In or around 1972 I had my extensive collection of racing books stolen by someone who was supposed to be looking after them on my behalf. It was a decidedly low point in a life lived low. I may have shed a tear. I was doubtless mad as hell about it. I may have since assembled a greater library of assorted books, but only a small percentage of them are books on racing.
One of the books that went ‘missing’ in 72 (or thereabouts) was the book I consider the best racing autobiography ever published – ‘My Life And Arkle’s by Pat Taaffe. It is a lifetime since 1972 – 45 years, unbelievably, to be precise, and nearly all of the characters in the book have died, Pat Taaffe included. Finally, though, I am reunited with a copy of this marvellous and beautiful book. Even though I knew what was in the package when it fell from the letterbox, my heart skipped a beat when my eyes again alighted on the front cover.
If there is a jockey thinking of writing his or hers autobiography I recommend they track down Pat Taaffe’s book before commencing their own account of their life story. His story is written in the manner of someone sat at the tea table, sipping Earl Grey. There is not one smidgen of bitterness, envy, self-pity or self-congratulation in the book. There is a beauty in the simplistic composition, with a few choice paragraphs that live in the memory for ever more. For Example: second paragraph, second chapter.
‘Across that land had galloped some of the greatest horses Ireland, or for that matter the world, has ever known. Brown Jack first trod grass in County Meath. Reynoldstown, Golden Miller and Kellsboro Jack ran through the hills to the north. Prince Regent was already hunting with the hounds to the south. And one day an even greater one would come to Killsallaghan.’
This book is not only a homage to Arkle – ‘the even greater one to come’ – but to racehorses in general. Pat Taaffe was not just a jockey but a man for whom life without horses was as unimaginable as good manners.
I would encourage the modern jockey to especially take note of what Pat Taaffe wrote about use of the whip. He begins the paragraph talking about Fred Winter, a jockey he was in awe of, or so it seems. ‘He was a classic whip rider and yet hit his horse very much less than others. This again I liked’. Here, you see, is a jockey who cared deeply for the welfare of the horse. ‘I have always believed,’ he continued. ‘that young jockeys should first be taught to ride without whips …… I always looked upon the use of the whip as a confession of failure on my part. If the understanding between horse and rider is right, the whip can be used to keep your fellow straight, to build up a rhythm as it slaps along the boot, and nothing more.’ He also said. ‘Normally if the horse doesn’t respond to the first crack, there is no point hitting him again.’
If this principle was adhered to today, and if it was made the first principle of the rules regarding use of the whip, many of the unwanted headlines in recent years could have been avoided. Was it Joe Mercer who said ‘if they don’t go for one smack they certainly won’t go for two’?
If you want a calm, knowledgeable view on how good Flyingbolt was or could have become, this book provides the definitive answer. Or why Pat was not at all surprised that Foinavon was able to avoid the carnage and negotiate the fence that now bears his name and go about winning the Grand National. And then there is the amazing coincidence of Mill House playing such a part in his life, even before he became Arkle’s greatest rival. Indeed the book is one anecdote followed by another, followed by a story that tells the true character of the man at the typewriter.
The reader gets to know Pat Taaffe by reading his autobiography. His gentle character is on every page, and at its end, the book is only 79 pages long, you feel you know him better than your closest neighbour.
I have to confess I took several facets of the book to fictionalise in a short story I called ‘I’m Afraid He Is, I’m Afraid He Is’. I embroidered my story on a short anecdote on page 54, chapter 11. ‘After the race, Mr.Dreaper was asked whether Arkle was the greatest horse he had ever trained. “Yes,” says he, “I think he is.” ‘He said it slowly and with some reluctance, as if with the sense of being disloyal to some old friend. The ghost of Killsallaghan had finally been laid, but only just.’
Tom Dreaper, you see, did not believe he would ever train a horse that was better than Prince Regent.
You, dear reader, will never read a better autobiography than ‘My Life and Arkle’s’. I defy anyone to come up with a better one.
As a P.S. to this piece: my copy of the book was given to “Charlie” from all the horses at Lowood. 13th July 1973. Perhaps somebody knows who Charlie was.
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.