My boyhood watching Lester at Epsom

THE JONNY GOULD COLUMN
IRC NEWSLETTER, ALTERNATE WEDNESDAYS

‘Totally unspoilt by failure’ – that’s not just my Twitter handle, it’s also my life’s mantra. It’ll probably appear on my tombstone, and I’ll have no complaint. You see life is all about perspective – and my reality is that I peaked when I was 18. That’s a harsh truth as I enter my 6th decade, but as we all know the truth hurts.

I can have no complaints. My Mum and Dad made huge sacrifices as parents so that my two brothers and I would have the best of starts in life. By start I specifically mean education. We were those privileged few who went to an English Public School – and despite the torrent of appalling horror stories that have emanated in recent years about such an experience, ours was one of joy and fulfilment, of life-long friendships forged, and amazing opportunities had. But it came at a cost. Dad was a Doctor and Mum his medical secretary and they worked all hours to fund not one but three kids through the English private educational system. This was an era when doctors made house calls in the middle of the night, when face-to-face consultations were the norm, and Nurses nursed. It was relentless and exhausting, and in the end that pressure suffocated their marriage.

But it was also money well spent. Dad had zeroed in on Epsom College as the future school of all three of his sons, not just because of its geographical proximity to our Uncle Alec and Auntie Sonia, but also because it was a school established by a fellow Doctor. Founded in 1855, and granted royal patronage by Her Majesty Queen Victoria in the same year, it was borne of one man’s desire to improve the lives of those who had fallen on hard times. Dr. John Propert pursued this goal tirelessly, providing the orphans of medical families with free housing, clothing and schooling. Dad liked that. Did you know Kyle Sinkler – the England Prop – was one such beneficiary of Dr. Propert’s vision and generosity?

ONE OF THE GREAT ‘LESTER’ MEMORIES: The Minstrel (left) wins the 1977 Derby.

I spent five years at Epsom College. I was in School House – Propert House. I was in every sports team, I sang double-bass in the College annual Choral competition, I acted in about 10 plays, I won the Mark Cox Under 16 Tennis tournament, I was back-to-back Epsom College Debating Champion, and I royally f**ked up my A Levels. It was a roller-coaster of a ride on so many levels but perhaps its most lasting legacy was Epsom College initiated my life-long love affair with horse racing.

Situated in the shadow of the Epsom Downs, you couldn’t be an Epsomian without a passing nod to the sport of kings. Come Derby day – on a Wednesday in my youth – every Epsom College House ran a sweepstake, and the school afforded us all the afternoon off to walk up to the Downs to watch the Derby. I kid you not! About 650 Epsom College students in their best school blazers would make a mass exodus up to the Course, for the season’s premier Classic. We weren’t allowed to bet of course – officially – but the only way you’d get caught was if a teacher joined you in the Bookie queue – and even teachers aren’t that hypocritical. What memories these thoughts provoke. It was an Epsom College badge of honour to pick a fight with the young men working the travelling circus that accompanied the great race in those days. It was also the first time I met the “Original Gypsy Rose Lee” – which always struck me as odd, as there were at least 9 Caravans making the exact same claim. How many “Originals” are there? But best of all this was when I first became aware of the greatness of the legend that was Lester Piggott.

MORE OF JONNY GOULD

I was almost 15 in 1976 when I first witnessed the greatness that was Lester when he won the 197th Derby on Empery, the son of Peruvian Champion Pamplona. It was a Lester masterclass. A blueprint of so many of his great runs at Epsom- always in the perfect spot, not afraid to hug the rails, and almost always producing a run in the last furlong as others faded. From that day forth I always backed Lester in the Derby and a year later that proved a financially sound decision.

When you’ve won a record (never to be broken) 30 Classic winners, you might imagine that it’d be impossible to pin point one ride above another, but even Lester himself highlighted later in his career the joy of his Derby win in 1977. I was on the Downs again, fighting for a view of the home straight amongst the 100,000+ spectators, my £2 safely invested on Lester and his 5/1 shot The Minstrel. Lester lurked as always just off the leaders on the rail saving ground. Beautifully balanced The Minstrel looked to have a double handful, only to find as they turned for home, that Willie Carson on Hot Grove had made a significant move to steal the race.

By the time the horses had hit the straight Willie was a significant gap clear of the field. Lester never panicked. He knew The Minstrel, trained by the great Vincent O’Brien, had the talent to wrestle back the advantage. The two went clear of the trailing pack, two giants locking horns on the biggest of stages. With a furlong to go Lester had closed right up to his great rival, and Willie knew the writing was on the wall. But Hot Grove was no quitter and he responded like with like. Lester now knew he had a battle royal on his hands, and suddenly he was all hands and feet and arms cajoling his mount for one last effort. The Minstrel won by half a length and Lester was confirmed the King of Epsom.

Such great memories, such a great jockey – in fact the greatest in my view – who sadly died this week aged 86. Thank you, Mum and Dad, for affording me the gift of living life to the full – failures and all.

Until next time!  – IRC.

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