The Inside Rail

Grand National morning. Wake up and for a moment, just a moment, it’s a regular day. Then it hits you fast, the realization, the expectation, the impending, the dread and delight of the impending. It’s the biggest race of your life, the biggest day of your life. See, riding is your life. Sure, you have friends and family, lovers and haters, but, for you, it’s a singular quest. You are a jockey.

Pick out your best tie, well, it was picked out weeks ago. It still has some luck in it. Your suit hangs on the back of the closet door, it’s been ready for weeks, too. A shower and a shave. A cup of tea, a biscuit, a banana, that’s all. Your stomach needs it, your brain doesn’t notice it.

There is no small talk. Everybody knows there is no small talk today. Your dad learned this early, on the way to pony races, both of you quiet, together and apart. He, nervous. You, nervous. His work over. Yours about to begin. He wanting to talk all the way to the races. You wanting to talk all the way home. Those great lessons taught without knowing they were being taught.

Your first Grand National, oh hell, your first five Grand Nationals, they were adrenaline and excitement, there wasn’t any urgency, you would be here for the next two decades, you’ll ride the Grand National every year, you’ll win a few, of course, you’ll win a few. Hit the deck in a few, sure. Becher’s was Becher’s back then. You don’t take it for granted but you don’t have the capacity to feel urgency or the comprehension of the simple passage of time, time isn’t running out, it’s not even running. You’re young. You’re free.

But now, 20 some years later, without a win in the big one, time is running out. You know it, you don’t say it. Everybody knows it, they don’t say it. At least to you. Like telling a bald man he’s going bald, don’t bother, he knows. It’s there, the elephant in the corner, oh hell, it’s out of the corner, it sits in the middle of the room, it is the room. 

You know the route to the track, the car drives itself, you’re deep in your head now, thinking about the rides before the big one and the big one and nothing about the rides after. Jockey’s Car Park sign, you wheel into a spot in the front row, you’re here early, it seems like you get earlier each year. Preparation is more important now than it was before, you need the routine, you need the calm, you need the balance. You know what you need.

You walk the course because of that routine. It’s just what you do. Quietly, you walk, pulling your navy blazer close to your chin, buttoning each hole. You walk. A comrade joins you, one of your old comrades, he’s welcomed, because he knows not to speak and you know not to speak. Memories flash, some good, some bad, some so God-awful you spin them out of your mind like a bartender slinging a cold pint glass down the bar and onto the floor. You walk. Red Rum, West Tip, Many Clouds flit into your head, a few other old ghosts, you smirk and think about what it takes. It’s over fast. Nothing really learned, oh sure, ground here, ground there, fence rides this way, that way, but that’s all been learned before, ingrained. You know once the flag falls, it all becomes instinct again. Experience, preparation, study before the moment somehow turns into instinct at the moment, or, that’s what is supposed to happen. Now, you’re riding against kids who weren’t born when you rode your first National – when Becher’s was Becher’s. These kids think they have instinct, they don’t know what that means. They will, one day, if they stick it out. If they last. Most won’t.

The jocks’ room feels the same and different all at the same time. It’s the same voices, same valets. Same routine, same route. But, oh, so different. The jokers are a little louder today, more rapid fire, their cadence and delivery is off, just coming too fast, they’re not funny today but people laugh anyway. The serious ones, the distant ones who sit under their peg and let the world reverberate around them, well, they try, sinking lower, deeper into the wall, reading the Racing Post, the racecard, studying the Gigginstown caps, but not really digesting or comprehending anything. It’s clear and cloudy all at the same time. 

A couple of races run, you finish third, mid-pack in another, skip two, pull up in the next, none of that really registers, just races, sure, big races, but they come and go on the big day like tin cans at the shooting gallery. Then it’s the big one, you take a deep breath, you adjust your goggles on your cap, you tighten the Velcro on your gloves again and again, you pull the zipper of your right boot to the top, then the left. You adjust your silks at wrists, hips, neck and again, wrists, hips, neck. They call you out. You take another deep breath. You’re the last one out of the room, 39 jockeys, all younger, walk out of the room in front of you.

Your resume needs one more line, needs that ultimate achievement, needs that race, those silks, that horse to go on your plaque when it’s all said and done. Champion jockey, thousands of winners, Cheltenham winners, Grade I winners…

All you hear is “…but he never won the National.”

Change it. Change it today.

• Originally published in The Irish Field.