The young lad behind the counter of the betting shop looked at me askance. ‘This horse is 200–1.’
‘Yes. I know.’
He leaned over the counter and lowered his voice. ‘Have you had a tip?’
I looked around me to see why he was whispering. ‘No.’
He stared at the betting slip. ‘You’ve had a tip, haven’t you?’
‘No!’ I insisted. I really hadn’t had a tip either. I was betting on a horse I had just seen being loaded into a lorry in the yard where Darcy is busy becoming a racehorse.
I got so excited seeing, for the first time, one of my horse’s stablemates going out to the races, to be ridden by her trainer, no less, that I ran down to the Coral and put a fiver on the nose.
The horse didn’t win but I had a fun few hours fantasising that if it did I would be able to pay Darcy’s training fees next month, no problem. As it is, I’m going to have the same struggle as last month.
I tried to haggle on the basis that I would do as much of the riding as I could myself, and write a book about it — if I could find a publisher— but the trainer insisted that the price was the price. In fact, within a week of me turning up he put the price up by a hundred quid.
‘Really?’ I whined, as he grinned at me in that sardonic way of his, arm still in a sling from his last tumble.
To be fair, it’s an all-in deal, and not bad compared with bigger yards. I tried to interest a few friends in a syndicate but they didn’t have the vision. They looked at me, a famous loony, and they looked at the thoroughbred I bought as a yearling, her tummy all nice and full of grass after three years of being mollycoddled, and they thought ‘Nah!’ So without a syndicate, I’m probably going to go to the wall financially.
‘But we’re not in it for the money, are we?’ said the trainer. No. We’re in it for the glory. And the romance. And the fairytale ending that might just happen if we’re very, very lucky.
‘Only one in a hundred horses even makes it to the track,’ he tells me. ‘And of them, only one in a hundred wins anything.’
But no matter. Because as well as the glory, and the romance, and the fairytale ending — none of which will probably happen — we’re in it for the speed.
The heavenly, godlike, immortal speed. I was addicted from the first gallop.
After that, however, it got harder. The second time I knew what to expect so my stomach was in revolt by the time we reached the sand track. I got up off her back but I couldn’t balance well enough to goflat out.
As my legs burned, we lagged so far behind that the two horses in front disappeared completely round a bend and I felt the oomph go out of Darcy like a burstballoon.
The third time out, I was determined. I cast off the back protector. Jockeying is more like ski-ing than horse-riding. You need to load your leg muscles and lean your body just right as you build up speed. The bends come round with a ‘whoosh!’ If you resist them or stiffen, you don’t take them right.
This time, I felt Darcy bunch up like a coiled spring as she jogged on her tiptoes on to the gallops. I was in front this time, in a group of four. The girl jockey and I were to go off in a pair, with two other male jockeys paired behind us.
‘OK?’ she called back. But we couldn’t hold our horses longer than a split second once their feet were on the red sand.
After a giant leap, Darcy settled into a fast but workmanlike gallop, keeping gamely ‘upsides’ with the more experienced horse. And to my absolute amazement, I rose up in the stirrups and managed the whole circuit and a half poised high above the churning half ton of speed beneath me.
As we rounded the bends the thought entered my head that a fall at this point would be like shooting off piste mid-black run and hurtling into nowhere. I leaned forward, low over Darcy’s neck as we took a corner at full pelt: ‘Go on go on!’ I begged, and she flew round like a pro.
We saw the shed coming up for the second time and let the horses slow. As we walked back into the yard the trainer came to greet us. The lead jockey informed him: ‘She’s still smiling.’ And he shrugged and smiled as if to say, ‘Give it time.’