The following is an edited version of an article by former TV presenter and sports commentator John Hanley, published in full on his blog, Hanley On The Ball.
‘Jimmy Lips’ they called him. I first met him in The Bull on Newmarket’s High Street in 1994. He’d ridden his first winner days earlier. He had a permanent smile on his face on the few occasions I met him.
A personable young lad was Jimmy. He didn’t know me, but he wanted to get the drinks in. Usually a good sign of character for one who is clearly sober. It was a Sunday afternoon; the Snowball Club was in its infancy. Jimmy didn’t play football, unlike the rest of us. His passion was music. He played an instrument, a wind instrument, hence the ‘Lips’. I was introduced to him by a pal of mine, a pal, who like most young men in this most cosmopolitan of towns – the most cosmopolitan of towns I’ve ever known – found it impossible to stride down the High Street without a nod of acknowledgment to all.
He claimed 7lbs did Jimmy Lips, riding horses was not his ambition, being in a band was; he didn’t expect to make all the running in that Wolverhampton egg and spoon race. His ambitions didn’t include reaching the pinnacle of the jockey ranks, or having his name up in lights above a restaurant door. He was a normal lad. But not for long.
He took his own life just a few weeks later. A Newmarket statistic.
Just what is it about Newmarket that attracts young lads and lasses from all over the world to pack a bag and head for this wonderful little place? The lure of the place is hypnotically enticing for those with aspirations in the world of horse racing, whether it’s to be a jockey, a groom or for some just to be involved to build a career in the media.
I moved there in 1994, staying in a B&B where the late Raleigh Gilbert, one of my racing commentating heroes, was also a guest. A quiet man, who spent hours in the study, memorising his colours and making notes. The owner of the house was a retired Army Major, Barney Griffiths, a former chief at the British Racing School, and a part-time judge at Huntingdon racecourse.
I bought a house in Cheveley a year later off legendary jockey Doug Smith’s son Michael, who ran a photographic shop on Old Station Road. A modest terraced house sandwiched between two houses, both owned by the nearby Cheveley Park Stud. Mobile phones with cameras were not about then which was a shame as Lee next door, who worked on the stud, took me around and gave me a leg up on to the Grand National winner, Party Politics.. A bareback sit – boy, it was a long way down.
High Rise was always highly regarded at Bedford House. He won a little race at Pontefract under the excellent Jason Weaver, and from this point his master trainer was thinking ‘Derby horse’. A few lads rode him at home, young Justin, Ian and of course the jocks would have a sit on him now and again. Justin was an especially likeable lad and a sometime member of The Snowball Club.
The Snowball Club came about by chance. After Sunday Morning football matches and after a long week at work it was time to unwind, a lunchtime drink in ‘The Yard’, where the landlady dished out little roast potatoes to us on those cold days of winter. Then me and my best pal would stride down the High Street for a chat, usually about those ‘special’ gallops, and horses having a ‘quiet one’.
Sundays in Newmarket were a day when the stable staff were generally off, no work for the horses, unless they were running Monday and needed a stretch, so some of the lads would make an appearance at lunchtime. Some were new to the town and enjoyed the company. We would stroll around from pub to pub having a chat and a pint of lime and soda: far too early for anything else. My pal knew everybody in Newmarket and everything about Newmarket, so by the time it reached 2 or 3 o’clock there would be a few of us, some of whom would normally nip back to mine and watch the football before coming back down in one of those distinctive black and yellow taxis to meet up again, some nicely fuelled and in high spirits. The Snowball Club was born. The name? The more we rolled down the high street the more lads joined us.
Justin, although not a staunch member of the club, was great fun, and loved Le Chat Noir, the mini night club in Newmarket, known to the locals as Stanleys. He taught High Rise a lot.
Justin took his own life not long after. A Newmarket statistic.
I wasn’t lucky enough to know another lad Geoff, who worked at Cecil’s and did a bit of boxing, or indeed Scotsman Eric, who looked after Champion Hurdle winner Hors La Loi and was by all accounts a very popular lad. They both took their own life. I also knew a couple of trainers who also died by suicide. One a good friend of my MD, and whose children went to the same school. His left heartbroken following the desperate news of him taking his own life in nearby woods. Another trainer, David Cosgrove also left us. Four more.
Newmarket, a town full of some of the most wonderful, salt-of-the-earth, giving people. Yet a town of intense mystery. A town where, in certain circumstances, people who know each other well and do business cannot be seen to be ’friendly’ in public –the reasons apparent to those who understand the intricacies of Horse Racing and gambling. But what is it about Newmarket and the racing world that can lead to someone taking their life?
It is a topic which highlights the importance of the Racing Welfare organisation. It is statistically (that word again) an even-money chance that a suicide in Newmarket will involve somebody who works in racing.
A lot of my friends, and indeed my family, have urged me to write about my experiences in Newmarket, and I have held off. But with the onset of winter, I feel it is important for ordinary folk like myself to try and do a little to help raise awareness on this delicate matter. I do not want to paint a grey picture of Newmarket: it is, and always be, will be a special town with special people. On the contrary, as with life, there is sweet and sour, hot and cold, happy and sad.
But to brush sensitive subjects under the rug seems wrong. Stable staff are the lifeblood of the sport, up at 4.30 am (if you work for Clive Brittain) in all weathers, atop of half a ton of horseflesh with only skilful hands and a skullcap as protection.
Yes, fond memories are embedded, laughter, joy and excitement are all deep-seated recollections for the years ahead of us, but beneath it all is a sadness. A real sadness. Racing Welfare are a 24/7 operation catering for 518 licensed jockeys, 11,000 stable and stud staff and 600 lower-ranking trainers. Each and every one of these men and women are the backbone of the sport I love, who face the same physical and mental stresses as their higher-profile colleagues. Racing Welfare are contactable every second of every day on 0800 6300443 on a helpline, and when I rang them, they got back to me in less time it takes to runs a Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Thanks for reading
You can follow John on Twitter: @hanleyontheball