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Rainy Day People

July 14th, 2023 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

The rain falls gently yet insistently on the Nine Elms Tavern which, like the rest of the borough, has undergone something of a transformation. One minute it was Battersea’s little-known cousin  –  nondescript flats, a little bit of this and that on street corners, no questions asked, guv. Plenty of material here for an English ‘B’ picture of the 1950s.

And then, suddenly, the Covent Garden fruit and veg market moved across the river to be followed, several years later, by the American Embassy. History does not record what the locals made of it. They were probably less surprised to learn that the Great Train robbers of 1963 carried out certain preliminary manoeuvres only a few hundred yards from where I sit.

“Nine Elms never runs at Kempton, you know.” An old character stands before me and both words are apt. He looks very old, late eighties I’d guess and leans on a stick. And he IS a character. The hat, worn at a jaunty angle, has seen better days but the long coat was fashionable once and around his neck there’s a strip of bright red cloth, too short for a scarf but not tidy enough for a cravat. Somehow you know that he has seen many things and his diction will be correct. I’ve seen him before and it has to be through racing or he wouldn’t have mentioned Nine Elms but I’m never going to get there in the few seconds before he sits down, which he does when I indicate the chair opposite. A pink gin arrives remarkably quickly. This is not the first time they’ve welcomed him to the Nine Elms Tavern.

“Edgar”, he says, offering his hand. “It’s taken a long time, but thank you for Evens And Odds.” It’s a crinkly smile, one that seeks your response and enjoys your hesitation. Then it all falls into place. Stewards’ Cup day several years ago, Dandy Nicholls and the apprentice Billy Cray, the little table outside the Anglesey Arms at Halnaker. The coach parties were taking up most of the room inside and it was too loud for him, too loud for me. He was wearing the same clothes or similar, with the same accoutrement. I’d take a very short price about Edgar never leaving home without his bright red adornment.

He was right about Nine Elms the horse, who performs frequently around the Monday to Thursday tracks and favours Nottingham. A Kempton outing would have helped as I embarked on the walk from Nine Elms to the course, or more correctly the walk from the Pope’s Grotto in Twickenham to the track, taking in Nine Elms along the way. I’d managed Lewes to Brighton and Salisbury to Wincanton with a book in mind but the sea of notes just sits there, depressingly, and there is much work still to do. The rain today won’t help but a decent glass of sauvignon blanc with an amiable stranger is pretty fair compensation.

“I lived here for many years,” Edgar says. “The most impressive feature when I was a lad was the railway depot but it wasn’t easy for train spotters and you’d get a thick ear if they caught you the wrong side of the fence. Imagine giving anyone a thick ear now. Next stop m’ learned friends!”

I explain my presence and mention the Great Train Robbery. “Well, it’s quite true the gang based themselves here for a while. The whole thing was so English, so LONDONISH in a way. It’s all half a century and more ago, of course, but just imagine a large group like that, with criminal or even perfectly legal activity in mind, setting their stall out today. Think of the possible names and nationalities and backgrounds and then go back to 1963. Reynolds, Edwards, Biggs, White, Wilson, James, the list goes on. A major crime, unmistakeably English. And then there was Gordon Goody, who was Douglas Goody really. A smart dresser who had a hairdressing business. After his spell at Her Majesty’s, he went to Spain and ran a bar. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Spain myself, as it happens.”

As it happens. If you’ve an ear for sayings and accents, you’ll recognise ‘as it happens’ as pure south London. Edgar offers few clues concerning his background and I manage not to smile when he mentions Spain. Anyway, it’s not as if he said northern Cyprus.

“You sound well-disposed towards them,” I say.

“No, not really because there was violence along the way. But Graham Greene was among those who wrote to the Times and said that 30 years was far too severe a sentence. I agree with him but if you stop a train with criminal intent you’re disturbing the very fabric of society and the establishment simply can’t and won’t have that.”

He seems lost in thought and says nothing for a while. Billy Cray was from south London, if we include Sidcup. It all comes back to me now; the Anglesey, the corporate boxes, the Stewards’ Cup with Evens And Odds bursting through the centre of the pack, Billy in his red cap, the 20/1 SP. Here was a 5lb claimer totally unfazed by the famous names around him. Dandy had taken him on as an apprentice and was no doubt more than happy with the boy’s self-confident streak. Two rough diamonds together, perhaps, if that’s not too fanciful. It was a great story but it faded quickly and Billy was soon off to Australia, carving out a highly successful career in the saddle. If you need to know how he’s getting on, it’s the Australian racing press you turn to.

Edgar emerges from his reverie. “I love Kempton,” he says. “When that story went round a while back about the Jockey Club selling up and the builders moving in I couldn’t believe it. I know the evening racing didn’t work, it was never going to be another Windsor and sometimes it’s eerily quiet. But it has memories for me. I was born nearby and many years ago you could shin over the fence and watch the racing from the gravel pits, though you needed a very powerful set of binoculars and a pair of shoes you didn’t care about. I don’t know how far the Jockey Club’s ownership extends, though I imagine the Kempton Park Steam Museum, which houses the old dredging engines, is beyond its reach. Let’s hope so, anyway. I’m sorry, I get a bit emotional about it.”

I know all about Halloween and Bill Wightman in the King George VI Chase and I’m sure he does, too, so I play a much wilder card.

“Do you remember The Swan Checker?”

He looks at me as if some fairground fortune-teller, her palm liberally crossed with silver or something folding these days, had unearthed a family secret from a long-forgotten locker. Then he chuckles, a dry, warm sound needing no assistance from the gin.

“The Swan Checker. Good Lord! A lovely old boy who often ran in the first race. Everyone remembers 1966 for the obvious reason but I know little of football and had a little earner on the go in Sierra Leone at the time. We had to move on pretty sharpish, just when things were going well. Anyway, we rarely saw an English paper until well after the event and there it was in the Daily Express, when that organ was still a proper newspaper and they printed the racing results. The Swan Checker had won at Kempton and I don’t remember the price but I seem to recall it was an apprentices’ race so M Day, who often rode him, would be favourite. But what made you think of him?”

Well, I think love comes into it; love, teenage obsession and standing outside the bookies’ when they closed at 6 o’clock on the dot and you leant against the door, praying they’d leave the commentary on and you’d able to hear it. He sometimes ran in mile races against Scrubber (I mean, honestly, who’d name a horse Scrubber?) and it was close between them.

I tell Edgar all of this and wonder if The Swan Checker took his name from Swan Upping, which takes place on the Thames a few hundred yards from the three-furlong pole, when a special team counts and marks the swans, who remain the property of the crown, of course.

He laughs again. “Nice of you to take your journalist’s hat off,” he says. “To be honest I don’t know, but it’s a strong possibility, surely? Who else would check the swans apart from an official swan checker?

I don’t press him on the exit from Sierra Leone, even though the word ‘diamonds’ flashes across my mind. Instead, we end up identifying a few greyhounds who were called by name in those early betting office days and many were kennelled at Sunbury-on-Thames, some of them making the regular trip around the North Circular Road to the sadly defunct Park Royal. “Shanacoole Glitter! Vauxhall Walk! Runaround!” we cry, like a couple of demented old fogeys.

“You won’t go to the track now, will you? You’ll only see a couple of races and it’s still raining. Come back when Nine Elms makes his debut; you haven’t really made any progress today, have you?

Oh, I don’t know about that, Edgar. And thank you.