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Jumbo to jockey

By Dominic Prince
Journalist and jockey

Stefan Pasquier and African Rose (no 16) win the Ladbroke Sprint Cup during the Ladbrokes St Leger Day at Doncaster Racecourse.
Can an avid follower of the turf make it as a jockey?
I was a middle aged journalist in my mid-forties, with a 20-a-day fag habit.

I was overweight and out of sorts, tipping the scales at more than 16 stone and just 5ft 10in in my stockinged feet.

I drank more than I should and ate more than most people I know.

It crept up on me over 25 years and yet when I look back, it shouldn't have been that way.

In my defence, I did marry one of the finest cooks in Britain, the food writer for the Daily Telegraph, Rose Prince. She has little idea of portion control and I am always well-fed - lethal, if you are greedy.

Horseplay

Horses have always played a big part in my life, they have fascinated me, at some junctures they have rescued me, at others infuriated me.

Sometimes they've been the pivotal point of a career move or a love affair, I have made films about horses, written about racing and am an avid follower of the turf. As a teenager I could think of little else.

All I wanted to do was ride, to compete in a race. It did not happen, but 30 years later, I decided it could.

Soon after Christmas, in March to be precise, I cut down on the drink, gave up the cigarettes, stopped eating bread, potatoes and pasta.

I walked the dog two miles a day and cycled with my daughter to her school; three miles there and three miles back.

The weight didn't drop off but clothes were more comfortable, I began to breath more easily and felt fitter.

I have trotted, cantered and galloped, been injured, frightened and nervous, been elated and gradually got the hang of the job in hand
But living in London what was I supposed to do? Fortunately I knew the renowned racehorse trainer Charlie Egerton, king of all he surveys high up on the Berkshire Downs, and the trainer of 70-plus highly tuned thoroughbreds.

It is a home for equine champions, and there have been many. Then, weighing a little over 15 stone I asked Charlie what he thought my chances might be.

He thought they were good, particularly if I kept losing weight. He advised me to ride any horse I could lay my hands on.

I started with Daz, an 18 hand 3 inch giant stabled in Dorset, very near where we have a house. She gave me confidence. I graduated to riding an ex-racehorse in the village where we live. I got on well with him too.

Final furlong

Horses in the sunshine after competing in the Lanson Champagne Novices" Handicap Hurdle at Exeter Racecourse
Will nerves get the better of the first-time jockey?
So in September I packed my bags and set off for Heads Farm in Berkshire leaving my wife and two children, Jack, 13, and Lara, 10, behind.

For more than two months I have ridden two, sometimes three, racehorses every morning.

I have trotted, cantered and galloped, been injured, frightened and nervous, been elated and gradually got the hang of the job in hand.

The staff and Charlie have all been brilliant. The horses supreme. I now weigh 12 stone and today I'm off to Towcester racecourse to ride as an amateur jockey in a one mile five furlong flat race against six other, doubtless equally nervous, jockeys.

It is a day that I never thought I would see.

Oh, and by the way, cigarettes are a great appetite suppressant. A lot of jockeys smoke and that is the only downside. I took up the weed again. But soon they will go too.

The Radio 4 documentary From Jumbo to Jockey will be broadcast on 23 December and a book by the same name will be published in spring 2009.


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