Alastair Down was never one of the University of York’s most diligent students, but he used his time there to pursue his lifelong love affair with horse racing as Tom Richmond discovered.
IT is ironic that the biggest obstacle to racing journalist Alastair Down’s celebrated career was posed by a philosophy professor at the University of York.
“Now Mr Down, why York?” asked the academic as he queried the rationale behind his prospective student’s selection criteria for the higher education stakes.
“Because it is the only university in the country where I can reach eight racecourses in 50 minutes or less, sir,” replied the teenager with characteristic confidence.
The unorthodox interview tactics paid off. Four minutes later, he had been invited to join one of the most famous seats of learning in the country.
Down, who has always had a way with words, never missed a single meeting at Cheltenham, the home of National Hunt racing, during his three years at York in the late 1970s and subsequently went on to become one of horse racing’s most gifted – and respected – writers and broadcasters.
Now a collection of his most evocative essays has been reproduced in a long-awaited book, The Best of Alastair Down: Cheltenham et Al, that is a faithful tribute to many of horse racing’s equine and human heroes.
Understandably, there’s a strong Yorkshire representation. Take Double Trigger’s third Goodwood Cup win in July 1998 for Middleham’s Mark Johnston. “Class is one form of greatness, courage another. In Double Trigger they meet in a chemistry that the old alchemists sought unavailingly for generations,” wrote Down.
Or the passing of Peter Easterby’s dual Champion Hurdle hero Night Nurse later in the same year: “To those of us sliding inexorably into middle age, he was something that burned hot on the coldest afternoons…”
And, most poignantly of all, this is how Down described the cancer-stricken training genius Sir Henry Cecil when the incomparable Frankel won an unforgettable Juddmonte International two summers ago. “Never under-estimate Henry’s toughness or his will. He confesses to being a ferocious competitor and there is more fight in him than a dozen commandos.”
As Down freely admitted to The Yorkshire Post: “I am one of those people who have been lucky enough to pursue a passion for a living – and be paid for it. I also had a very good education which is a priceless asset.”
For both, he is indebted to his father, an insurance broker, whose Saturday afternoon television viewing invariably revolved around horse racing. “If he was getting so much pleasure out of it, I thought there must be something in it.”
Down was also fortunate that his first bet – at the age of five – was a winning one when the gallant grey Nicholas Silver won the 1961 Grand National. “If it had got beaten, I might have taken a different road in life. At my prep school, half of the staff were regular punters by the end.”
His scholarly teachers at the exclusive Tonbridge School were, however, less enthusiastic – The Sporting Life was not available in the library and Down made arrangements to collect a copy from a nearby newsagent each morning.
“It was gambling and people looked down their nose at such things,” he recalled. “The Guardian wouldn’t publish racecards until the 1960s because racing was regarded as the work of the devil.”
Fortunately the University of York was more open-minded. It had to be – its students at the time also included one Edward Gillespie who later became Cheltenham Racecourse’s managing director and took the National Hunt Festival to new heights.
“I loved Yorkshire – and Yorkshire people – and I found all the stereotypes to be completely false,” said Down who chose to live at Buttercrambe near Stamford Bridge because of its closer proximity to Malton’s gallops, the region’s racecourses – and the road to jump racing’s spiritual home in the Cotswolds.
It is not the great surprise that Down scraped a 2:2 degree. By his own admission, his reading material was “more form book than philosophy or politics”. It did pay off, however, at the 1978 Ebor at York when he rustled up his last £11 and staked it on Lady Beaverbook’s Totowah in the Ebor.
“Eventually I found some 22-1 odds and the eleven quid found a home,” recalled Down. “As he passed the post, I hoarsely borrowed a few quid from a mate and we went to the bar to fusillade a few corks. Some time later I waddled down to the ring where the bookies were doing the last sortings of their satchels. ‘Oh, ‘ere he is,” my victim greeted me cheerily. ‘The daft beggar who had a soppy amount at a silly price! Eleven quid, I ask you, what’s wrong with a tenner?’”
Following an unsuccessful stint running a betting syndicate after graduating, Down became a form analyst before being invited to apply for a job on The Sporting Life in 1981. “The editor, Ossie Fletcher, asked if I could start in the second week of March. I said ‘No, I will start the week after Cheltenham”, he said.
Down remained with the paper until its closure in 1998. He then switched to the Racing Post stable, his current employers, while becoming one of the faces of Channel Four Racing until being deemed surplus to requirements nearly two years ago when many of the ‘old guard’ appeared to be ditched in favour of more photogenic presenters.
The ruddy-faced Down, who would use Channel Four’s ad breaks to smoke a cigarette to calm his nerves, does not miss his television role. Asked if he preferred broadcasting to writing, he replies: “Without a shadow of doubt, writing. I blustered through as a broadcaster.”
As for the future, Down – whose son James is “studying criminology and pints” at Leeds University – will be back at Cheltenham this weekend for its prestigious Paddy Power meeting. His love of jump racing stems from the fact that so many great horses return to the fray for “three, four, five, six and seven years” and he has not missed a day of the National Hunt festival since he was 19 – his first year at York.
Yet it is also the people. The late Michael Scudamore’s Gold Cup win in 1957 on Linwell was a childhood memory. His son Peter was a champion jockey – and now runs a successful stable in Scotland with his partner Lucida Russell. And a third generation, Tom and Michael, are now doing justice to their family’s legacy.
“We’re lucky to be dealing with decent people,” adds Down, who does not hesitate to cite Dawn Run’s emotional 1986 Gold Cup win as his favourite race of all time. “If you asked me to cover football for three times as much money, I wouldn’t do it.
“To many, sport is a business rather than sport being for sport. Racing, particularly over jumps, is still sport in its truest sense. It still has a capacity where people celebrate the success of others. People say ‘I was delighted they won that’. The racing public is blessed with a great heart which can be very humbling. I am proud to be part of that public… and this book is for them.”