Guest post by John Carter
Jockeys are not like normal people. Nor do they want to be. Most normal people would weigh up the risks and rewards of making a living as a professional race-rider and observe that the occupational hazards are prohibitive. Certainly there are three obvious ones that would put off most of us.
Firstly there is the constant, never ending travelling from one race meeting to another on Britain’s overloaded roads. Day after day. Motorway after motorway.
Second there this is the food deprivation. Jockeys – particularly those who ride on the flat – are on a permanent diet, dehydrated, often two stones below their natural body weight.
Third there is the inevitability of injury. For even the best jockeys it is not merely a possibility, it will happen. Even the great AP McCoy possesses a body scarred by numerous misadventures and visits to hospital. On average a jump jockey falls around every 20 races. Around three quarters of those cause soft tissue damage; the others involve fractures, concussions and dislocations. Of course they put such dangers to the back of their mind to preserve their sanity, but the constant perils remain nevertheless. They play Russian roulette every time they sit on the back of a live animal and jump a fence at speeds of 30 mph – few other professions are followed by an ambulance as they perform their duties.
Someone like me – a logical, rational member of society – breaks into a cold sweat at the very thought of putting myself in harm’s way to this degree. I feel far more comfortable sitting at a desk behind a keyboard. No travelling, I can eat as much as I want and the only threat of injury is modest eye strain and a tinge of cramp in the fingers.
Yet there have always been braver, hardier souls, who feed off danger, adrenalin and the thrill of competition. Souls like Captain Becher who rode in the Grand National in 1839. Forty years old, ruddy-faced, cavalier and swashbuckling the Captain, aboard his mount, 20-1 shot Conrad, led the cavalry charge to an obstacle described as ‘a strong pailing, next a rough, high jagged hedge and lastly a brook about 6 feet wide’. The horse fell and the Captain landed ingloriously its icy waters. Undeterred Captain Becher got up, remounted and continued the race, only to fall again into the brook at what is now known as Valentine’s Brook. The double dousing went into the legends and the first of those fences became known as Becher’s Brook. Nearly 180 years on it will still present a stern test to horses and jockeys on Grand National day.
The spirit of Becher remains. In writing the book Warriors on Horseback the jockey who made the biggest impression on me was John Snaith. He was a professional National Hunt jockey who plied his trade in the 1970s and 1980s. When he was 28 years old, in 1983 he suffered a terrible fall at Aintree and lay in a coma for six weeks. It was the worst of an accumulation of various injuries and concussions he had suffered and the doctors told him he must retire or suffer severe consequences.
The years that followed were beyond challenging. There were physical and psychological scars. When I met him, some 30 years after his enforced retirement I asked John whether, if he could turn the clock back, he would have chosen a different, safer profession. To me the answer seemed obvious. But he dismissed the notion: he had no regrets and would choose the same path again. Along with the words themselves the tone and animation in his voice left no room for doubt. When he talked of life as a jump jockey – the horses, the camaraderie, the competition and the buzz of winning – his eyes were alive. I learned a lot about the mindset of jump jockeys from John, who is now employed by the National Horseracing Museum, sharing his enthusiasm for the sport with visitors.
In the 21st century, other professionals are following in the footsteps of Becher and Snaith, sharing their courage and thirst for thrills, and the class of 2016 with be on show at Aintree on Saturday. Observe this remarkable tribe of warriors. They deserve our admiration for their skills, athleticism and bravery.
Warriors on Horseback: The Inside Story of the Professional Jockey is out now in paperback.
Click here to find out more.