09/15/2011 3:51PM

On St. Leger day, hope amid unfamiliar surroundings


It was confusing enough, driving in England, what with the steering wheel where my dachshund usually pokes her nose out the passenger side window. The accelerator was down there where it belonged, but the gear shift required operation by my left hand, which is normally about as useless as a placing judge in a walkover.

Driving on the left side of the road is easier than you’d think, though, once you learn − the hard way more often than not − from which direction the danger comes. Eventually, the American pilgrim grows accustomed to the deeper meaning of signs such as Diversion, Way Out, Give Way, and Roundabout (the last of these obvious homage to the 40th anniversary of the song from Yes), and takes comfort in the knowledge that the British think the way they drive is nuts, too.

Yep, I was doing fine until I stopped for petrol − or “gas,” as some call it − and presented my cash at the convenience store counter, requesting “twenty pounds on number five” as if I knew what I was doing. The clerk checked his machine, cleared his throat, and looked at me with an expression normally reserved for an otherwise well-behaved child who’s just wet himself.

“But you haven’t pumped any gas yet, sir,” he explained.

“You mean I don’t pay first?”

“Well, no,” he replied. “No, you don’t.”

Obviously, this is no way to run a country. But I was in Yorkshire, far from the breakneck bustle of London Town, and by then I was growing accustomed to a more relaxed way of doing business. Perhaps it was because it was St. Leger week at Doncaster Racecourse, celebrating a classic race that had been around since Washington crossed the Delaware. Maybe it was the broad fields dotted with horses and hay rolls, or the vast, roiling Yorkshire skies, or the fact that no one panicked when I wandered into their lane while admiring the view. Wherever the magic came from, it worked.

It is a fact, however, that such brief, wide-eyed visits tend to obscure the true texture of the times. The British people are experiencing the same economic woes as Americans, and British horse racing is likewise struggling to maintain any semblance of health in its historically rich corner of the sporting and entertainment world.

Of course, you wouldn’t know it from the 30,000 or so warm and windblown fans who turned out on St. Leger day last Saturday to cheer home Masked Marvel in the big one, giving trainer John Gosden and jockey William Buick their second straight victory in the 1 3/4-mile event. Even the most cynical observor of the scene would have been likewise encouraged by the response of the racing industry to the Leger Legends event that kicked off the festival three days earlier for the benefit of the Injured Jockeys Fund and the Northern Racing College, also located in Doncaster.

“We’re serving two very good causes,” said Tim Adams, head of the Leger Legends organizing committee. “The mandate of the Northern Racing College is to provide quality training for young people to work in the industry − jockeys, work riders, stable hands − and of course the Injured Jockeys Fund is necessary to care for the unluckiest of the many riders injured in the line of duty. You might say between the two of them they represent the hopeful beginning of a career in racing and the very real possibility of how things might end up in a very dangerous sport.”

Adams, an accountant by trade, is horse owner and passionate supporter of his local Huddersfield rugby league team whose international business adventures have taken him to Australia, Africa, and the Orient. He tries hard to be optimistic in the face of the numbers necessary to operate the Northern Racing College (of which he is a trustee) or build a rehabilitation center for injured jockeys in the Yorkshire region. But in the end Adams and his fellow travelers must confront the same challenges facing their American counterparts when trying to support such unfunded moral mandates as nurturing a viable work force and caring for the injured among them.

“We get funding from the government, but that’s getting tougher,” Adams said. “There’s a small amount coming in from the racing authority, as well as private funding from loyal benefactors. But you can only go back to them so many times. And then there are fundraisers, like the Leger Legends, which also help raise awareness.”

The centerpiece of the Leger Legends event was the second running of a race featuring 16 retired jockeys at a mile down the Town Moor straightaway at Doncaster. Among the participants were such popular personalities from both the flat and the jumps as John Reid, Kevin Darley, and Charlie Swan. With betting sanctioned and everyone playing for real, the many bookmaking companies stepped up to pledge a minimum contribution to the cause, with more possible based on handle. Adams noted that upward of 100,000 pounds was probably raised, a very loud and satisfying drop in a deep bucket.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my wife, Julie Krone, was among the 16, and not only did she have way too much fun, she had the good fortune to finish first, which means she now has followers in places like Scunthorpe and Barnsley.

“I don’t think I’ve ever ridden for free in my life,” she beamed afterward, “and I was never happier to do it.”

Credit where credit’s due, though. Somehow I got her to the races that day without hitting anything . . . of consequence.

(Next column: back to basics at the Northern Racing College with the man who first spotted Hayley Turner.)