William Hill Sports Book of The Year 2016 Shortlist: Q & As (Part Two)
I’d browsed through a lot of Turf history with the idle thought of writing a book some day. And when I discovered that 19 out of 20 modern thoroughbreds are descended from the same horse, a bulb lit up straightaway. It was only when I began to test the idea – to explore whether the Darley Arabian bloodline would support a broader perspective, on both sporting and social history – that I realised quite how rich and complex the material would be. There are so many stories and characters filling the canvas that the biggest problem was always going to be confining them all to a manageable frame
Yes, as I’ve already indicated, there was a vast amount of history to sift. Happily, aside from visiting national and local archives and conducting a few interviews for the later chapters, the majority of the research was possible in the Bodleian Library at Oxford – which happens to be a very easy commute for me. Often I found myself requesting books that had never even had the pages cut apart. That was particularly gratifying. For one thing, you felt a huge debt to the benefactors and staff of that great institution, for the patient accumulation and preservation of such a priceless cultural repository. And it was also wonderful to redeem so many great characters and tales from their dusty oblivion, and bring them back to life for the 21st Century.
One of the abiding lessons of this book was that the breeding of racehorses tends to involve as much serendipity as skill. Several of the horses that held this vital bloodline together appeared to have very little to recommend them, on the racetrack, until their genes came through at stud. Many of them were written off and sold by their owners. But there are also a number of outstanding champions in the family tree. Frankel, whose recent celebrity volunteered him as a natural final destination for the narrative, was unquestionably a modern great and it will be fascinating to see whether one of his own sons emerges as principal heir to the line. But it’s always hard to compare champions of our own time even with those of the recent past. When you go back two or three centuries, it is impossible. The whole sport has changed so much. In the 18th Century horses were routinely asked to contest three heats of four miles on the same afternoon. Now a single race of two miles is considered an extreme test of stamina on the Flat. So it is largely a matter of instinct, at best, and sentiment at worst, to nominate a single paragon. But what I do know is that the most influential, in terms of genetic impact, was a horse very few people know: Phalaris. He raced at a relatively modest level during the First World War, but unites every pedigree that has flourished since. As such, he is a great tribute to the foresight and determination of those who risked a good deal of opprobrium in insisting that the sport continue during the war, albeit on a skeleton programme, so that a sustainable breed would remain once the bloodshed was finally over.
That was the whole premise of the book – that each horse in the bloodline, each link in the chain, would serve as a prism onto the wider world. The defining appeal of the Turf has always been its social diversity, and we duly meet a teeming gallery of pickpockets, prizefighters and prostitutes, as well as princes and Prime Ministers. We meet men of great political vision, and men who stoop to deplorable depths in pursuit of personal gain. It feels nearly impossible to pick out a single figure among so many gamblers and adventurers. Several times I became so captivated that I wasted days discovering the life stories of men and women who were ultimately confined to fleeting cameos. But what is not so difficult is to name the one man who made the biggest single difference to the evolution of modern racing, and duly bestrides chapters between 1860 and 1910. That was King Edward VII, though we get to know him – through the eyes of his fellow Jockey Club members, during his long wait for the throne – simply as “Bertie".
Obviously I should back a horse descended from the Darley Arabian, but that would only rule out one in 20 runners! As everyone on the shortlist gets a free bet, I am already looking through the long-range odds for the 2017 Classics. But my other great sporting interest is Italian football, so I’m very tempted by Juventus for the Champions’ League…
Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge
Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge have worked in cricket for many years. Lane has been a commentator on test cricket for over 3 decades, while Cartledge has played and coached all over the world as well as worked for the ICC on cricket development. Their book, Chasing Shadows, reveals the enigmatic life of Peter Roebuck. Roebuck was a complex man who played and coached at the highest levels but who was plagued by controversy throughout his life, a life which ended tragically and shockingly.
EC: When a topic becomes a theme, when an intriguing pattern has emerged, when an era calls for encapsulating, or when a controversy is substantial enough to warrant in-depth exploration. Naturally, subject matter must meet that age-old axiom: of sufficient interest to the author to sustain investing in a longer-term project and of sufficient commercial appeal for a publisher to justify putting it to market.
EC: We were never going to agree on every aspect of the complex and often troubling subject matter. That tension remains on the page, successfully in my opinion. Tim knew and worked with our subject; I didn’t know Roebuck but admired him from a distance. My experience in long-form writing helped us both and Tim opened doors that might have – if it all – taken me months to open.
EC: With a couple of notable absentees – Ian Botham and Viv Richards – we found the interviewing process a delight. From the warmth and hospitality of Vic Marks to the somewhat more acerbic views of David Frith, to the candour of Ian Chappell and the astute reflections of Jonathan Agnew, our interviewees were as intrigued by our subject as we were. We were also fortunate to hear the views of various members of the Roebuck family; their memories added poignancy and humanity.
EC: I found no evidence of malice in Roebuck’s actions, on or off the field. Stubborn, detached, odd, foolhardy at times, sure, but the condemnation and suspicion that followed him and was spread – with genuine malice – by others who should have known better was heavy-handed and hypocritical. That said, the allegations of misconduct blur the lines, naturally. He was a difficult subject to make absolute judgements about. Some spoke in glowing terms; others evidently loathed him.
EC: That the son of a bus driver will never succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor of London…