There were two bars at the Big I. One was an old style beer barn; about 300 sq metres of strictly functional space – the function being to dispense and consume alcohol as efficiently and profitably as possible. I remember it as a huge brown room. The floor to ceiling windows along the northern wall might have given a view of Auckland harbour if they hadn’t been fugged over with condensation and tobacco smoke. Next door, in contrast, was the Sportsman’s Bar: small and stylish with racing prints on the walls, brass fittings and faux Victorian panelling. By some system of allocation, which I don’t now recall, we used to alternate between these two venues.

It was in the Sportsman’s Bar one evening that Bob Ross and I began to develop the theory that our potential was limited only by the paucity of our imaginations and our failure to stay focussed. Given enough determination and concentration we could become anyone and do anything we wanted. Such ideas are commonplace now. Every sports shoe ad and New Age guru beguiles us with the promise of limitless achievement. Back then we felt suitably extravagant. I like to imagine we were often ahead of our time.

I think it was Bob who decided we should become pop-stars. I have a vague recollection that the name of the group was to be the Contrapuntals, which doesn’t sound all that promising. We expanded on the theme. Maybe we sang a song or two. After a while, though, the thought of a musical career began to pall. Pop-stardom was too easy. I needed something with a bit more challenge.

‘I think I’ll become a jockey,’ I said, a challenge indeed, given I am over 1.85m and was even then around 90kg.

Bob laughed.

Suddenly, though, I was aware of a man’s voice behind me.

‘Oh, not a jockey,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’

I turned and found myself looking down at an agitated little bloke, not much more than half my size, who began to explain to me what a terrible life jockeys led: the constant struggle to keep the weight down, the sheer physical toll that riding took on the body – all this with a spluttering energy as if he was desperate to steer me away from the worst mistake of my life.

‘I was a jockey for seven years,’ he concluded. ‘It’s not worth the candle, mate, believe you me.’

I could only nod and stare at him in disbelief. ‘Right, yes, good,’ I said. ‘Thanks for that.’

I swear he was in deadly earnest. Bob thought so too. And yet, how could he have been? Forty years on, I still think about him now and again and wonder if I was the butt of a beautifully calibrated joke or witness to a moment of surreal misperception.

North westerly gales. Plans for a magnolia tree.

One Response to “Jockey”

  1. Attila the Humdrum Says:

    I was in the Sandringham TAB last year watching a race being run. One of those present shouted enthusiastically as the horses approached the winning post, and the horse he was encouraging on its way turned out to be the winner.
    Blimey mate, I said to him, you got that horse past the post. I reckon you worked harder than the jockey.
    I used to be a jockey, he said. Name is Skelton.
    I looked at him with interest and with respect. The Skelton family has at least two famous jockeys, Bob and Bill Skelton. As it happens, I knew his cousin, and we conversed about her briefly.
    What have you got in the next? he said.
    Don’t know, I said. Haven’t really had a look.
    Have a look at number 1, he said, with the straightest of straight faces and the merest hint of a wink.
    Natch, I put a few dollars on number 1. Natch, it came nowhere.

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