Carberry – A mad professor with an artist's touch

Paul Carberry

Paul Carberry – ‘He did things a way few other jockeys can do’

  PICTURE: Patrick McCann (  

 By Steve Dennis 10:20AM 11 AUG 2016 

ALL right, it might not be the day the music died but, with the announcement that Paul Carberry has been forced to quit the saddle, a little of the melody has vanished from the orchestra. The virtuoso’s seat is empty; Elvis has left the building.

Jockeys are effective in a number of ways. Some are pushers, some are coaxers, some wear a velvet glove over the iron fist and some simply get ferrous when the occasion demands it. Carberry was none of these, although he could wear those clothes if he needed to. No, Carberry was an insinuator, a suggester, a jockey who didn’t so much ask his horses to do things as merely raise an eyebrow at them and see what happened.

If he was a painter and decorator instead of a jockey, he’d turn up one morning with a load of paint and some brushes and sit in your kitchen and roll a cigarette. After the seventh cigarette you’d politely wonder aloud whether he was going to get on with it; you’d pop out to the bin to empty his ashtray and by the time you came back he’d have finished the walls and ceiling and be cleaning his brushes with a smile on his face. How did he do it? Don’t ask – it just got done. But Carberry wasn’t a painter and decorator, he was an artist.

In this world of sport, though, it’s too often art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake. The end result is all that matters, the bottom line is the bottom line. In football, there is respect accorded to the grinding out of a 1-0 win, the goal in the third minute, the catenaccio clicked shut for the next 87 minutes while the other team batters away like drunks at a tavern door. Rugby has lost its brio; where Gareth and Barry and JPR and Phil once threw the ball to each other like birthday-party children playing pass the parcel, now there is concentration on ball retention, phase count, emphasis on the breakdown, artisanal stuff, prose not poetry.

Cricket too. We all show our age in different ways, but David Gower was the Paul Carberry of the crease. He’d beam benignly at the fast bowler from under a mop of blonde curls, waft elegantly, eloquently at the ball with a languid wrist and there it would suddenly be on the other side of the rope, four runs, thank you. Ineffable effortlessness, and we delighted in it. Now there’s Twenty20, in which you simply hit the ball as hard as you can.

We all like to win, of course. The other thing isn’t quite so much fun, so winning is very important. Walk away from Selhurst Park, or the Millennium Stadium, or Grace Road with the game in the bag and it’s a job done well. Same as the painter and decorator – fill the walls with Farrow & Ball and you’re there. But no-one lies awake at night thinking of the bare bones of the scoreline, or the smooth sitting-room walls. What keeps us awake is the twist of genius, the tale of the unexpected, the Picasso scribble, the Carberry sleight of hand.

We remember the Cruyff turn, the Frank Worthington juggle and spin, the late cut so late its parents went to bed three hours earlier and locked the door, the feint, the dummy, the subtle shift in weight that sends a 17st prop one way and a scrum-half the other. A sigh of something rarely fulfilled goes up from the crowd like petrol catching the match and you stand up with the surprise of it, the body rising on a reflex, leaving the jaw behind. You push the bloke standing next to you, who also finds himself unexpectedly standing up. “You see that?” He saw it. You saw it. Now you’ve seen it, you’ll never not see it.

That’s Carberry. He did things a way few other jockeys can do. There was sometimes a feeling that he was playing at being a mad professor, refining the experiment, working his way through a batch of white laboratory bunnies until he got it right, this particular bunny, this particular race simply a minor and eminently loseable skirmish in the greater war on perfection. He didn’t always get it right, of course. Gower got himself out; Edwards dropped the ball; Cruyff tripped over his own feet.

But when he got it right it was like Einstein filling the blackboard with chalk, working his workings-out all the way to the bottom right-hand corner where x would incontrovertibly equal y. Sometimes Carberry did this at Thurles on a rainy midweek afternoon and hardly anyone noticed, the equivalent of someone buffing their shoes to a high shine simply for the walk down to the shops. Sometimes he did it at Cheltenham or Aintree, and the racing world stopped what it was doing to take notice.

Frenchman’s Creek in the William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase. That was one. Such was the unobtrusiveness of Carberry’s progress that Frenchmans Creek thought he was at home in bed until he clattered the last, before being politely ushered to victory past Carbury Cross, Carberry not cross at all but delighted.

There were others, of course, but perversely the one that stays in the mind’s eye is the one that got away, Harchibald in the Champion Hurdle. There are grown men who weep about that one still, but it was the essential Carberry, his skill distilled to the most intoxicating essence. He put Harchibald there to win it, joined all the dots except the last one, solved the mystery but couldn’t stop the culprit getting away. He smuggled the horse into a winning position as surreptitiously as a Cornishman landing contraband on a shingle beach at midnight, but Harchibald had to do some of the work himself and he didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

Carberry did everything right, apart from putting Harchibald on his back and running up the hill himself. The inspiration needs the perspiration too, after all; Carberry’s genius – with its conditional waywardness – could only take a horse so far and no further.

There aren’t many geniuses around and now another leaves the stage, the last notes of the melody drifting away towards silence. Oh, Carberry made it all up as he went along, the rest of us just dancing to his tune.

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