At Christmas a friend from CNN sent me the story of a US officer on a European train. Searching for a seat, he found one occupied by a miniature poodle and asked its French female owner if she would put the dog on her lap. She not only refused but also remarked loudly as he moved on, ‘God spare us from these bloody Americans who think they own the whole world.’
Ten minutes later, the visibly weary American returned to say that there was no seat vacant on the entire train. Again he requested politely that madame move her dog. Again she refused, this time snarling, ‘Won’t somebody protect me from this boorish foreigner?’ At this point, with the train slowing, the American seized the dog and hurled it through the window on to a grassy bank. As its owner shrieked her fury, an Englishman sitting opposite spoke for the first time. ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ he said. ‘You Americans never get it quite right, do you? You hold your fork in the wrong hand, you drive on the wrong side of the road and now you have thrown the wrong bitch out of the window.’
England’s drubbing in the Ashes series already had me thinking about national characteristics: the Australians not only played much better cricket than our boys, they also seem to be altogether more proficient at the art of ‘sledging’, verbally destroying their opponents’ morale even before they have faced their first ball. Friends have asked if the same happens in racing.
Not in quite the same way. There is not too much time for verbals when you are driving half a ton of horse across two dozen obstacles, although occasionally, when a jockey’s call for racing room is ignored by a rival, it can lead to choice words afterwards, occasionally to changing-room fisticuffs. Jump jockey Timmy Murphy has just returned from a nine-day suspension after he and Dominic Elsworth scrapped in the Newbury weighing room. In Murphy’s case, injury was added to the perceived insult: throwing a punch at Elsworth, he dislocated his
Jockeys do talk to each other during races. The day after he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on The Dikler and celebrated into the early hours, a badly hungover Ron Barry only won a race at Uttoxeter thanks to two fellow jockeys shouting a warning to him and his mount every time they approached a hurdle. There is kidology too. When David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson was riding Mill House in the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown, his less experienced fellow jockey John Buckingham loomed up beside him around the final bend on San Angelo. ‘Steady Buck,’ called Nicholson, ‘you’re trotting up.’ Buckingham eased his mount and at that moment The Duke went hell for leather for the line on Mill House. Had Buckingham not been influenced into taking a pull, Nicholson admitted later, his own horse might not have been in the first four.
The leading Flat jockey Greville Starkey used to do a marvellous imitation of a barking dog and occasionally went into his routine during a finish to put off an opponent’s mount. It happened as he fought head-to-head with Pat Eddery as Pat won the Japan Cup on the Dowager Duchess of Bedford’s Jupiter Island. She still has the photo to confirm it.
I have been trying to recall, too, which jump jockey it was who accidentally spat out his false teeth as he shouted at an opponent for taking his room during a race. The jumping boys being what they are, linked always by the camaraderie of facing injury or even death every time they go out, the offending jockey, who didn’t have a ride in the next race, went back along the track to search for them.
Perhaps it is a little less friendly on the Flat, although even there most of the tensions are worked out in weighing-room antics, like the time Philip Robinson and George Duffield tried to get the South African champion Michal ‘Muis’ Roberts superglued to the floor in his riding boots. They just couldn’t get him to stand in one place for long enough.
The one man not to make an enemy of in the old days, however, was Lester Piggott. In Piggott’s later years as a jockey, the cocky young Italian Frankie Dettori used to enjoy teasing the icon of the Turf. Lester eventually had had enough of it and one day at Goodwood Frankie was leading him around a bend when suddenly Piggott struck like a cobra. A hand snaked out and seized the crouching Dettori firmly by the testicles. The grip then tightened like a vice, bringing tears to the Italian’s eyes, while the leading jockey’s voice muttered in his ear, ‘That will teach you to be so cheeky, you little sod.’ Dettori and some fellow jockeys afterwards examined the video of the race but no evidence was visible. ‘The cunning old fox had caught me on the blind spot where the camera angle changes.’ At least England’s batsmen haven’t had to face that from the Australian slips.