.  And he has a mountain of good will from thousands of people around the world, people whose paths he has crossed at some point and on whom his larger-than-life personality has made an indelible impression.

Even so - and even allowing for the fact that Allan has spent his whole life doing things which, with any normal person, you just couldn't believe possible - there are some mountains which can't be climbed.  But the IJF will be there for him and with him as he faces the toughest of challenges.  Furthermore, just as when Freddy was hurt, an additional fund has been set up, overseen by the IJF and acting as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the help which the charity will provide anyway.  A fund which will be able to make some small contribution to helping Allan to cope with the devastation to his life which lies ahead.  Furthermore, over and above the practical help which the money will be able to buy, it will be a demonstration that people care, want to help and are doing what they can.  And that in itself will be a massive boost to a good man in his hour of greatest need.

1 comment:

neil kearns said...

brief thought on previous chapter it may help kempton'cause if it wasnt running with such poor fields on such a regular basis and perhaps those interested in saving it would do well to coerce connections into running there even if that was sometimes to the detriment of their chances