When I told a story involving Elizabeth Taylor at a charity lunch lately my host capped it with a better one. Princess Margaret and the screen superstar once dined together in New York. Part way through the meal La Taylor thrust forward her hand, on which glittered one of the chunkiest, most famous diamonds in the world, and asked, ‘What do you think of that?’ Looking disdainfully down her nose, Princess Margaret declared, ‘Personally, I find it rather vulgar.’ At which her dining companion whisked the ring off her finger, slipped it on to one of Margaret’s and inquired challengingly, ‘So what do you think of it now?’ That comes under the heading of Good Questions.
There are others. Even after enjoying a sublimely intricate Arsenal passing movement, I can’t stop asking why Premier League footballers are paid such ridiculous sums. Not so much because I resent rich rewards for talent in what are inevitably time-limited careers but because I think every time of the jump jockeys who go out in all weathers, risking injury and even death every time they climb into the saddle, for less than £150 a ride.
Kept off the racetracks lately by the experience of moving house as well as by the weather’s havoc with fixtures, I have another question. The estate agents who ‘sold’ our house had to do little more than print a few brochures (getting the details wrong) and send a callow youth to show round potential buyers. Mrs Oakley did far more to sell the place than they did. By contrast, our skilled and infinitely painstaking solicitor had to see us daily through the endless legal tangles of the most expensive transaction of our lives, a role which required a huge amount of professional expertise. So why should the estate agent, on commission, expect and receive around six times the solicitor’s fees?
The racing lull has given me time to enjoy more of the batch of good racing books that have emerged this year. I have written already about Ruby Walsh’s thoughtful autobiography, about Mick Fitzgerald’s lushly illustrated celebration of jump racing and Paul Mathieu’s intricately illuminating history of the Manton training estate. But racing folk can also spend their book tokens or Aunt Emily’s rather smaller cheque this year profitably on Michael Church’s gentle The Gambling Adventures of Father Green (Racing Post, £14.99), a collection of stories about a punting priest. They reminded me of one of my own first successful wagers, when as a schoolboy I persuaded the vicar in charge of the Roll a Penny chequerboard at a church fête to let me roll sixpences instead. Those I lost would have brought him six times the gain for St Mary’s church roof. But it was also several times easier to land a small sixpence than a large penny inside the squares. I nearly cleaned him out before being moved on to the coconut shy.
Racing’s own cheeky chappie Rod Simpson, these days training in Saudi Arabia, has been through more scrapes than a potato peeler and he recounts his ups and frequent downs in Rodders of Arabia. Typical was the tale of the horse he handled who had much larger testicles than the average. Rod reckoned the animal was not running up to his ability because the protuberances were chafing him during exertion so he massaged them with the ointment his wife had been rubbing into his young son’s gums to aid his teething troubles. The horse duly won, but Rod landed in trouble with the Jockey Club after it failed a dope test. It turned out the gum ointment was laced with lignocaine. A hefty fine followed. At least the horse may have enjoyed the experience.
Finally, there is Peter Corbett’s elegant volume Bayardo, the Life, Times and Legacy of an Edwardian Champion (Rinaldo Publishing, £23), which fills a gap in racing history and is packed with fascinating detail: on the very first page, for example, we learn that at Edward VII’s coronation a pew was reserved for his many mistresses to view the ceremony. It was known as ‘the loose box’.
We learn that Derby winner Persimmon nearly failed to take part in the race, having refused to enter two trains due to take him to the racecourse and only consenting to step aboard the last one possible.
Bayardo, owned by Alfred Cox, who raced as ‘Mr Fairie’, trained by Alec Taylor at Manton and normally (if sometimes controversially) ridden by the American Danny Maher, failed to win the 2000 Guineas or the Derby of his year but is still rated one of the greatest horses of all time. Unbeaten in seven races as a two-year-old, he won the St Leger and the Eclipse at three and he proved a magnificent stayer at four with one of the most conclusive victories ever in the Ascot Gold Cup. In all he won 22 of his 25 races and Peter Corbett’s deeply researched record, packed with anecdote and social history, is a fitting tribute.