Robin Oakley

The switchers

Graham Lee’s recent openess about the illness can only help others sufferers

‘He’s such a good competitor. He works so hard and he deserves it,’ said his predecessor Lewis Hamilton after Nico Rosberg won this season’s Formula One drivers’ championship. Replied Rosberg,the new champion: ‘He’s a top man and a top driver. He’s like Robocop. I thought I could pull clear of him but he kept coming back.’

Well, actually, no. The quotes are real but the words were not uttered by Rosberg and Hamilton, whose championship is yet to be decided. Substituting only the word ‘rider’ for ‘driver’, the tributes were actually those recorded by Jim Crowley, Britain’s new champion Flat jockey, and Silvestre de Sousa, the previous title-holder, after the pair had spent five months this summer driving 50,000 miles between Britain’s racetracks and riding more than 700 horses around them in a frantic tussle for the top title in their sport. The point of my transposition is that you simply could not imagine the title contestants in Formula One, or almost any other sport, saying, and meaning, such complimentary things about
each other.

The Crowley-de Sousa exchanges reminded me of a conversation at Warwick races in the spring with the champion jump jockey Richard Johnson about rivalry in racing. This is an age in which many sports are blighted by ‘sledging’ and professional fouls, by bitter spats and financial jealousy even between supposed teammates, but Johnson insisted that hate was never part of his inspiration: ‘I don’t need anger against someone to compete with him.’ The constant threat of injury and of their wives or partners receiving the dreaded afternoon phone call from a hospital contributes to the camaraderie at the jumping end of the sport and perhaps Jim Crowley’s generosity in victory owes something to the fact that he was for many years a jump jockey himself, with 300 jumps winners to his credit before he switched to the Flat ten years ago.

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