Ex-Jockey, Willie Carson
PUBLISHED: 11:54 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:39 15 June 2015
From the bleak streets of Stirling to the life of a modern-day Laird, Katie Jarvis finds that when it comes to Willie Carson, success breeds success. photography by Mark Fairhurst.
Willie Carson's new kitchen is gorgeous. No other word for it. So gorgeous, in fact, it makes the usual run of 25 Beautiful Homes look almost tatty.
His wife, Elaine, is understandably besotted. "I've been waiting years for this," she emphasises, while almost absent-mindedly polishing an already-gleaming Aga with a tea towel as she passes.
Kitchens? Willie Carson?
OK. Granted it's not an obvious subject when it comes to talking about one of the most successful jockeys in Britain's history.
But there's something irresistible about the sight of this down-to-earth Scot in the midst of hand-made luxury. Don't get me wrong - it's not a sight that provokes envy or resentment... Quite the opposite, in fact.
It's a desire to spirit back some of his Scottish ancestors and say to them, with a vicarious pride all of your own: "Look at this! This is what your Billie made of himself!"
What would he say, Willie's grandfather, the union man who was thrown out of County Durham - his furniture loaded onto a wagon - for stirring up the men at his pit to ask for their rights? What would that old rascal think, walking round the beautiful landscaped garden that Elaine has created herself? He'd probably give a wry chuckle - amusement touched with quiet satisfaction - before inviting Willie to put £500 on the greyhounds. Or to join him in an illicit game of cards with a bunch of shady characters in the woods. And undoubtedly Willie would accept with the same enthusiasm he had when he was a lad, growing up on the tough streets of Stirling.
It's not just the kitchen, mind you - or even the impressive house that goes with it. There's also the successful 165-acre stud, in prime Cotswold country, with its fields full of strong horses internationally recognised as among the best.
Willie, the retired jockey-turned-successful-horse breeder, nods. "I'm very pleased that I came to the Cotswolds because this is fantastic. It's not the best land in the world - it's stony - but it's limestone and it's fantastic for breeding horses.
"Bone... bone! The minerals are very good for horses; seem to make them strong. And I have my own bore hole where they drink the water. I never breed a horse lacking in bone."
He speaks quietly, with assurance; as if he's been used to these sorts of surroundings all his life. But I'm intrigued enough to push the point: never mind his grandfather, what would Willie Carson's own 10-year-old self have thought if someone had told him that, one day, all this would be his?
He muses, full of curiosity himself. "Nobody's ever asked me that before... but my mouth would have gone wide open, wouldn't it? Unbelievable. If I was shown this house, I would imagine I'd come to see the Laird; the top man.
"I would have thought I'd won the lottery or the jackpot of some description."
But it's no lottery win that's got him here. In a 34-year riding career, five-time champion jockey Willie Carson won 17 British and 11 Irish Classics. He was the first jockey to breed a British Classic winner, Minster Son, whom he also rode, to win the 1988 St Leger in Lady Beaverbrook's silks.
And he's done it all for himself, through teeth-gritting graft and bloody-minded determination.
But for a youngster on the bleak streets of Stirling in the 1940s, it would have been hard to imagine how on earth you could forge such a successful life through your own endeavours.
In those post-war years, this was a town where people didn't always have enough to eat. "At that time, there was a lot of drunkenness," Willie recalls. "On a Friday - pay-packet night - there'd be some poor woman standing beside the works' gates so her husband couldn't get to the pub and spend the whole week's wages on drink. I've been into houses where they didn't have doors: they'd been put on the fire to keep the family warm... But that's a long time ago."
He stops himself with a laugh. "Hee hee!"
Indeed, he has none of the characteristics of the nouveau riche. No brashness or conceit. For someone who's had to be tough to make it, he comes across as surprisingly gentle and patient. And the famous Carson chuckle's still there, too.
So how did it all begin, this rise to fame and riches? Unlike his races round the track, the course of his life has been slow and steady. "It's all been gradual," he admits, "and it's been quite a long journey."
That journey really began at the age of 12. The young Willie Carson, who was no academic, nor great sportsman either, was already bunking off school to earn coppers at the local cattle market. But his world turned upside down with a simple visit to the cinema to see The Rainbow Jacket. It's the story of a middle-aged jockey, banned from racing, whose hopes rest on a young lad he's training to become the next champion. To your average movie-goer, it was a sentimental weepy from the Ealing stable. To young Willie, it was a life-changing couple of hours.
Up until that moment, the only horse he'd ever even sat upon had been an old nag at his grandfather's. He jumped on it and, if memory serves him correctly, "It went flat out... I can remember saying, 'I ain't going to do that again'."
But suddenly, he wanted to ride race horses. In all probability, it wasn't just the riding in the film that impressed him. It was the fact that jockeys had to be mere slips of things.
"Listen - when I was a boy, I had no confidence. I was a weakling - a tiny little kid. Basically, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because being small made me into a slight loner. I had to make decisions for myself. I remember I had five fights in one week because I got picked on. I was in the seniors' class and I got picked on by a junior years younger than me - but bigger than me, of course. I gave him a thrashing and got into a lot of trouble. People talk about all this racism nowadays: I've been through plenty of racism because of my size - having the 'mick' taken out of me.
"But I'm not complaining. It helped me when I did make it because I went into a business which is just full of criticism. If you don't win, you're a plonker - it's your fault; you're a crook."
Was it hard not to believe that sometimes?
"Oh, no, no, no, no. It hurts occasionally, yes, because you know deep down they might be right - occasionally. But most punters who give you abuse usually are talking through their pocket, and they've got their own view of things, which is biased. You need confidence in yourself."
That confidence came bit by bit. It began with riding lessons, paid for by a paper round, followed by an apprenticeship at the age of barely 15 to Captain Gerald Armstrong at the Thorngill stables in North Yorkshire. His constantly supportive parents drove him down there in the deep snow of a cold winter - and when his mother saw the bleak dormitory where he was to live, she didn't want to leave him.
Although he wouldn't see them again for the best part of a year, his parents were his bedrock. When times were hard, they told him to keep at it; when he finished last in a race, they kept his spirits up. And they were right. Four years after he started - in July 1962 - he rode the first of his 3,828 winners in Britain on Pinker's Pond in a seven-furlong apprentice handicap at Catterick.
"I do remember that - it was fantastic. Any kid who rides a winner thinks they've won the lottery; they think they're the bee's knees; it's a fantastic thing, your first. It makes you tingle. Like watching your football team at Wembley winning the FA Cup, you come out feeling good."
It's tempting, in the style of an Ealing film, to say that triumph marked the turning point. But even at the age of 23, when he'd ridden a fair few winners, Willie still didn't think he was going to make it. "I often felt like quitting," he admits.
So when was that defining moment? Maybe when he won on High Top in the 1972 2,000 Guineas - the same year he was crowned champion jockey for the first time. Or perhaps winning the Oaks at Epsom on the Queen's filly Dunfermline in Her Majesty's silks of purple, gold braid, scarlet sleeves and black velvet cap with gold fringe. For a staunch royalist, the icing on the cake was the fact that it was 1977, Silver Jubilee year. ("Why shouldn't I be a great royalist? The whole world would be proud to have her. She's done what I did: stuck her whole life into it and not wavered.") Later on that year, he and Dunfermline went on to win the St Leger.
But if you're hoping he'll paint you a romantic scene about his rise to glory, you're misunderstanding Willie Carson. Hyperbole and effusiveness are not his style. If they had been, he probably wouldn't have made it. Pragmatism, sticking power and realistic expectations are what have got him where he is today.
How did he cope with the constant danger of fast and furious rides?
"It was my job."
How does he go about assessing a horse he hasn't ridden before?
"Put a leg each side."
But he's far more eloquent about his exceptional skills and courage when pushed. A jockey, he says, is a piece of machinery; a horse is the tool. "And there are all different types of tools, and you have to learn how to use them. You don't normally get attached - just to the good ones - you're on and off their backs very quickly.
"The important thing is that you know their character when they're under stress, because that's when you're riding them. They act differently when they're at the races than when they're in the everyday stable at home; everybody reacts differently under stress."
And what about those falls - some of which were spectacular?
"I get frightened, just like everybody else. But I obviously react differently. I accept it. If a horse breaks a leg, you go down; you hit the ground; you get smashed up. You know it happened for a reason, and you learn from it.
"They all said I'd never ride again after '82 because I got smashed and they thought I was dead. But for me, it never happened. I got knocked out and I can't remember anything about it.
"I did have my nerve go a bit one time. A horse fell with me at Chester: it just fell on the ground. I remember for six months thinking, 'I hope this bastard doesn't do the same thing.' Because there was no reason for it, it worried me. Most of the others you can explain because somebody squeezes you, you know why it happened, and you consciously would say: Right, I'd better not get myself into that sort of situation again. But you do. And you did." He chuckles. "And it happens again.
"And the other thing that helps is being a bit thick."
Elaine, leaving to tend to some foals, chips in: "When Willie was riding, he used to say horses have no brain."
Ah - but that's another thing that's changed.
"Since I have retired, I've gained a different understanding. I have become a horse whisperer: that's what the outside person would call it. I've been amazed, in fact, at how clever and how receptive horses are to kindness; how if you train them, they have trust; and that means you can get so much more out of them. I wish I could go back, but it's down to experience - you get better with experience.
"That fellow from America came over called Monty Roberts. I laughed about him to begin with, and he did poke his nose in about jockeys hitting horses. I thought he was out of order doing that. But now I've analysed everything, I'm very pleased that he did come. He wrote down the language - put it down on paper - although I was already doing some of it instinctively at the stud. I was lunging horses loose in my barn, not on a rein. And, of course, when I had finished, they would come to me. And I didn't take any notice of that. Now I know that that's what they call 'Join-Up'; a horse will happily follow you because he knows you're the master and he's the servant."
Nor is it just the horses that see this softer side. Willie's only doing this interview so he can mention Cloud 9, the Gloucestershire charity he's supported for the last decade. For 20 years, now, Cloud 9 has organised accompanied trips to Florida for children who are ill and disabled. This month, Willie is hosting a fund-raising fashion show, organised by the Cirencester businessman Russell Nurding in whose salon Willie gets his hair cut. Among other stars taking to the catwalk, there'll be some high-profile Swindon Town footballers - from the club Willie chaired until its sale back in August.
"Cloud 9 is a local charity, centered around kids, which wanted to use my name - and I was pleased to be able to help. I've been lucky in my life.
"Right at the start of my association with them, they put on a show for me where the children dressed up as jockeys - and they went to a lot of lengths. The RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) helped them out.
"I said, yes, I'd be delighted to go along. And then, the day before the show, I got smashed up in a race. I wasn't in hospital but all I wanted to do was take the pills and lie down in a corner - but I had to go. They sat me on a stage and I was in agony, absolute agony. And these kids put on this fantastic show: they were being led; they were doing figure of eight; they had made their own colours up... It was a big thing for them. And then they asked me to get down from the stage and give a prize. Well, I can feel the pain now as I slid down from that stage."
He laughs. "That's how I remember it: my agony; their smiling faces. But I was glad I went - of course I was."
It must have been a great thrill for those kids, I suggest, meeting someone who's made such a success of their life.
He sits in that new kitchen, playing with the phrase in his mind for a minute before saying, with unquestionable sincerity:
"I've never thought about it. Successes come along gradually; we've got there and we've built on things.
"I suppose you would have to say - I've never said this before - I have made a success."