Tuesday 10 December 2019

Theatre of track needs its colourful characters

The likes of John McCririck may be dinosaurs but they are compelling, says Ian McClean

This was always going to be a tricky year for the superstitious. Triskaidekaphobia (the fear of 13) is very real for some people apparently, and can be traced all the way back to biblical times when Judas allegedly was the 13th to join the Last Supper.

Yet here we are, little more than halfway through the first month of 2013, and already events in racing have been more Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, and Unprecedented (GUBU) than Charlie Haughey ever might have labelled them.

So, apart from the whiteout (hardly an unprecedented phenomenon given the time of year), what we are witnessing could occupy itself easily within the theatre of the absurd.

Simultaneously so far this year we have cocaine-banned ex-champion Frankie Dettori incarcerated in the Celebrity Big Brother house; John McCririck initiating a £3m lawsuit against his former employer Channel 4 with charges of ageism; the reduction in rating of Dancing Brave despite being off the track for 27 years; and Barney Curley calling time on his training career. I'm not certain it's all what Racing For Change had in mind precisely. But for all the bizarreness, at least we aren't yet cycling.

I remember first reading Dick Francis' Dead Cert in my early teens, and being captivated by the edgy imperfections of the characters; then slowly falling in love with the intriguingly unconventional world they inhabited. In their own unique way Dettori, McCririck and Curley could easily have populated those pages if indeed their personalities weren't so far-fetched.

Perhaps the most fascinating of all is John McCririck's accusation of discrimination against his former employer, which he claims has resulted for him in "public humiliation, stress and mental anguish". Celebrity, it appears, induces an inevitable warping of perception and Big Mac's plaintive assertion seems to wholly ignore the fact that prejudice has been one of his own defining characteristics for the past 30 years. His antiquated Edwardian worldview where women fit into worthless brackets coupled with the definite article ("The Booby", "The Female") served McCririck's own ends in defining his carefully crafted, grotesquely unique media persona. So to now cast himself as "a beacon" to "prevent negative discrimination in the workplace" is rather like King Herod presenting himself as the figurehead for child-minding.

If Big Mac's (now 72) final desperate act is at least in keeping with the overblown character, Frankie Dettori's motives are far less obvious. McCririck himself is a former guest in a previous Celebrity Big Brother house and he unapologetically admitted he was doing it for the money. But Dettori? It isn't like he needs the money. Or is he threatened by retirement, even if he has forfeited his retainer with Godolphin. Perhaps he simply sees it as a diversion, and a convenient means of alleviating the boredom as he serves out his riding ban.

He claims he will be donating a portion of his fee to chosen charities – one of which is Barney Curley's African aid vehicle DAFA.

Curley himself, now 73, is intending to spend more time in Africa after he hands in his training licence at the end of the month. His already tiny Newmarket yard is now reduced to just one horse. From the notorious Yellow Sam coup at Bellewstown back in 1975 where he won an estimated £300,000 (modern day £1.4m), through to netting close to £4m for his syndicate when three horses from a multiple (of four) won in May 2010, Curley has always had it in for the bookmakers. Betfred famously resisted paying out until forced to nearly two years later in the case of the 2010 multiple.

Curley admitted he was almost glad the fourth horse (backed from 7/2 to 1/3) didn't win on the day, observing, "If these fellows can't pay three, what chance would it be with four?" He finally concluded that "nobody will ever win as much on horse racing this century".

After learning of the coup, Frankie Dettori allegedly called Curley. "I hear you've had a touch," he said. "I'm pleased. Because the word on the street was you were losing it."

McCririck, Dettori and Curley are three of the most compelling and controversial characters in the game. By definition they each polarise opinion in their own way but they have been a defining aspect on the landscape of our sport for three decades and more. Perhaps Curley and McCririck were part of a bygone era – an era that's being steadily washed out by a combination of political correctness and instant messaging. But just like Dick Francis when we lose the characters we lose a little bit of ourselves.

"People were telling me our day had gone," Curley said in his most recent interview. I hope he wasn't referring to the colour that goes with it.

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