Men and Horses I Have Known was the first non-fiction racing book I read. That was over 50 years ago and I’ve read many more since. But I have no hesitation in choosing Richard Austen’s At The Festival as the most enjoyable racing book I’ve read.
I’ve tried to make allowances in that assessment for just how well this book fits me. It starts by covering the golden age of hurdling in the 1970s and, by then, I was gaining enough knowledge about racing and form to put together a solid argument for horses (not just bets) I believed in. The names of the horses in this period come off the page at me as though leaping toward a jump, and they carry with them resounding memories and emotions.
So, at my age now and my stage of a lifelong love affair with National Hunt racing, I’ll confess that some of my affection for this book lies in a deep attachment to the participants. But, setting this aside, Mister Austen’s book still comes out top of my all time list. His stroke of genius here has been in following his nose for a story well beyond the level of any other racing writer I can think of. This is investigative journalism of a pure and joyful kind driven by the author’s love of the sport and its characters and of his own emotional ties to it. I suspect that the seeds of true passions are planted mostly in childhood or adolescence and Richard Austen is the grandson of the man who bred Birds Nest, and that’s where the book starts.
The Cheltenham Festival is the stage on which the characters, human and equine, appear for public consumption, for their races to be remembered and relived until they trot off to be replaced by the next act. But the true beauty in this book lies in what happens behind the scenes and the reader’s great good fortune is that the author has the perfect nose for sniffing out the tiny details that make you smile and make you wonder. Richard Austen specialises in finding out what happened before the curtain went up and, often, after it came down and everyone went home.
I defy you to read the tale of Norton’s Coin and not stop several times mid-page to assure yourself that someone will make a movie of it. It’s a wonderful story. As is that of Galmoy whose expert connections had only one way of telling when he was race-fit (he tried to eat people). And Winnie The Witch, bought out of a seller and then showing so little at home it caused family arguments about her next run: trainer Ken Bridgwater’s sons wanted her back in another seller as soon as possible. Not long afterwards Ken was saddling the mare for a Festival race and warning his jockey-son David not to win too far.
Another small yard, a tiny yard, that of Richard Holder’s started the 1981 season with just three horses. Holder is ‘constantly skint’ (he comes across as a lovely man) but he picks up the mare Mayotte in Ireland that season for 6,500 gns and she ends up running some fine races in the Stayers’ Hurdle. By 1989 Holder is still skint and badly in need of a big winner. A 100/1 shot in the Triumph anybody?
And the big guns are here too aplenty. You’ll learn a lot about Dawn Run and her eccentric owner (remember, the jocking-off of Tony Mullins, the early jumping problems, Jonjo’s hellish encounters with injury?). You’ll meet again Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse and Monksfield, the crazy Derring Rose, Desert Orchid, Bobsline, Noddy’s Ryde and quite a few more.
On Noddy’s Ryde, here’s an excerpt that typifies the touch of the author and his nose for a character . . .
One evening, a week or ten days after the arrival of the horse (at Greystoke) there was a knock at Richards’ front door. Standing there was a young Scotsman, unknown to the trainer and unannounced._
‘I’ve come to do my horse,’ declared the visitor.
‘Which horse is that?’
‘Noddy’s Ryde. Where he goes I go.’
‘Well, I’d better give you a job then.’
If you remember Brod Munro-Wilson I’ll bet you’re smiling at seeing his name. If you haven’t heard of him you are in for a treat (search on YouTube for The Drunken Duck). The impression Munro-Wilson left on many was based mostly on a combination of his double barrelled name and his finishing style on the back of a racehorse. But he was far from the buffoon many thought him to be and he backed his conviction that he’d win that Festival race, scooping a sum worth close to quarter of a million in 2017.
The more I write, the more enthusiastic I become for this book and it’s best that I reveal no more and simply advise that you buy it and buy it in hardback – it’s beautifully produced in keeping with the content. A book that will stand the test of time. I bought mine from Richard Austen’s website and Richard kindly signed it for me. I have a tall bookcase dedicated to racing; At The Festival now has pride of place there. The book is available here