12 FEBRUARY 1994, Page 30

First most and best

John Oaksey

SCU: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CHAMPION by Peter Scudamore Headline, £7.99, pp. 320 If someone had written Scu as a forecast of the future 30 years ago, the facts and fig- ures it contains would, to anyone involved in British National Hunt Racing, have seemed about as likely to come true as the most improbable prediction in Old Moore's Almanack. In 1964 only three jumping jockeys, Fred Rees, Fred Winter and Stan Mellor had ridden as many as 100 winners in a single season — and it took Stan ten more years to reach the first ever 1,000. Passing those rare landmarks was, quite rightly, regarded as a Herculean achievement and by 1964 no trainer had ever sent out 100 winners in one season.

So this, among many other things, is a book about sporting miracles. When Jonjo O'Neill rode 149 winners in 1977-78 I remember thinking that that was about as far as any man could hope to go. Peter Scudamore broke Jonjo's record in the first week of February ten years later — and, by June 1988, had reached the unbelievable total of 221.

That, I'm afraid, makes at least 1,678 reasons why you cannot expect, from this quarter, the sort of probing, unbiased critique to which Spectator readers no doubt consider themselves entitled. When someone has fulfilled one of your dearest ambitions (riding even one humble winner) 1,678 times in 15 years — without ever once showing the slightest sign of requiring a new size in crash helmets — a certain amount of blind uncritical hero-worship can surely be forgiven.

With so much success there was, of course, a danger that Scu might deteriorate into a tedious catalogue of victories. Just occasionally it happens, and readers not totally addicted to racing may be tempted to skip. But only once or twice. In among the winning, there is plenty of fascinating detail about the man, his life and his con- temporaries, equine as well as human.

In terms of effort, endurance and tough- ness, mental as well as physical, the jump jockeys' championship has always, in my respectful opinion, taken at least as much winning as any title in sport.

To win it, as Peter did, a record eight times (seven and a half if you count John Francome's supremely sporting 'share' in 1982) is a masterpiece of durability. 'Get the best medical help and treatment avail- able' was, perhaps, the best of all the good advice Peter's jockey father Michael gave him and, following it faithfully, the author made some lightning recoveries — notably, thanks to a surgeon called John Webb, riding a winner ten weeks after breaking both bones in his leg.

Perhaps the racing world's most crucial `happening' in the period Scu describes and certainly the one which had most effect on the author — was a revolution, no lesser word will do, in the way jump racehorses are trained.

For Peter it all began at Haydock on 2 March, 1985 when he rode an oddly named horse called Hieronymous for a virtual unknown called Martin Pipe. 'That's the fittest horse I've ridden this season', he told the trainer — after Hieronymous had won by 15 lengths. They were prophetic words indeed because, in the next seven seasons, although it only started slowly, the Pipe- Scu partnership shared 792 successes and completely dominated the jumping world.

It depended on a brand new system of training which Pipe, a bookmaker's son who never worked for another trainer, evolved from scratch by trial, error, an enquiring mind, minute attention to detail — and a great deal of sheer hard work.

When, with retirement in mind, Peter set up another partnership with his old friend Nigel Twiston Davies, much the same method — a form of interval training, based mainly on one short uphill gallop was almost equally successful. Versions of it are now, more and more coma only, being adopted in training centres all over Britain.

Success on Martin Pipe's scale would breed envy in any competitive trade and, sadly, jealousy is one of racing's most per- vasive vices. It was responsible for one of the unhappiest episodes in Scu — the 'enquiry' held by TV bloodhound Roger Cooke into Martin Pipe's training methods. Although, in the end, the Cooke Report was a discreditable non-event, it caused great anxiety and was a disgraceful example of 'trial by television'. 'Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful', George Orwell once wrote — and, by that standard, I'm afraid he might not have trusted Scu. It does contain a few 'confes-

sions', but most of them stem from the champion's over-developed will to win without which the book would never have been written. Even the one of which Peter himself is slightly ashamed — his some- what unsporting objection to a victorious rival who had inadvertently forgotten to weigh in — hardly amounts to a 'disgrace'.

But never mind. When Orwell (another of my heroes) wrote those words he was about to dissect, with evident disgust, a scabrous so-called memoir of Salvador Dali's. I'm pretty sure he would have applied quite different criteria to the most successful jumping jockey of all time. Peter Scudamore may not be a second Dick Francis, but he has produced a fine account of a magnificent career.