Rather like the New Year variety, resolutions at other times of the year can be equally half-hearted. I remember the revelation that I did not really like alcohol, or at least that alcohol didn’t really like me, and I made the resolution to become teetotal, a decision I have adhered to ever since, as strange as that may be to those of you who might think I only ever write under the influence of strong spirit.
As my library of mostly ‘pre-loved’ books was getting out of hand – just couldn’t find enough wall-space to fit any more book-cases – I made a similar resolution to stop allowing myself to be seduced by books. After a bit of soul-searching I triumphantly managed to give away 99% of the novels I had collected, even those I had not got round to reading, keeping only those I couldn’t go on living without.
For weeks my resolution was steadfast. But then I decided I just had to, couldn’t live without, to commemorate the retirement of the greatest 2-mile chaser of all-time, buy, as a one-off, the Racing Post’s book on Sprinter Sacre. I enjoyed the book so much I realised, just in time, I suspect, that I was inflicting great harm on my soul in avoiding book shops and since then I have acquired an impressive number of racing books, including the two I always thought of as the Holy Grail of racing books, Pat Taaffe’s ‘My Life and Arkle’s’ and Michael Tanner’s homage to his favourite horse ‘My Friend Spanish Steps’, of which the last line in the introduction is ‘For this is Spanish Steps and at long last I can tell him how much I love him’. Doesn’t that just sum up National Hunt racing?
Amongst the recent purchases to bolster my now quite respectable racing library is a self-titled diary type of memoir by Gee Armitage, the first lady jockey to ride two winners at the same Cheltenham Festival.
This book intrigued me as I had tried to write a similar book with the late and much missed Richard Davis and as with my effort Gee’s book reads like she kept the juicier aspects of her year to herself. Of course when writing her year-book Gee did not fully appreciate that what she was putting together was a racing history book, especially as she was in the midst of single-handedly breaking down the forest of discrimination for the likes of Nina Carberry, Katie Walsh and the other good female riders who over the years – 29 to be precise –have proved categorically as ridiculous the chauvinist held criticism that ‘girls are not as strong, tough or competent as men’.
Interestingly, the people she rode against and socialised with are now established figures in the sport. Jamie Osborne was a young conditional in 1988, Richard Phillips assistant trainer to Henry Candy, Henrietta Knight had not even thought of training. Also, Desert Orchid was still running over 2-miles, ‘Hello’ magazine was new, a mobile phone cost £1,800, Windsor was still a jumps course and Cheltenham was only a 3-day festival. Though what is abundantly clear is that Luke Harvey has been drinking hard and not taking life at all seriously for a very very long time.
Rather like the entries Richard Davis provided for me it was the frustration with the weather that dominated the months of January and February, and when the racecourses were not either waterlogged or frozen Gee was often injured, which lead to entries involving her private life and the publicity she was receiving for being a lone girl in what was very much a man’s world. ‘The publicity I am given is totally out of proportion to my ability as a rider’, she wrote, which might have been true, though what she was not appreciating was that she was ‘box office’ whereas Richard Dunwoody was not.
The book was marketable not only because at the time Gee was marketable but because she was riding Gee-A in the Grand National that year and if she had won the book would have achieved a second or third print-run. She didn’t win, of course, indeed her race ended when she put her back out at the 20th fence when there was a fair chance Gee-A might have been placed. But that is life. One of her coterie Brendan Powell won the race and her boyfriend at the time Carl Llewellyn suffered a bad fall.
What is interesting about the book, 29 years since its publication, and what affords it merit, is that it is not only an illuminating postscript to the career of Gee, as much a pioneer over jumps as Hayley Turner on the flat, but it sheds a reminiscing light on the sport all those years ago. I suspect N.H. jockeys still know how to party and indulge in silly pranks but I doubt if today’s jockeys, or at least the top professionals and those with the ambition to be a top professional, drink as much beer as Luke Harvey seemed to consume. Indeed given his high profile in the sport these days as part of I.T.V.’s racing team Luke might want to start praying that Matt Chapman or one his other colleagues does not have a copy of Gee’s book on their bookshelves. I say no more.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.