It’s shortly after 8 a.m. on a gusty, rain-spattered Monday morning, and Dominic Prince is standing in a field in Berkshire, England.
Zipped into a green rain jacket -- a lone flash of color in this landscape of mud -- his eyes are trained on a churned-up track, impatient for a glimpse of the obsession that inspired him to put his life as a journalist and documentarian on hold for 11 months, and lose 64 pounds (29 kilos) on a grains-and-water diet.
Fast cars and equally fleet women are the cliched manifestation of the male midlife crisis. Prince was a little more original. When he turned 47, it was a passion for fast horses that seized him.
At 5 foot 10 inches, his weight was topping 231 pounds. He drank a bottle of wine each evening and defined exercise as a stroll to the neighborhood shop to fuel his 20-a-day cigarette habit. There was just one thing he’d sacrifice his bon vivant’s vices for, he told his food writer wife. Not her. Not their two kids. A horse. And he didn’t just want to ride, either. He wanted to race.
He chronicles the realization of this neglected boyhood dream in his memoir “Jumbo to Jockey.” A brisk canter through the dieting, training, and yet more dieting that led up to race day, it straddles two different worlds -- his comfortable London home and Heads Farm Stables, which is where I’ve come to meet him and Billy, the butterscotch cocker spaniel who proved his secret flab-fighting weapon, running alongside him as he bicycled mile after mile.
Racing followers are more obsessive than any other breed of sports fan, Prince says. As the animals gallop into view, nostrils steaming in the chill, it’s easy to understand why. Sleek and sinewy, nimble despite the imposing bulk of all that muscle, each horse is the result of generations of breeding for this very purpose.
Back in their stables, they are different creatures. Some are sweet natured and friendly, many are skittish, and a few appear downright mean. Though they don’t seem especially pleased to see Prince, they tolerate him as he wanders up and down patting them. He, meanwhile, appears soothed in their presence.
Chatty enough on the page (the reader learns plenty about his teenage tantrums and his middle-aged bowel movements), Prince is brusque and easily distracted in person. Except when there’s a horse nearby.
He was only five or six when he first rode one, he says, and can still remember its “bar of moldy soap” scent. “I felt possessed, as if I’d been dispossessed up until that point. From then on, there was always something to focus on.”
That changed in adulthood. Mid-jump, the horse he was riding clipped its hoofs on the top of a wall and got its legs and neck tangled in barbed wire. Though the animal survived, Prince was a near-hysterical wreck. The accident spooked him badly, and by the time he embarked upon his madcap mission to ride in a race, 20 years had passed since he last sat in the saddle.
Finding someone prepared to let him anywhere near one of their horses might have proved as arduous as losing the weight (12 stones, or 168 pounds, is the maximum weight allowance for a U.K. jockey), were it not for his pal Charles “Edgy” Egerton.
The award-winning trainer and owner of Heads Farm is a rotund Old Etonian who says racehorses have an “electricity” that the rest of their species lacks. Or as Prince puts it, “They’re bred to be mad, and they’re trained to be mad.” Riding them is like driving a Ferrari -- with one key difference: “Your steering and brakes don’t always work.”
Dancing Marabout, the three-year-old chestnut gelding he rode when he finally got to race, has since retired and is back with his owner, who hunts with him. Before Prince took his reins, he was ridden by Frankie Dettori, Ryan Moore and A.P. McCoy. Did he mind having a hefty amateur on his back? Prince insists not.
The question of whether the animals actually want to race divides the friends. Egerton says that if they don’t want to run, there’s a reason and it’s the trainer’s job to find out. Prince believes they would rather stay in their stables, eating oats. “They run because the industry demands it,” he says.
As a former City Editor of the Daily Express, a U.K. tabloid, he is fascinated by the economics of racing. It encompasses extremes of wealth, from the owners to the stable lads. And because it’s betting-led, while huge sums can ride on a horse’s victory, the actual prize money has on average decreased, sometimes covering just a fortnight’s training fees.
What you cannot do, he says, is think of a horse as an investment. You have to see the relationship as a hobby. Only occasionally does a horse make a profit or even pay for itself.
“It’s like walking into a casino,” Egerton says. “It doesn’t necessarily follow that the more you spend on a horse, the more prize money it’ll win.”
Back at the sprawling 1930s house where the trainer grew up, Billy has whipped himself into a frenzy of excitement over a brace of freshly killed partridges, hung just out of his reach. In the kitchen, the housekeeper is plating up sausages, bacon and eggs under the watchful eye of a parrot named Humphrey. It’s a far cry from the oats, barley and linseed that Prince breakfasted on while training.
Away from the horses, he is reluctant to talk about himself. Did he ever doubt he’d accomplish his mission? “Every day.” What was the hardest part, the dieting, the training regime, or actually riding the 4:30 at Towcester? “All of it.” Was there anything anticlimactic about that race? “Nothing.”
His last answer is uttered wistfully. If only the experience had been a letdown, he might have exorcised that dream of a life lived with horses once and for all. Instead, though he finished fifth, it was thrilling, leaving him wondering when he could do it again. He celebrated with a meal of contraband carbs -- pasta with a Bolognese sauce that he’d made and frozen especially for the occasion -- before heading back to London to his family and his desk.
“Jumbo to Jockey: Fasting to the Finishing Post” is published by Fourth Estate (217 pages, 10.99 pounds).
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)