Lord Oaksey, John Lawrence in the annals of British racing, is rightly regarded as a legend of racing journalism. I dare say every young man or woman starting out in the profession dreams of one day acquiring a similar reputation. Being a Lord of the Realm there was little room to honour him further for his dedication to the sport or for the sparkle of his craft. And of course his name will always be associated with the inception of the Injured Jockeys Fund and the rehabilitation centre at Lambourn that bears his name. He is, and will always be, Lord Oaksey, legend.
Magnificent as he was with the equestrian written word, I suggest there is amongst the truly wonderful columnists presently assembled by the Racing Post a giant of the craft who may either rival the great man or might even have already surpassed him. I speak of course of Alastair Down.
I have spoken to the great man, at length if I remember correctly, though I doubt if he will recall the evening he phoned me out of the blue. The suspicion lingers that alcohol may have been consumed. By him, not me. I am a teetotaller, a state of being that Alastair might list in the 'three things I thank God for'. One should neither condemn Alastair for his devotion to drink nor sympathise with him. His dedication to the art of bending the elbow whilst holding a glass of alcoholic beverage allowed him a very commendable time when he attempted the drinkers marathon of 26 pints in 26 hostelries in a single day. He has thus far balked at doing the double - 26 orange juices at 26 temperance establishments.
Something we do have in common is a loathing for the names of great horses given to lesser beasts. The telephone call was a response to a letter of mine published in that day's Racing Post (or was it Sporting Life? It was so long ago) He will foam at the mouth if the name Rondetto appears on a race-card during his lifetime, as I foam at the sight of Spanish Steps - but I have written of that pain in a previous blog. (I'll never get used to the use of blog instead of article or piece) I can't imagine Alastair blogging. But then again great men and women don't need to blog. That is the preserve of lesser mortals.
Despite his devotion to booze and cigarettes, or perhaps because of these addictive substances, he is the supreme master of his craft, as 'Cheltenham et Al', the compilation of his 'pieces' for the Sporting Life, Weekender and Racing Post, that won him the Horse Racing Book of the Year Award, testifies. I'm not mentioned, of course, an omission that is clear evidence his phone call to me so long ago made no impact on his consciousness.
But the Horse Racing Book of the Year Award nor any of the other awards he has earned is award enough. He deserves, indeed the craft of racing journalism deserves, greater recognition for the passion and excellence racing columnists unfailingly deliver. I have no idea how to kickstart a hush-hush campaign to get Alastair elevated to the station in life when us lesser mortals must tug at our forelock upon meeting him and address him as Sir Alastair but within our sport there must be someone who might put in a word to the Prime Minister. This campaign, if there is to be a campaign, should be prioritised as his liver may not out-survive his thirst.
I suspect it was his dedication to booze that had something to do with Channel 4 evicting him from our television screens during the time of the great purge, though why I.T.V. did not invite him to contribute his passion and love of the sport, if only an ad hoc basis, only they can say. We all make mistakes and that is their mistake.
It will also be a mistake if Alastair goes to his grave as a man of lower rank. 'Your Majesty, Sir Alastair Down,' has a lovely ring about it, doesn't it? Perhaps even more so that the mantle of Lord that was placed on the head of John Lawrence.
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.