Date you joined Timeform?
15th November 1983, two weeks after Graeme North, two weeks before Paul Morrell. I have been two weeks behind Northy ever since.
What did you do immediately before joining Timeform?
I was 'taking a year off' (a euphemism) after finishing university, which involved going racing as often as I could with a vague idea of travelling in the winter. I only applied for one temporary summer job, at Foyles bookshop. For the interview, I was ushered into the presence of the scarily grand Christina Foyle, was ushered out 30 seconds later and that was my one and only proper job interview. Around September, I saw an ad for a job at Timeform in The Sporting Life, thought I'd see what happened, did quite well at the quiz that passed for an interview and decided I'd try it for six months.
What was your first role at Timeform?
Two-year-old comment writer. A great grounding in the importance of pedigrees and next to no work until July. We were encouraged to go racing as often as we could, provided we'd done our work, so I did. This was in the days before full TV coverage, and most of us were keen to go. Even Martin Greenwood was an enthusiastic racegoer in those days.
There’s a hell of a lot to learn about horse racing. What has stuck with you most about what you learnt during your Timeform years?
The aristocracy don't eat lettuce.
And there is no such thing as a fluke (I casually referred to a shock result as a fluke and got a stern explanation of why all results are explainable from the two-year-old handicapper Derek Adams, one of the many amazing characters who passed on all they knew to green youngsters such as myself).
Most importantly, to trust what you see and not what you hear; I would say 'seeing' includes looking at data, using all the tools of analysis – in that sense we are all visuals boys (and girls) at Timeform. Some of Simon Rowlands' work is every bit as revolutionary as anything Timeform has ever done; Owen Pennant Jones was years ahead of the game in realising the increasingly global nature of the sport; the team that put together the original Timeform form book, Perspective, Paul Morrell, Graham Cunningham, Jim Todd, Paul Muncaster and Stephen O'Mahony, created the template that is still the basis of all the reporting that Timeform does today.
But mainly, the aristocracy don't eat lettuce.
There’s pluses and minuses with moving to a new town, what are your lasting memories about your time living in Halifax?
Crumbs. Yorkshire pudding eating competitions and mystery vegetables; losing one of Wendy Muncaster's earrings after a particularly good evening at the Acapulco; nearly getting my wrist broken by Chris Williams at a Christmas do (tbf, I had been blowing a whistle for about an hour); “stop serving them wine” (at another Christmas party, almost uniquely attended by senior management); Inn Cognito with French Onion Soup and slabs of baked Brie that had been heated in a nuclear reactor; the Timeform tea ladies, particularly Nan; walking home from Rowley's at six on a glorious spring morning on 2nd May 1997 and thinking after years and years of division that life couldn't get any more wonderful. In short: food, alcohol, clubbing, great characters and politics.
Thinking back, what was the job you enjoyed doing most while you were at Timeform?
I enjoyed them all, but it would have to be reporting. I did my first track report from Newton Abbot in late-July 1985 – I had gone to Torquay for a week off work, but offered to do reports from there and Devon & Exeter. When Colin Russell left to join the Post, I was the only one who wanted to be a full-time reporter, so got the job. Some of my days are crazy to look back on, things like Salisbury afternoon followed by the Cheltenham hunter chase meeting (got there by race three) or Cartmel afternoon, Ripon evening (Simon Rowlands in the passenger seat). My enthusiasm occasionally was too much for my own good: Edinburgh one day, followed by Plumpton the next led to one of my written warnings ('DO NOT GO TO PLUMPTON TOMORROW!' was a message I easily misunderstood).
What was your final role at Timeform?
I stopped reporting on the Flat by the second half of the 90s. The editor Dave Newton was retiring, so I took over as editor of Chasers & Hurdlers. It was a great privilege to work so closely on one of the Annuals, following on from Newts, who was a proper analytical writer and whose edits could make your work so much better than it was. The Annuals, Galapagos Tortoises in the 21st Century, are a labour of love for many who work on them, not just the writers and editors but the production team as well. Plus, of course, one relishes the challenge of getting a foreign phrase or unnecessary adverb through editorial director Geoff Greetham's pasteurisation process.
Date you left Timeform?
January 2006. I wanted to move back to London before I was too old to enjoy it and the driving was really getting to me. I had had a head-on smash with a lorry on a minor road in 2003 – fortunately I was paying scant attention and managed to write the car off but break only my scaphoid; if I'd tried to swerve it would have been very messy. Everything since then has been a bonus.
What was the first job you had after leaving Timeform?
The Sportsman newspaper, which enabled me to move to London. I was due to be office based, but I managed to get back on the racecourse by embracing Flat racing again. There were some excellent people involved and the paper might have kept going a while longer if we'd been based on an industrial estate in Romford; the senior management used to refer to themselves by military terms, such as Colonel and Major. Jeremy Grayson and I designated ourselves as stretcher bearers.
Favourite racecourse/meeting and why?
The Cheltenham Festival.
Best race seen live and why?
My objectivity is occasionally put to one side by the drama of the event, so the best, in that emotional sense, was the much-maligned Florida Pearl winning the King George. I was giving encouragement from a mile out and by the second last had gone completely, in floods of tears at the finish. Never has a horse deserved a win in Britain more.
What piqued your interest in the sport?
At five or six, the Grand National principally, watching the ITV7 with my 90-year-old grandma, reading my uncle's Sporting Life before he came in from feeding the pigs; later, having very little studying to do in my final year at university and getting the bug to go racing as often as I could.
Give us a successful horse you spotted early on their route to the top?
It isn't exactly early, but can I aftertime The Thinker in the Cheltenham Gold Cup? His performance in the Peter Marsh screamed Gold Cup, though all the talk afterwards was about the National. So, I found an excuse to leave the office on the Monday morning and went to Coral's to back him. When I enquired for a price for the Gold Cup, the manager told me I must mean I wanted to back him for Aintree. Eventually, he went off to ring for a price. 33/1. Those were the days.
Give us a horse you thought was going to reach the top but never quite made it?
What factor/factors do you think punters place too much emphasis on?
Quotes. Stable tours, trainer/jockey columns, interviews on tv. Interviews ought to be like the Gong Show; if a trainer mentions the going or the handicap mark, someone standing behind the trainer – Eddie the Shoe would be ideal – bangs a gong and the trainer gets yanked off screen.
What factor/factors do you think is largely overlooked by punters?
That being wrong is an occupational hazard. As my maths teacher explained, you won’t always get the right answer, but showing you understand a sound methodology is more than half the battle. You need to be phlegmatic about losing runs, not over confident when you seem unable to back a loser, record all your bets and review what works for you and what doesn't. What works changes over time, and it's good to be aware of that.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone analysing a horserace?
Form your own opinions. Use your eyes not your ears is as sound a piece of advice today as it was in 1983.
What would you change about the sport?
Abolish weight-for-age, which is essentially an allowance based on the average immature horse that the precocious take advantage of. On the Flat that would require a full three-year-old only programme, but moving the Guineas to July, the Derby/Oaks to late-August and the St Leger to October would make those races more like the finals in their division than the starting point that they are today. At a lower level it would stop three-year-old-plus handicaps being at the mercy of a rapidly improving three-year-old.
Abandon the Supermarket Tomato racing programme, where handicap-heavy cards are all picked for shape and devoid of flavour. Experiment with more varied conditions races, perhaps based on prize money won, or grade of races won or placed in within the previous year. Eight runners a race is a flawed aim. Frame a programme that doesn't force horses into handicaps quite so early.
Make horses go past the stands on the way to post. It used to happen. Decisions made by clock watchers (in the pejorative sense). So frustrating.
Give us a horse to follow for when we are all back up and running?
I appreciate Newmarket more than when I was younger and some of the autumn maidens offer fascinating pointers to the future. Two newcomers in one maiden there in October which really impressed me physically beforehand were Al Qaqaa and Vatican City. Both shaped with abundant promise too and went on to improve significantly on an all-weather outing later in the year. Vatican City has a stellar pedigree and is a pattern performer for the summer. Al Qaqaa may not fly quite so high, but he is sure to win races over middle distances. Racing, always something to look forward to.
One last thing...
You haven't mentioned any trips to the theatre?
There wasn't a lot going on in Halifax, to be fair, though there was one trip to the Playhouse to see the Halifax Thespians in a production of The Ghost Train. A few of us were along to see Mike Cattermole, who was, if memory serves, in the Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch role. When the curtain dropped briefly for a scene change after about five minutes Martin Greenwood and Mr Wilks took the opportunity to depart for the bar, their supporting their colleague done till the interval.
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