Oddballs and anomalies make up the most delightful rogues' gallery - Ashforth's Curiosities of Horseracing

Posted by Lydia Unwin on

Ashforth's Curiosities of Horseracing, by David Ashforth
£20 hardback, published by Merlin Unwin Books

The biggest, perhaps only, disappointment with this book is that the author himself, one of the greatest curiosities horserace writing has ever known, doesn't warrant his own chapter among the assortment of oddballs and anomalies he chronicles.

David Ashforth is a reformed schoolteacher who took refuge at The Sporting Life and spent many, but too few, years flicking brilliant and barmy journalism at us while we wondered why nobody had done it like this before.

Although now largely retired and white of beard, he remains a true racing original with an eye for the absurd, so it's no surprise that what he treats us to is less of a history lesson and more of a celebration of the ways in which our sport embraces, nurtures and even helps to create a world that's as odd as it is inspiring.

Of course, this being Ashforth, his heroes are regularly of the roguish, if not quite irredeemable, variety, and there often isn't a happy ending tied in a neat bow. The aim of the collection, he explains, is to "leave you with a benevolent view of an intriguing sport, if you don't have one already", but he's not prepared to sugarcoat the intrigue to swell racing's fan club.

Thus, we quickly find out that 'Lucky' Joe Griffin, the man who funded the ownership of two Grand National winners with a fortune made on mincemeat, was anything but lucky once his luck had run out. He went from flying in asparagus from France to titillate his guests at a lavish dinner celebrating the Aintree triumph of Early Mist, to persistently perjuring himself at his own bankruptcy hearing just two years later.

Joe was a liar, a fraudster and, eventually, a pauper, whose "belief in his luck was almost pathological", but Ashforth can't disguise a sneaking sympathy, even a whiff of regard, for a man who spread so much joy before "slithering down the slope to ruin and disgrace". That's Ashforth all over: the champion of the curiosity, for better or worse.

If the tales are well chosen, then the writing of them is everything one has come to expect from the irreverent wordsmith. Take the story of one less roguish, but equally fascinating, character, Jack Berry, the former top trainer and now charitable fundraising MBE, described as "what used to be called 'the salt of the earth'", with reference to the rather dry wisdom of Matthew 5:13.

As Ashforth puts it: "If PG Wodehouse had written the Bible, it would have been much funnier and Jack would have been described, more satisfactorily, as 'a good egg', indisputably a good egg."

All of which is a precursor to a description of Berry's riding career as "an exciting competition to see whether he could win more races than he broke bones. It was a close thing, but, to his great credit, he did." But only by 47-46.

I could go on, although not exhaustively, because I haven't finished the book. I'm taking Ashforth's advice, keeping it on my bedside table, ready to "dip in and dip out" of a collection arranged by theme but united by oddity.

"If you get bored with one, try another," he suggests. "Eventually the law of averages should come to your rescue."

As yet, the ratio of delicious to dull is tilted very much in favour of the reader.
Peter Thomas

Click here to buy Ashforth's Curiosities of Horseracing

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