8 DECEMBER 1979, Page 21

Finest hours

Jeffrey Bernard

My Greatest Race Ed. John Hughes (Michael Joseph £7.50.

Stable Rat Philip Welsh (Eyre Methuen 25.95) The first thing that struck me most forcibly about My Greatest Race was the opening sentence of Peter O'Sullivan's Introduction. 'Remy de Gourmont,' he writes, 'French novelist and critic, wrote; "Very simple ideas lie within the reach only of complex minds" '. Of course someone in the world of racing who is going to read this book may have actually heard of Remy de Gourmont but I fear it is more likely that he will be mistaken for an expensive brandy.

Anyway although this book aims at being a trifle posh with an Introduction like that, it is much better than the usual run of the mill Turf frolic, and by no means merely a coffee table book. It is one of the few racing books I've read this year which is actually worth reading. You don't just glance at it. John Hughes, clerk of the course at Aintree and Chepstow, knows his business and, with the aid of press room boys, Robin Gray, Brough Scott and George En nor, he's got down on paper accounts of what 30 of the greatest jockeys consider to have been their best moment.

Inevitably there are the old fairy stories like Fred Winter's amazing victory on Mandarin in the Grand Steeplechase de Paris winning the race without a bridle, but it's worth reading again if you didn't realise just how ill Fred was that day. 'Flu, extensive and sickening Turkish bath sessions, held together by champagne only — I knew there was a use for the stuff — and you wonder how he managed to stick on, let alone win. I suppose the surprise of the book is Lester's choice of his greatest race, one that took place in South Africa in November 1975. It was the last of a nine card race at a dump called Pietermaritzburg and the horse, Malster, was an in and outer who'd had a lot of leg trouble. When they started, Lester's stall didn't open. The field were 30 yards ahead of him when it finally did and Lester had a few words to say to the starter for not calling them back. The race was a corny Hollywood movie race. He was still six lengths behind when they came into the straight but Lester wove his way through and, of course, won. The Stewards had him up for swearing at the starter, making him write down on a piece of paper what he'd called him. He was fined 500 rand for swearing, appealed and never had to pay and I suspect that that, knowing Lester as I do, is what made him pick this and not one of his Derbys as his most memorable race.

Nonsense like that apart, there are some really good chapters and Stan Mellor's account of winning a race in Ireland when all the Irish jockeys were trying to stop him is one of the best. It is also good to read something about that truly great horse that everyone seems to have forgotten, Alycidon, and Doug Smith gives him a well deserved plug. Richard Pitman's piece on Crisp's gallant second to Red Rum in the National reminds one that that performance must have been the finest National effort ever. This is certainly one of the best racing books of recent times and I recommend it to anyone who can't think how to fill a hooligan's Christmas stocking.

Stable Rat is the tale of a stable lad and is a book that has been written countless times before. Usually, the lad in question ends up winning the Derby. The only difference here is that this is a rags to rags story. It's very much like listening to racing people talking shop in a Newmarket pub. I think we've had enough of that.