For as long as Phil Nicholas could remember, accidents only happened
to other people. Like any jump jockey he'd had his share of falls and
scrapes. He'd been dumped into ditches at thirty miles an hour, dragged
face down through birch fences and kicked like a football as he rolled
beneath the hooves of two dozen galloping steeplechasers. He'd paid the
price in lost teeth, cracked ribs and broken collarbones and, on several
occasions, spent the night in hospital at some doctor's insistence.
In the parade ring Phil turned his thoughts to his own problems - all
of which would be solved if only he could start riding winners again.
Despite having the pick of the Deanscroft entries, he'd not been first
past the post on any of them since his comeback at the beginning of December.
No matter what spin he put on the facts - the after-effects of his injuries,
a continuing problem with his left arm, the loss of racing opportunities
to bad weather - he knew he was no longer the rider he had been before
the accident. Though everyone at the yard had been vocal in their support,
it wouldn't be long before someone else noticed that he had lost his touch.
And that someone was liable to be the man now standing next to him, his
expensive mackintosh flapping in the keen winter wind, his granite-grey
eyes assessing Phil as earnestly as any of his runners: Russell Dean,
master of Deanscroft, the most successful National Hunt trainer of the
past five years.
Julia almost lost track of time as she worked on Little Harry. When she
massaged a horse she often lost herself in the task - it was as much mental
as physical. She imagined the positive energy flowing from her hands,
soothing jumping nerves, easing strained muscle and sinew, acting like
oil on stiff and creaky joints. Little Harry loved the way she pacified
his tired flesh, and so did all the other horses she ministered to at
Deanscroft and here at Ridge Farm.
The old feeling stayed with Phil around the first circuit. Ashburton
was foot perfect and Phil could feel his confidence grow as they soared
over the fences. Though new to jumping, he was a complete natural.
The hounds were making a fair old racket out the back but Keith Jeffries
didn't hear them as he stared at the television on the sideboard to the
left of the empty fireplace. Even though he'd had nothing on this race,
the drama of it gripped him, shutting out everything else. The unlit room
was dark in the late afternoon gloom, and the reflection from the screen
danced across the pages of the old exercise book open on the table in
front of him, illuminating the neat rows of figures inscribed in blue
and red ballpoint. A rank of reference books - Chaseform, Chasers and
Hurdlers, A Guide to Racecourses - stood by his elbow; a calculator, pad
and pencil lay directly in front of him; and, within easy reach to his
right, newspapers were stacked, open to the racing pages. He was a man
who took his betting seriously. As with everything in this life, it required
forethought, organisation and luck - a commodity forever in short supply
in Keith's experience.
Phil sat in silence in the noisy weighing-room. He should have been more
positive, committed Ashburton from the turn for home, but he hadn't, and
he knew why.
On the off-chance of finding an old packet of cigarettes, Julia rummaged
through the downstairs drawers and poked in all the hidey-holes where
household junk fetched up. She hadn't had a smoke since the wedding and,
after the first few weeks, she'd not missed it. But now a sudden craving
for nicotine gripped her. She longed to dull her disappointment in silky
clouds of tobacco smoke. But she was out of luck. She banged the kitchen
drawer shut with a petulant slam and returned to the sitting room.
Julia was on Phil's mind as he rode down to the start. He'd have guessed
she'd been working with Snowflake even if he hadn't known. In his experience,
all animals at Deanscroft benefited from her attentions, and the little
horse beneath him was no different. The grey was taking a good hold on
the way down to the start of the two-mile novice hurdle.
Keith kept his betting book in two colours of ink: blue for the punts
he fancied making and red for the bets he actually placed. Blue was the
predominant colour in these pages, a fact that gave him a considerable
degree of satisfaction. It demonstrated to him that restraint, self-control
and discipline were now present in his life - which had not always been
As Phil lined Snowflake alongside the other runners at the start the
rain lashed into his face and body. There wasn't much protection from
the elements in a jockey's lightweight racing silks. Once they were off,
however, all thoughts of personal discomfort vanished and he thought only
of the race.
Keith was not a man to count his chickens - he'd lived long enough to know that was how you got egg on your face. Still, surely the money was in the bag now with January King ten lengths clear and Skipjack run out of it. He allowed himself to relish the thought of picking up a cool £3,600. Enough to get Denise off his back for a while, pay a few bills and still have something left over to give him breathing space. Time maybe to plan a few more coups like this. He wouldn't mind making a living as a full-time gambler.
The sound echoed round the little room, drowning out the TV commentary.
Phil never thought of using his whip. There was no need - Snowflake was as keen to catch the horse ahead as he was. He rode high over the little grey's shoulders, urging him on with his hands, amazed by the transformation in the animal beneath him. How he wished there were a couple more furlongs to go. As they jumped the last hurdle - farther out, thankfully, than the last fence on the chase course - they were fast running out of room.
Keith couldn't believe it. He'd been about to land the sweetest gamble
of his life. January King had been four lengths clear and in sight of
the post when the jockey had stopped riding! It was as if the horse was
over the finishing line and the race was already won. But it wasn't. The
rider - that twat Adrian Moore - had simply dropped his hands, sat still
in the saddle and let some pathetic outsider catch him on the line.
Standing in the winner's enclosure for the first time in a month, Phil
felt relief rather than euphoria. Though his smile was broad as he accepted
the handshakes and back-slaps, he told all who would listen that the horse
deserved the real credit. In truth he hadn't had to do a great deal.
The television was off and Keith sat in the dark. He ought to see to
the hounds but, for the moment, he couldn't move. Since the race had finished
he'd sat frozen in shock.
Copyright © 2001 John Francome