William Hill Sports Book of The Year 2016 Shortlist: Q & As (Part Two)

Posted on 6th November 2016 by Sally Campbell
The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award has, over the course of the last 28 years, established itself as a showcase of the very best the genre has to offer, with long- and shortlists teeming with fantastic reads that inspire lively debate. To celebrate 2016’s shortlisted contenders, Waterstones Online's Matt Gardiner has interviewed the writers of  the books the award's chair has dubbed 'The Magnificent Seven'. In our second instalment, he interviews Christopher McGrath, and writing partners Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge.

Christopher McGrath 

As Racing Correspondent at the Independent, Christopher McGrath has won multiple awards including Racing Journalist of the Year.  In his first book, Mr Darley's Arabian, Mcgrath tells the story of horse racing through the bloodline of 25 horses beginning with a single colt bought from Bedouin tribesmen by an English merchant right through to modern wonder horse, Frankel. 

You are a sports journalist and this is your first book. What made you think of your subject “this isn’t an article, it’s a book"?

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

Tracing the history of racing through the bloodline of 25 horses is a brilliant concept, but must have been incredibly hard to research. Where did your work take you?

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.

Of all the horses you write about, which do you think was the greatest?

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.

The history of racing is as much about the human characters as it is the horses, and you must have uncovered some prime examples during your research. Who stands out for you the most?

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".

If you win the WHSBOTY, part of the prize is a free £2,500 bet. If you had to place that bet today, what would you be putting money on?

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. 


You have both worked as sports journalists. What makes you look at a subject and think “This needs to be more than an article"?

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.

TL: My journalist experience has primarily been in the broadcast media so I wasn’t particularly familiar with that response. I’d worked with Peter Roebuck for many years and knew him as an endlessly curious character. Quite simply, it occurred to me that a book was the means by which a life and death as intriguing as his should be addressed.
You wrote this book as a team – how did that work?

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. 

TL: I simply couldn’t have undertaken a task of such magnitude and complexity without a co-author. Aware of some previous work of Elliot’s, I discussed the project with him and thus it came to pass. We brought together a range of attributes: his voracious appetite for research, my immediate contacts; his experience, my working relationship with Roebuck and so on. We divided the writing according to topics and conferred regularly. The process didn’t unfold without debate and occasional difference of view. In the end, I believe we achieved an outcome that was journalistically sound.
Peter Roebuck was obviously a divisive figure – how hard was it to get people to open up about their experiences with him?

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. 

TL: Everyone had an opinion and most were prepared to share their thoughts freely. While there were a couple of significant abstentions, we achieved extraordinary access to the one person we’re aware of who acknowledges a consenting, intimate relationship with our subject. That this person is a woman blind-sided many who knew Roebuck.
Having got under his skin through writing the book, did you find yourself liking Roebuck, hating him or something in between?

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. 

TL: I’d always felt admiration and affection for him but with the instinctive awareness – shared by many others – that he was complex and different. The process of writing the book only served to underline this. As for judgements in relation to what happened, for me these swung wildly through the weeks and months. Often by the day. They still do.
If you win the WHSBOTY, part of the prize is a free £2,500 bet. If you had to place that bet today (This question was asked before the 2016 American Presidential Election), what would you be putting money on?

EC: That the son of a bus driver will never succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor of London…

TL: Hillary Clinton. And a lost bet would feel like a minor concern should she not win.




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