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A Handsome Sailor gone too soon

February 15th, 2024 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

Cambridge came and went too soon. I see that now and foolishly think of going back, even at this late stage, to write a thesis on some aspect of Marcel Proust’s oeuvre that others have missed.

Three years half a century ago should have furnished a handful of memories more vivid than Gaykart just pipping Pretty Puffin on a freezing autumn afternoon but there we are. The Newmarket Rowley Mile Course may lack soul (and how) but a winner warms the heart and does rather more for the pocket.

I backed a few of Ryan Jarvis’s in those days  –  Glencar and Quy and Gaykart, of course, who comes up the hill dead level with the favourite, Eric Eldin against Lester Piggott and believe me I know how you bet on that but there were no certainties then, any more than there are now, and Gaykart’s head is down where it matters. One for Eric, one for me and, though he doesn’t know it yet, one for the bar steward at college.

The day does not end with an 11/2 winner. Through the bus window the Cherry Hinton shop girls are bundled up against the biting wind and across Parker’s Piece the urchins solicit pennies for the guy when that was still the going rate. They do well out of me as I think of Proust and how detailed his description might have been; Cambridge in early evening, the golden light of the Turk’s Head, the choir at King’s warming up.

There must have been balmier days. Yes, the start of Nijinsky’s epic Classic journey for sure, while the July Meeting on the Summer course with its fine array of Panama hats has always reminded me of Our Man in Havana.

But that was well outside term time, so it’s hardly surprising that I have more poignant memories of Gaykart, together with Galosh and Sandy Barclay splashing their way home in driving rain in (I think) the Turn Of The Lands Handicap. He led off the home turn and that isn’t a misprint; they closed the round course soon afterwards, saying it needed time to encourage a healthier covering of grass, whereupon normal service would soon be resumed.

Well, ‘interesting if true’, as the New Yorker magazine used to regard claims best described as fanciful. No-one believed the Sefton (or Round) Course would return and those doubts proved well founded. These days every single race apart from the Town Plate takes place on the straight course, a very fair test of the thoroughbred but also rather dull.

I went back only occasionally after graduation and the race that lingers in the memory concerns Les Hall’s Liberty Lawyer and Dennis McKay holding on in a valuable two-year-old seller where the first two raced the width of the course apart and the photo verdict took for ever.

At such times we try to persuade ourselves that it really doesn’t matter all that much, there will be many more close finishes in a long and varied punting life and that Kipling chap had things pretty well worked out.  Our closest friends, briefly impressed by this mature philosophy, have second thoughts when the right number is called and a full-throated cry of joy and relief in equal measure can be heard half-way to Bury St Edmunds.

it was bitterly cold again in November 1996 when I was looking to interview John Sillett, whose horse Charlie Sillett finished unplaced in a multi-runner handicap. ‘Charlie’ was more than happy at that time of year (he won at Folkestone and Doncaster in the Novembers of ’94 and ’95) but the Rowley Mile wasn’t his bag of oats at all.

John and I went back a long way. He was pure Southampton, having  started as an apprentice at the Dell with his brother Peter before Ted Drake arrived at the family home in Nomansland and signed them for Chelsea. Ma Sillett insisted that if he wanted one, he had to take them both. Peter played in the title-winning team of 1954-55 and won three England caps, his sibling joining him in a highly successful full-back partnership at Stamford Bridge.

John, who died a couple of years ago (Peter went in 1998) was a bluff, larger than life character with an impish sense of humour. If he was busy when I rang I’d just say ‘Tell him it’s Shirley Road’, which is a long, straight thoroughfare in a working-class part of Southampton, complete with tattoo parlours and Polish convenience shops these  days. John managed Coventry City and famously won one of the best FA Cup finals of modern times when they defeated Spurs 3-2 in 1987 but Shirley Road was home and he knew it like the back of his hand.

I’d have offered you a big price about Shirley being mentioned in a national magazine at any stage but just a few weeks ago the February edition of the Oldie landed on the mat and there was Benny Hill on the cover because he’d have been celebrating his 100th birthday. (Not for nothing is it called the Oldie.) No matter how famous he became he always returned to his crumbling old mansion just off Shirley Road. I already knew that because he went to my school and his mum sat next to mine at the bingo, but I just wished John was still around so that I could show it to him.

John loved his racing and the ‘craic’ with the Barry Hills team. His dad Charlie Sillett made just under 200 appearances for the Saints in the 1930s, playing everywhere from centre-forward to left-back and earning great respect within the game.

However, having just taken over The Lamb (still there) at Nomansland, which is where Ted Drake arrived with big business in mind many years later, war broke out and Charlie enlisted in the Royal Navy. Shortly before hostilities ended in 1945 he was one of three RN Gunners protecting a cargo of coal bound from Liverpool to Plymouth on the SS Corvus. When the ship was torpedoed and sunk off the Cornish coast, Leading Seaman Sillett was one of those who went down with her. He left two young sons who made sure they did him proud.

It was typical of John Sillett that he honoured his father with the naming of his racehorse. Charlie Sillett, five times a winner, was by Handsome Sailor and it’s hard to think of anything more appropriate.

They’ve all gone now, of course, together with Benny. It’s at times like these we give thanks that Shirley Road, unchanged and unfazed by human fads and fancies, will go on for ever.

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