My 21st birthday was 50 years ago last Thursday (12 December). I was at Oxford, public schooled and privileged. The next afternoon I rode a winner over fences at Sandown. But on the Saturday, I broke my nose in a race at Cheltenham.
It felt like the end of a promising beginning. Yet it also seemed like the start of a great adventure in a game that didn’t score too highly in the planning stakes nationwide.
On Monday and Tuesday of that week, there was racing at Birmingham, with Wednesday and Thursday at Windsor. Wincanton also raced on the Thursday, as did Cheltenham on Saturday, in a dumb and direct clash with the other card at Sandown.
But with a broken nose none of this mattered, I just felt sorry for myself.
I was out of order. For a week earlier one of the least self-pitying people on the universe had seen his life changed at Liverpool.
Tim Brookshaw was truly the toughest and the bravest of the brave, but even he was nailed when a headstrong mare named Lucky Dora crashed out through the wing at the fifth hurdle. Tim was paralysed from the waist down.
He was not to be the only one. In a macabre coincidence, the steeplechase run an hour before Brookshaw’s disaster had been won by a tall, leggy horse who would soon be forever linked with Tim’s legacy.
Border Flight was a handsome liver chestnut with a striking white blaze down his forehead. His win that afternoon made him one of the favourites for the Grand National the following spring and, until the Chair fence, the bets felt like good ones.
But then, to the horror of the millions watching on TV and the tens of thousands in the grandstands, Border Flight did one of those things that jockeys try to confine to the stuff of nightmares.
From being a soaring master of the Aintree fences, he was suddenly an absolute duffer and galloped straight into this, the biggest obstacle on the track. The fall was one of those dreadful violent cartwheels that sear themselves into the memory. It was Paddy Farrell into the ambulance this time.
Paddy was one of the stars of the north — a quiet, strong horseman who had come over from Ireland a few seasons earlier — and soon won friends and fans alike. But this fall was a bad one.“You are going to be all right,” his wife whispered to him in hospital. “But they say you will never walk again.”
So within four months, two of the country’s leading jockeys had been paralysed, the second on the very day and in the very race when all the world was watching.
Back then, compensation was feeble and unless someone did something, the world and the game would just wring their hands and move on. But someone did.
In those days, John Oaksey was champion amateur rider. Mr John Lawrence, son and heir of the former Geoffrey Lawrence QC, who had been ennobled to Lord Oaksey after being the presiding judge at the Nazi war leaders trial in Nuremberg.
My beating of John by a length at Sandown had been a high point. It was quickly levelled at Cheltenham when I found myself staggering back muzzy and bloody to the doctor’s desk as Mr Lawrence was being led to the winner’s circle.
But John was a writer as well as a rider and when he wrote — as he did every week for The Daily Telegraph and for Horse & Hound — you could see that he cared. He cared about Paddy Farrell and Tim Brookshaw.
When Border Flight’s owner Clifford Nicholson and three other stalwarts started an appeal for the stricken jockey, John leapt in to join them.The effect was extraordinary.
The finest pen that ever graced the game peeled ignorance from eyes and money from wallets. What began as “the Farrell/Brookshaw fund” hit such a chord that it soon also wanted to help the needs of others.
What has become the Injured Jockeys Fund (IJF) will have its 50th anniversary next year.
Think of them all when you buy your IJF cards this Christmas. Forgive also that uncaring, bloody-nosed undergraduate who now has the honour of John Oaksey’s chair.