Many have written about horse racing, few so eloquently as Alastair Down, whose collected essays have just been brought together in a new book.
MANY memorable moments in Yorkshire racing history were recorded so eloquently and so evocatively by Alastair Down during his illustrious careers.
Yet it is thanks to good fortune – and the detective work of racing biographer Sean Magee – that they have even been reprinted.
“I never kept a word of what I wrote,” admitted Down.
“All the beautiful leather-bound files of The Sporting Life got put in a skip. A whole tranche of racing history was thrown away – it should have gone to the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket.”
Despite this, some of Down’s best work has been preserved for posterity and, specifically, his uncanny ability to explain the significance and importance of horse racing people to ordinary people.
Here are four unforgettable memories.
On Night Nurse, the 1976 and ’77 Champion Hurdle hero who was second in the 1981 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“He indeed made Peter Easterby’s life great, but his wider achievement was to make countless lesser racing lives just that little bit greater.
“Up and down the country, there will be folk this morning with a particular memory of the old so-and-so, whether they saw him in the damp of a winter parade-ring doing his trademark impersonation of a comatose sheep, from the cold, stone steps of the stands or merely heard of his deeds and let their imaginations do the work in the smoke-laden fug of their local bookies.”
On Lester Piggott defying age – and prison – to win the 2000 Guineas and International at York in 1992 on Rodrigo De Triano.
“You stood there watching Lester, seemingly aged 110, win the Guineas with every ingrained instinct about not believing in fairytales telling you that this could not be happening. Yet there was Old Stoneface tapping racing on the shoulder for the umpteenth time to remind us all that there has never been anyone like him.”
On Morston winning the 1973 Epsom Derby for Malton jockey Edward Hide.
“It was the eve of A-levels and the Derby coincided with a history lesson presided over by an old curmudgeon on whom the glories of Epsom were lost. But we knew he would set us an essay on the Great Reform Bill and disappear. As soon as he went out of the door, out came the radio, but with four furlongs to run and still not so much as a mention of Morston, the wretched man returned and the commentary was duly curtailed.
“I was convinced we had done our money. But, lesson over, we descended the stone stairs to be greeted by a whole mob of exultant lads with the news that Eddie Hide had got Morston home by half a length at 25-1… cue ecstasy.”
On 1989 Gold Cup winner Desert Orchid whose owner Richard Burridge came from North Yorkshire.
“For eight seasons, he floated his fly in the most ferocious of waters…Unlike any other horse I have known, you lived every fence with him because his exuberance balanced you on some knuckle of fear and the inner thought was always ‘For God’s sake don’t kill yourself at the next’.
“Like everyone else I loved him, although I could never quite fall for the tag ‘Dessie’, a name that never rang right and struck me as slightly demeaning for such an enduringly flinty character – after all you can’t imagine Sean Connery saying ‘The name’s Bond, Jimmy Bond’.”
The Best of Alastair Down: Cheltenham et Al is published by Racing Post Books, priced £20.