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Sir Clement Freud's Racing Virgins: Aesthetics of greater interest than athletics.

Byline: Sir Clement Freud

I WAS worried about this virgin. As we entered Lingfield Park racecourse some 40 minutes before the first on Saturday, he seemed a bit over-keen. I had expected a look of confusion, wonderment, perhaps a question about the size of the crowd, the layout of the track, the niceness of the gateman, the methodology of staking money. Instead, Norman Jones, 49-year-old BBC freelance press officer and researcher said: "This could be the beginning of my ruination; I might be back every Saturday."

To cheer him, I explained that as this was Lingfield he could set aside winter Wednesdays and occasional Tuesdays and Fridays also.

Norman has never raced, never gambled, having had neither the volition nor the money. He comes from a village near Aberystwyth where primary school lessons were in Welsh and gambling simply did not come into his life. If the Welsh have a word for "a win lucky 15 with a place patent", the schoolmaster at Ponterfynoch mentioned it not.

Norman is the youngest of six: there is an elder brother, four sisters, then him. He failed his

11-plus, went to a secondary modern school in town and at 16 transferred to the grammar school, where he failed his

A-levels and became a trainee PE teacher in Carmarthen. He played rugby - wing-forward for the county and knows Dallaglio, in fact had had dinner with the Dallaglios the previous evening.

After two years he flunked teacher-training and became a lumberjack, cut down old trees in mid- and North Wales, and found he adored working on his own and discovering his inner self.

Sometime after that he reassessed his life, realised that he was not cut out to be a PE teacher nor yet an axeman and became a cub reporter on the Cambrian News.

I asked whether he'd had to inspect many corpses; reporters calling at the homes of the recently bereaved tend to be taken by proud widows to see the man of the house laid out in state.

Norman said he had done better than that: once he rang the bell of a house to quiz the family about the departed, and it was the corpse himself who answered the door.

He was appointed press officer to the local theatre, edited an anti-nuclear paper and fell passionately, hopelessly in love with a dancer. When she went to London, he followed her. When he got to London, she ditched him. He was 32, a country boy in the metropolis and it never really got better.

Work came and went, as did female acquaintances who never measured up to his great consuming love. He became press officer at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, made redundant 18 months later. He was press officer for fringe theatres and major film companies.

Jobs came and went and never did anyone advise him to back a horse for the Derby or the Grand National, though he does remember standing in a racecourse car park once while some acquaintance had a bet.

He freelances still for the BBC, awaits phone calls, is passionate to produce a documentary about John Cowper Powys, whose Glastonbury Romance runs to 1,100 pages and is written in such magical verbiage that I read the first paragraph twice and the second twice more than that. After four days I am on page six.

Let me quote from the beginning: "At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon Railway Station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems, one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence . . ."

Norman's documentary might make an interesting filler between Pop Idol and Ready Steady Cook.

Our photographer came to fetch Norman for pictures in the paddock and my client did not return. Finally, half-an-hour later he came back waving a betting slip: "I backed the horse because it was so beautiful, I want it to win. The bet is not for me, it is for the horse because such beauty deserves reward." The horse lost and Norman grieved . . . for the horse.

We had lunch - really good mushroom soup with croutons and he had three slices of moist pink gammon with roast potatoes and vegetables and apple sauce from the buffet. He drank water (having recently recovered from pneumonia) and we talked of his upcoming 50th birthday.

"What will you do?"

His desire is to go to a sunny beach and roll around with beautiful women. I asked him to describe his perfect mate. "Young, co-operative and fair-haired, ideally with a lisp"; he finds lisps a terrific turn-on. I promised to forward to him letters from any applicants who wrote to me. That cheered him a bit.

A trainer sitting at the table behind us gave me a tip. His horse, he said, "will run a big race, though may not be quite as good as the favourite". Norman let this information go, wisely, for the horse finished unplaced. The trainer considered the run promising: "We will win next time."

"How many people here care about aesthetics?" opined Norman. "They treat these beautiful horses simply as vehicles for their money as chip-carriers."

He thought the racegoers around us were gross. As for the bookmakers: "They know what they are doing, I bet they make money . . . displacement therapy for their miserable lives. What they do just enables them to buy silver Rolls Royces." He looked around and said: "There are no happy punters."

I asked whether he would come back and this time he said: "Never."

On the train home we sat next to a tall, attractive woman who had been to Lingfield and

backed the winner of the fifth race. Norman talked to her

about racing, said he would like to go to Ascot, asked whether he would have to wear a hat, gave her his phone number. The woman was wondrously non-committal, did say she'd

probably be back at Lingfield next Wednesday and Norman said he could manage next Wednesday, was it a very special occasion?

The woman looked into the middle distance.

The gap between Norman's virginity and worldliness was diminishing before my very eyes.

CAPTION(S):

Norman Jones surveys the beauty of the beasts in the paddock, before placing his bet "for the horse, not for me"
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jan 29, 2003
Words:1056
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