Being married to Rose, one of the greatest cooks in the country, is an especially pleasurable thing. No meal is ever dull. Breakfast can be a variety of treats from toast to scrambled eggs to a fried venison liver. Lunch is usually a sausage, perhaps some lentils or something leftover from the evening before. Dinner kicks off around 6 p.m. with a cocktail or two followed by wine. In winter we are great consumers of game, partridge, hare and pheasant. Thick creamy curries, poached fish, beef dripping with red blood. Great hunks of homemade bread lashed with butter and topped with a piece of artisan cheese. There are always leftovers. Rose has no concept of frugality — although we waste little and recycle a lot, the portions are always too big which means the naturally greedy can get stuck in. After 15 years of marriage, I creaked the scales at 16-and-a-half stone. Then, three years ago, after one particular bout of excess, I decided that the time had come to act.
Willpower and discipline are not my strong points. If I was going to lose weight, I had to have something to aim for: a sporting endeavour, perhaps an adventure. Climbing a mountain, running a marathon, swimming the Channel — they are all things that can be done whatever weight you are. I needed a clear goal.
Since I was a child I have had a fascination for and love of horses. I have ridden them for pleasure, worked with them, made films about them and written about them. It was the thought of the racetrack that prompted the eureka moment. No 16-and-a-half stone jockey has ever ridden in a race, let alone won one. So I decided that was what I would do — ride in a race. I’d have to lose nearly five stone; it was a great motivation. But what trainer in his right mind would take me on?
The answer came in the form of Charles Egerton, a bon viveur who has a higher ratio of winners to runners than almost any other trainer in the UK. ‘Edgy’ is also one of the kindest people I know: it was entirely due to him that I was able to embark on my great journey.
Before becoming a stable lad I had to lose a serious amount of weight and also start riding again. I cut out all carbohydrates but carried on merrily boozing from February until August. I cycled the children to school, two miles there and two back, twice a day. I ran around Battersea Park and swam at the local baths. Between February and August I shed two stone.
I went to Dorset where I rode Daz, a giant one-eyed carthorse. Endless miles of rising trot stiffened and tightened the thigh muscles. Then I found a retired racehorse called Edward. The riding bug had been rekindled and so I took myself off to Heads Farm, Edgy’s training establishment in Berkshire.
Teetering around the 14 stone mark with three months to go until race day, drastic action was required. Every morning I’d rise at 6 a.m. and eat my equine breakfast of oats, barley and linseed, down a cup of tea and enter the world of the racehorse. From 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., having taken my instructions from the trainer, I’d ride three horses, trotting to the foot of the gallops and then unleashing a coiled spring of equine muscle for the three quarters of a mile to the top of the hill. Steadily I graduated to faster, better horses.
I interviewed jockeys. The diet bit was more frightening than the riding bit. They exist on very little — a cup of tea, a boiled sweet and maybe in the evening a piece of poached fish and a salad. Many are bulimic; they sweat and torture their bodies to reach the required weight to ride the horse. There is not only an addictive fascination with the horse; there is an addictive predisposition in all jockeys. I had to find that disposition. I had to become that person.
Handfuls of laxatives helped, as did boiling hot baths where I’d lie for hours sweating off the pounds. One day I managed to lose half a stone. Some but not all of it went back on. On other days no weight would shift.
By race day I’d got down to 11 stone 7 pounds. I felt fitter and more at ease with life than I had done for 20 years. I went off to Towcester racecourse and did my very best on an edgy chestnut gelding, Dancing Marabout. Having been placed handily second for most of the race, we got beaten by the hill. I came fifth from ten.
Jumbo to Jockey by Dominic Prince is published by Fourth Estate at £10.99.