Saturday, December 02, 2017


We're well into the National Hunt season now, and we've had some wonderful racing at Newbury over the last couple of days.  Richard Johnson's riding is a joy to behold, and Buveur D'Air was magnificent in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle this afternoon.  There are heroes galore in National Hunt racing, but I can't let today end without nominating my heroes of the week.  And it's not actually this week because it was last Saturday evening, but if I write this now it's still less than 168 hours (ie the length of one week) ago.

I had an ATR shift last Saturday evening so I couldn't get up to the Leisure Centre to see it, but (as you probably know) Simon Pearce and Nicky Mackay boxed so that there could be a charity evening in aid of Nicky's father Alan, who was paralysed in a fall on the Heath early this spring (only a week or so after Nicky had had a very bad fall at Chelmsford in which he broke his thigh, which kept him out of the saddle for six months or so).  Nicky's fall was terrible, but Alan's was even worse, especially as he didn't merely break his back, but all his ribs too.  The ribs heal in time, but the spinal cord doesn't, so he's in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  Thank God he can still use his arms, but even so it's a devastating disability.

Alan's a remarkable man.  He's one of the few people I know in Newmarket whom I've known for longer than the thirty and a half years that I've lived here.  He's spent his life doing the impossible.  You've always heard stories of him doing things that, if it were anyone else, you'd just think were exaggerated and/or made up - but you've known that, as it's him, they'll be true, and that you're probably only getting a watered down version of them anyway.  You never know how anyone will cope with facing up to paralysis, but there was always a chance that Alan would rise to the challenge unbelievably well.

Anyway, I haven't seen Alan since then (and I'm not proud to say that, as I should have done) and I couldn't get up to the Leisure Centre last weekend.  But I did speak to Alan a couple of weeks previously.  I was walking up Exeter Road one afternoon, and Danny Dunnachie (who was apprenticed to Eric Eldin in the late '80s when Alan was stable jockey, as well as Eric's son-in-law) appeared from out of the entrance to the Yellow Brick Road, talking on the telephone.  Danny came over to me. He said, "John, I'm talking to Alan.  Here, have a word with him", and handed me the phone.

I'd heard that Alan was handling paralysis in his own inimitable style, so my opening gambit was, "Alan.  Hi.  It's John.  I hear you're getting around OK?".  Even knowing how tough and uncomplaining Alan is, and how one should never be surprised by anything he does, I was still blown away but his matter-of-fact reply: "Yes, I'm doing fine, thanks.  I just can't walk".  He said it as matter-of-factly as the rest of us might say, "Yes, I'm doing fine thanks. I just get a slight twinge in my shoulder every now and then."  Unbelievable.  Absolutely inspirational.  A true hero.  (But then we knew that anyway).

So, with apologies to the heroes of National Hunt racing, we've just ended November and my nominations for Heroes of the Month have to be Nicky (seen in the fourth paragraph, on Ethics Girl at Yarmouth a few years ago, led up by Hugh Fraser) and Simon (seen in the fifth photograph, on a young Roy at Yarmouth a few years ago) - and, of course, Alan (seen here on his daughter's pony, on Hamilton Hill only a week or so before he was hurt) himself.  Anyone who rides in a race, Flat or jumping, deserves undiluted respect - but at least in a race, dangerous though it is, the other competitors aren't deliberately trying to hurt you.  If I had to ride in a race tomorrow or step into the boxing ring, I'd start cleaning my saddle and digging out my breeches now.  Simon had fought previously (he fought William Carson in the spring) but I think that it was Nicky's first time.  Heroes both - just like the man for whom they were doing it.  Respect.

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