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Jolted back to the day Sabaki River broke my heart.

Byline: Steve Dennis

THERE it was, just a name in the list, a face in the crowd. But, like Proust with his mouth crammed with madeleines, the little jolt I got from seeing that name again transported me back 19 years.

At the back of Mick Fitzgerald's autobiography Better Than Sex, there's a list of all the winners he rode during his long career. It's not much of a read, to be fair, just pages and pages of horses' names, but if you like that kind of thing it's pleasant to browse idly through.

Halfway down the second page it happened. Sabaki River.

And once the first impulse bridges the nerve endings then others follow. A shabby south London bookies. A betting slip. A mounting sense of disbelief, alloyed to delight, that lasted only briefly before being replaced by disappointment. There's a neat summary of human existence, if you want one. I knew I shouldn't have read that list.

In 1989 I was working for Raceform in their office in Battersea.

Graduates from the Office of Hard Knocks are easily discerned by their implementation of a slightly glazed thousand-yard stare or hysterical laughter. Occasionally both.

Led by the maverick genius Dan Corbett, I was one of a small team of impecunious youngsters who pieced together the official form book. This involved an almost inconceivable amount of datainputting and proofreading; we were the monkeys working for peanuts at the unpalatable end of racing's food chain. My colleagues, who included a future pigeon-racing kingpin and a man whose conversation consisted almost exclusively of Bob Dylan lyrics, spent many happy hours ruining our eyesight on the form book's small print and standing around the light on the photocopier in a vain attempt to keep warm.

Racing fans all, we nevertheless prayed for snow and ice to blanket the country and give us a break from the drudgery.

What if my parents had scrimped and saved to ensure my good education? Here was I a willing assassin of the English language, my function to produce a sort of prototype textspeak by painstakingly stripping all the vowels out of words, reducing the poetry of Shakespeare and Blake to guttural coughs and splutters. Nvr nrr, that was a good one. Sn btn, chsd ldrs, uns rdr, bit bkwd. Hppy dys nvrthlss.

However, I have wandered from a true line, like a Ballydoyle pacemaker. Back to Sabaki River.

A month or three earlier, my father had been chatting to one of his racing mates, who had ventured the information that Exeter trainer Jackie Retter had got her hands on quite a good prospect. Sabaki River was the horse; we planned a coup, bided our time.

Weeks passed, and the big day dawned. Retter had found Sabaki River a minor novice hurdle at Ascot. Unfortunately, he bolted on the way to the start (bolted on wy to s) and was withdrawn.

A week later, the big day redawned, this time at Newbury. A combination of unfashionable trainer, unraced and possibly loony horse, and decent opposition saw Sabaki River sent off at 50-1. I must have been rather flush at the time (perhaps I'd gone without food for a few days) and despite the constraints usually forced upon me by Raceform's pre-war (Boer War) pay scale I managed to scrape together enough to have pounds 10 eachway, a very big bet for me.

ISLOPED off round the corner from the office to the particularly dingy local William Hill, put the money down, and waited. There were nine runners and the favourite fell at the third. A couple more were soon toiling, and all the while Sabaki River was travelling sweetly under Brendan Powell. Four out, he moved up. Two out, he was in contention.

Those with a gift for mathematics will have worked out that I had pounds 600 to come in the event of victory; two months' wages, four months' rent. Unimaginable riches.

On the run to the last Sabaki River was gaining ground in third place while the front two came under pressure. Everything was going so well . . . until he came crashing down at the final flight. He got up and ran off; I stayed exactly where I was, my mouth slightly open, my heart slightly broken.

The following day I typed in his form comment. Stdy hdwy 5th, 3rd & ev ch whn fell last. Fkn hl.

Of course, I had to follow him faithfully after that, although there was no 50-1 available any more. As narrow as two boards nailed together and always bandaged in front, he was never as good over fences as he was over hurdles, but still won seven races - three under Mick Fitz - before his form tailed off at the age of 12 and his name disappeared from the racecards.

Then it reappeared in Fitzgerald's book, and the past came closing in around me like a London Particular.

Is Sabaki River still alive? What happened to him after he retired? If anyone knows, get in touch. It's been a long time.

'I stayed exactly where I was, my mouth slightly open'
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Nov 23, 2008
Words:849
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