My love of horse racing is even longer held than the deep regret that is the subject matter of this ‘piece’. It is so embedded in my soul that every nuance of the sport, every travail and everyday experience of the racing life finds a branch or tributary of my heart and mind to reside. If there was no horse racing I could not exist. Without the Racing Post my life would be diminished.
Quite late in my teenage years I decided life and work in a city environment would be too much for me to handle and with racing being my only true interest I wrote to the Sporting Life asking for help in finding a job with racehorses. They published my letter and I was contacted by, if memory serves, over thirty trainers. I chose to work for a yard that primarily broke in Richard Hannon’s yearlings, though as a livery yard they took in all sorts of horses.
Psychologically I have always been frail and in the twenty years I worked with racehorses I could never shake the feeling that I was out of my depth. I loved doing my three or four and enjoyed riding out, though not caring much for going racing. My love was for the horse and envied those who rode with greater confidence and skill than I could achieve, especially the jockeys.
My last ‘hands on’ experience with racehorses (there is an exception but it only lasted six weeks and is another story for another day) was ‘training’ (or assisting as head lad) point-to-pointers in Essex. We had such a good season that my employer took out a permit but luck and circumstance made this second season, though we had a winner, a sharp learning curve.
Taking what I thought to be a sabbatical but became a fork in the road that took me up the dead end that is the path I presently tread, I worked for two years as a cowman, milking a herd of sixty for Tony, brother of Terry, Biddlecombe. Tony is, in his way, a remarkable man. I heard it said he was as good a jockey as his brother. He was certainly better made for the job, being of slighter build to Terry. But gave up thoughts of being a professional jockey to run the family farm. He remained, though, a superb horseman, with the buying and selling of horses his great love.
Apart from catching the odd loose horse, I never went near the stables and tried to take only a passing interest in the horses that came and went from the farm. I viewed horses as an addiction and was trying to break the habit.
One day a jockey turned up to sit on a horse owned by a friend of his. This jockey was Richard Davis.
Younger readers might now be thinking Richard Who? Richard rode at the time mainly for Venetia Williams, though many small yards put him up. Like other journeyman jockeys, as Tom Bellamy and James Best have proved recently, he was a fine horseman and when given the opportunity to display his skills was as effective as any of the big names.
I suggested to Richard, without making any promises, we might collaborate on a book detailing the everyday life of a jockey in his position. My idea was that he would provide a diary into which I would interpose pieces on the big racing stories of the week. The phrase ‘compare and contrast’ would summarise my construct for the book and as he led such a busy life it was decided I would transcribe his thoughts from tape on to paper.
What happened next was my error of judgement. I asked for a diary and that is exactly what Richard gave me. I have the manuscript still. In some ways I remain proud of it, even though it is in need of a professional editor, and no doubt a proof-reader. In the first 19 pages I set the scene, explaining Richard’s background and so on. His contributions begin on page 20, Wednesday November 1st. ‘Rode out 3 lots for Malcolm Jefferson, having travelled up from Toby’s the night before. On the way I looked in on Norman Williamson at Lambourn to see how he is, how he is coping with his broken leg’. Several paragraphs followed.
The journal began okay, though as the season progressed I think his interest in the project waned. For example, Friday February 9th all I got was. ‘Rode 2 lots for Venetia. The rain came this morning and a good thaw set in. No racing again but they are hopeful Newbury will go ahead tomorrow’.
As I said this was my error, not Richard’s. The book was my idea, I was the driver of the idea and I didn’t drive it hard enough. I should have said ‘we need more. You should be providing ‘mud on the page’ as Sean Magee later advised.
But before I could get my act together Richard suffered that horrendous fall at Southwell and died of his injuries.
I thought, perhaps naively, perhaps with self-interest in mind, that someone in racing, journalism or the publishing industry would take on our project and the book could be published as a memorial to Richard to raise funds for the Injured Jockeys Fund. But even though the Racing Post published an extract the manuscript remains solely in my care, though I did send a few copies to readers of the Racing Post who expressed an interest in reading about Richard.
I am being disingenuous to Sean Magee who did take an interest in the manuscript and at a meeting with him at the home and with Richard’s parents I gave the idea over to him to do with as he pleased. He wrote a book on journeyman jockeys and dedicated it to Richard. I was mentioned in the text but at the time of publication the topic was still too raw at my heart for me to read. I also must admit that I remained hurt and surprised that Richard had told no one, not even his family or girlfriend, about the project we were working on. A story in itself, perhaps.
In the light of his death certain procedures in racing changed. As a result of a hunting accident Richard had his spleen removed, this at time did not need to be recorded in his medical book, although it is mentioned in our book. That he died of ‘uncontrollable bleeding’ and a lacerated liver, the lack of a spleen might have been a contributing cause of his death and if the medics at the course had known racing might have been abandoned so that Richard could have been taken immediately to hospital and not left for nearly half an hour in the doctor’s room.
Laura Shally, the trainer of the horse Richard rode that day, was rather unfairly blamed or took a lot of criticism for what happened and the Jockey Club upped their game after the inquiry as to what facilities trainers should have at their disposal before being granted a full licence.
Richard did not die in vain, you might say. As a direct result of his death rules were altered.
I still feel, though, that I let down a fine man with a whole lot to live for and I hope his girlfriend has since found happiness. I continue to harbour regret for my inability to do anything positive in the aftermath of his death to provide a fitting memorial to him. The manuscript I produced is far too much ‘me, me, me’ for it to be a memorial to him, and that sadly shows me in a very poor light. After all the book was to be titled ‘The Richard Davis Journal’.
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.