Today would have been my father’s 84th birthday. I sometimes think he should have lived to be a hundred, but the truth is that he hated old age. When he died, he was ready to go. He wasn’t even particularly ill. He was in hospital, but not for anything catastrophic. He sang a song he had just invented specially for the sweet Australian nurse who had taken his fancy – Dahlia from Australia, he sang. Then he drank some Guinness which was smuggled in for him. Then he said he was going to have a little sleep. He did not wake up.
It was a bloody brilliant way to go. There was no drawn-out departure, no beeping machines and snaking wires. For a long time, his bashed old body had been failing him. He was a physical man, strong and hard in his prime. Even when time put weight on him, his arms were still like steel hawsers, from years of holding strong horses. As he went into the twilight of age, all the crashing falls and breaks and dislocations caught up with him. He had, after all, broken his back and his neck twice. The bones protested and cried out. His back stooped and hunched. He could no longer do the things he wanted to do. He grew fretful and melancholy. He would have loathed being a hundred. He had run his race.
I think of him every day. I can hear his ghostly laughter, as the last leg of my 3000-1 accumulator gets beaten a short head. I remember him as I work my mare. I think the sole reason I got a horse after thirty years was to feel closer to the old horseman. The funny thing is that he was not a brilliant rider. He was not the most stylish, or the most technically accomplished. But he had such dash and courage and sheer guts that horses responded to him. They are telepathic creatures, instinctive herd animals. He gritted his teeth and threw his heart over those great birch fences, and the horses, infected by his Corinthian spirit, would have gone with him anywhere.
He never really knew what the internet was. He was the oldest of the old school. But the internet knows him. As I rummage about the Google, I find kind words and happy memories from Brough Scott and Martin Pipe and regular punters and people who lived in the Lambourn valley and the Amateur Jockeys’ Association, of which he was chairman.
There is an old tweet from George Baker, who trained Belle de Fontenay to win a charity race at Newbury run in my father’s name: ‘To win anything named after the legendary Gay Kindersley is a privilege.’ I remember George when he was a young racing fan, devoting every spare moment to rushing off to Sandown and Newbury. Eventually, he chucked in his sensible job and followed his dream, and last season he lived the very pinnacle of that dream, leading the doughty campaigner Belgian Bill into the winner’s enclosure at the Royal Meeting. He is exactly the same person as a professional as he was when he was a fan: smiling, enthusiastic, fired with love for the mighty speed and strength and courage of the thoroughbred. The thought of him remembering Dad is very touching.
More touching still, I discover a photograph on the Amateur Jockeys’ Association website, of the Fegentri World Cup at Goodwood. There is my dear old Fa, aged but still doing what he called his grinny face, having just presented the trophy. To his left is the winning trainer, John Hills. John died last week, at the absurdly young age of 53. His race was not run; it was cruelly cut short. He too was a horseman and a gentleman. He and his brothers were a pulling thread that ran through my childhood. I have snapshots of my head of them flinging their ponies over massive jumps at high speed. They rode like cowboys, with wild élan. In the sadness of John’s death, I find a glitter of light, as I see him smiling next to the auld fella, both of them brought back to vivid life.
Mortality tugs at my sleeve, as I think of the Dear Departed. There are too many of them. They no longer come as single spies, but as battalions.
I think of Dad, and wonder what he would say. He would sing a song, and laugh a rueful, self-mocking laugh, and drink a drink. He would not put it into so many words, but by example he would tell me to live every moment as if it were the last.
He never gave me any advice, except not to back odds-on favourites. Instead, he showed me many good life lessons by example. Be generous, laugh at yourself, never give up, always be the first to buy a round. He judged humans on their true selves, not inessential externals or societal yardsticks. He lived high life and low life and saw no difference between the two. He did not understand any set of rules, but made up his own as he went along. He had the wonderful talent of bringing fun with him, wherever he went. Soon after he died, I ran into a gentleman who had been a steward with him for many years. ‘Oh, your father’ he said, his eyes lit with memories. ‘Every time he walked into the stewards’ room, it was a party.’
I ponder the imponderables of life, and I know exactly what my Dad would say. He would say: ‘What the hell is going to win the 7.30 at Windsor?’
Very young and rather serious. Top boot action:
He did a huge amount for the amateur riders, and he loved doing it. The jocks and everyone at the AJA loved him right back:
The old riding style makes me laugh and laugh. Several things about this picture bring me joy. There are the tremendous britches, Dad’s traditional gritted teeth, and the bright face and pricked ears of his horse. I’m not sure which one it was; I’ll have to ask my mum. She remembers them all. She was the one who had to watch him roaring over those obstacles at high speed, sometimes through her fingers:
He would have loved this beautiful girl:
You’ve all seen this one before, but it remains my favourite:
And many, many years later, at Goodwood, with age on his shoulders, but still that blazing grinny grin. Dad is second from the left, then the winning jockey, and then John Hills: