A pal of mine asked me the other day who was the best tipster I’d ever come across in my career. He was baffled when I answered: “Charlie Jervis.” He’d never heard of him.
That wasn’t so surprising. My friend couldn’t have conceived why I should have mentioned a name that would have meant nothing to him, and, even if he had undertaken extensive study of racecourse tipsters, that name would never have featured. Google can’t answer every question.
The name of Charlie Jervis will ring a bell with some of a certain rather advanced age, but not for anything concerned with racing. I’m probably the only person alive now who could connect with him that way.
I should explain. I was 18 years old, still a schoolkid, but racing-mad. For the past four years all I’d wanted to do in life was to become a racing journalist. It was not something that a kid from Devon with no background or connections in the sport could realistically hope to achieve, but what teenager was ever a realist?
In 1963 I turned up in Fleet Street as a racing journalist and that’s what I’ve been ever since
Following advice from Clive Graham, the renowned ‘Scout’ of the Daily Express and esteemed BBC TV paddock commentator, I had written to the Racing Editor of the Press Association, asking for a job. I was told that there were no vacancies.
But quite a few months later the situation on the fifth floor at 85 Fleet Street had changed. I arrived home from school one afternoon at 4.14pm, to be told by my mother that there had been a phone call for me. The idea seemed ridiculous. Nobody ever phoned me. Who could it be from?
I wasn’t to know immediately. “I’ll tell you when ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ is over,” said my mother, who was not to be distracted from her favourite 15 minutes of entertainment on the wireless.
At 4.30pm I was told. “Some man from something called the Press Association phoned, asking you to go for an interview.” Of course, I’d never told mum about the letter I’d sent.
London here I come!
Things had to happen in a hurry – fixing a time when I could present myself in Fleet Street, getting the time off from school, and obtaining a reference from my headmaster, who hated me with the same sort of passion that I hated him.
Miraculously, it all came together. British Railways took me safely from Exeter Central to Waterloo and I successfully negotiated my way on the tube. Meeting up with the PA’s Racing Editor wasn’t a problem and my natural nervousness was swiftly banished as he took me around the department and introduced me to all and sundry as someone who would soon be joining the team. He showed no interest in the ‘O’ and ‘A’ level certificates I’d brought. He didn’t want to read what the headmaster had written about me. He just wanted to get all that out of the way before we went up one floor to meet the Editor-in-Chief, the guy who had to approve my appointment on the staff.
That guy was Charlie Jervis. There were forms to fill in whose significance meant nothing to me, and everything seemed irrelevant anyway. For no rational reason, those people were determined to employ me and I wasn’t going to be given an opportunity to say, ‘No, thanks.’
But there came a homily. And that’s why I cite the name of Charlie Jervis as the best tipster I ever met.
I remember it so well. “You are getting a wonderful opportunity to work under the guidance of Mr McClean, a great expert in his field. And I hope that you won’t squander that opportunity. I have known so many men come into racing journalism and ruin promising careers simply because the racecourse is the one place in the country where alcohol is available outside pub hours. I hope you will not wreck your career through drink.”
Okay, so I was eighteen, but I’d had a sheltered upbringing. I felt I had to respond, and I did respond, with total honesty: “Well, sir, you need not worry about me on that score. I don’t drink.”
I can picture it now. Charlie leaned across the desk, removed his glasses as he gazed right into my eyes, and said: “No, but you will, my boy, you will.”
I had occasions to remember that. Not least on a day 15 years later when I had my second bout of delirium tremens within a few hours. And I frightened myself sufficiently to go on the wagon for the next 14 years. Yes, Charlie Jervis was definitely the best tipster that I ever came across.
I’ve lived to tell the tale and it’s amazing to think that this month I can look back on half a century as a racing journalist. I cycled home from school on a Friday and on the following Monday, still wearing the grey flannel suit I’d worn to school, I turned up in Fleet Street as a racing journalist. And that’s what I’ve been ever since.
Everyone can look back on things that have gone wrong and have caused upsets in their lives. I’ve had a few setbacks myself, some – well most – as the outcome of my own folly, but I have to feel extraordinarily blessed to have done so much that I dreamed of being able to do when I was a kid. It would have seemed unreal to me then, that I would often actually be paid to do what I craved.
I’ve never had enough money to do what I would like to have done, yet I can’t feel deprived and in some ways I have to think that I’ve been the luckiest man who ever lived. I’ve done what I always wanted to do, I’ve met so many wonderful people in the sport that has been my lifetime passion, and I’ve been privileged to see so many great racehorses in action.
I saw Sea-Bird win his Arc, I saw Frankel win his Guineas, I saw Lester in the late summer and autumn of 1966, when winning was the only thing on his mind. I was there for Grundy v Bustino at Ascot, I shed tears several times over Persian Punch, I’ve had wonderful moments with Shergar, with the Brigadier, with Mill Reef, experienced all of Nijinsky’s Triple Crown with him. I have had so much greatness thrust upon me – as a spectator.
Of course, when I was a kid, I was going to be a sportsman myself. There were all those hours, kicking the ball against the garage wall, making myself as good with my left foot as I was with my right, perfecting my bowling action and cunningly managing to turn the ball as effectively with both arms. Unsurprisingly, all that came to nothing.
Eventually, I found excellence only as a spectator. But I still relish everything that my favourite sports give me, and experience all the vicarious pleasures that one can derive from seeing others achieve what, for want of a substantial increase of talent, I might have achieved myself.
So, assuming that anybody should care about what I think, who have become heroes to me in my half-century reporting this game? Lester was way out in front in his sphere, the one true genius. Among trainers, two fellows who were exceptional as horsemen as well for their nous in preparing horses for competition at the highest level – Vincent O’Brien and Alec Head.
When I first met Henry Cecil, I don’t think he was convinced that he wanted to be a trainer. And there were certainly alternative careers open to him. But his talent as a conditioner of thoroughbreds soon became obvious and to my mind he is up there with MV and Head. I’m not sure that I can place any other on their level, though I have inevitably become conscious of outstanding achievements of many fine trainers.
What I do know for certain is what a privileged life I have been able to lead, thanks to the most amazing luck and my devotion to a sport that continues to appeal.