Racing

As horseracing’s reputation faces yet another blow in the wake of sickening footage of animal cruelty, one owner’s love of the sport – and his thoroughbreds – shines through. By Peter Hanlon.

Andy Gemmell’s life beyond the barriers

Andrew Gemmell (left), with strapper Laura Scrivenor and jockey Aidan Coleman, after Paisley Park won the Stayers’ Hurdle during this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Credit: PA Images / Alamy

Racing could use a good story. Thankfully, Andy Gemmell is in town.

The fact I’ve known him for more than 25 years hasn’t rendered Gemmell any less remarkable. We met in his North London local, and he’s been visiting Australia ever since. People are drawn to him – his circle of mates Down Under has grown from a handful to nudging three figures. A yearly social cricket game is played for the AJK Gemmell Pint.

“He’s developed into a good friend, and he’s done that because of his passion, his integrity, his astute decision-making abilities,” says Terry Henderson, who has encountered many people over more than three decades in horse ownership and syndication, but no one quite like Gemmell. “His vitality for a guy who has his affliction, that’s what’s endeared him to us.”

In reflective moments, generally with glass in hand, Gemmell might muse on all that he’s seen in his 67 years – Olympic gold medals, countless cricket matches and West Ham United soccer games, horseracing from Ireland to Kentucky, Dubai to Melbourne. Gigs all over the globe – a couple each week in his prime, although a knee replacement has brought him back to the pack. “I saw Elvis Costello for the 100th time a couple of years back,” he says, making a mental note that it’s time for 101.

In sports the commentator’s words are his window, yet he always says “I saw” or “I’ve seen”. Technically this is a stretch, because Gemmell is blind. But every experience has marked him, filled darkness with glowing memories. Spend an hour in his company and you realise he sees more than most of us.

Pondering what his late parents would make of his love of racing, which last March gave him the thrill of a well-lived lifetime, he recalls the day his mother found a betting slip in his pocket. “I got a right rocket for that, and it was only for a pound!” It’s safe to say the nags and punting aren’t inherited passions.

“I don’t think they’d be overly impressed, but I do think they would have been pretty proud of what happened at Cheltenham.”

He still catches himself wondering whether it was a dream. The blind former union shop steward, the horse he owns outright (named Paisley Park after Prince’s recording studio in Minnesota), mowing down the frontrunners to win the feature race on the last day of the fabled Cheltenham Festival.

As camera lenses zeroed in on Gemmell, joy poured out of him. His left index and middle fingers tap, tap, tapped at the palm of his right hand, which held his curved silver cane higher and higher as the winning post drew nearer. Veteran racegoers dubbed it the highlight of a carnival that is no stranger to sporting fairytales. Tears were shed in the crowd of 55,000. Emma Lavelle, Paisley Park’s trainer, who adores its owner, captured the mood. “These things so rarely happen, and when they do it’s just so magical.”

Gemmell’s parents, both GPs, had two sons, both of them blind. His brother also has other physical and intellectual disabilities, and has lived his whole life in care. Henderson notes a level of intelligence that might have put Gemmell at the peak of many professions. He learnt Braille as a child, attended a school for the blind near Shrewsbury, north-west of Birmingham (where the cleaner would place bets for him), and at 21 moved alone to London to work as a typist for Westminster Council.

“I was obsessed with politics as a kid, was a member of the Labour Party for 30-odd years. I resigned when Tony Blair went into Iraq.” His sense of mischief took shape early too; as a teenager he wrote to the Communist Party professing an interest in joining. “They sent a representative to the school!”

Gemmell loves the people racing has exposed him to, is tickled by the sense of mild infiltration. He’s no royalist, but likes the Royal Enclosure at Ascot because it’s less crowded and easier to get to the bar. Of all his Paisley Park memories, he’s chuffed by an observation in The Guardian that he must surely be the first winning Cheltenham owner to have stood on a picket line during the miners’ strike.

There’s a hint of the goodluck charm about him. Four years ago he bought in to Trip To Paris, and the Ed Dunlop-trained gelding promptly finished second in the Caulfield Cup and fourth in the Melbourne Cup. This year Dunlop asked if he’d draw the Caulfield Cup barrier for his stayer Red Verdon. Gemmell said yes and forgot about it – until he landed in Melbourne, turned on the radio and heard the stable foreman say they were feeling lucky, “because this year we’ve got Andrew Gemmell drawing the barrier for us”.

His recent celebrity amuses him – people ask after Paisley Park at the cricket or on the train, want selfies, even his autograph (“which is just a squiggle”). At the pub he frequents before West Ham games, the landlord told him his name was on the back of a beer coaster as part of a series of champion horses. “It’s just ridiculous.”

He stands out in a crowd here, too, Henderson noting that someone he might only have met fleetingly will stop him to say hello, and Gemmell will recognise them instantly. “He has talents that we, because we have our sight, have let slip.”

If you’re going to travel 17,000 kilometres to go to the races you may as well have an interest, so he bought a 2.5 per cent share in the Willie Mullins-trained True Self for its spring races and a Hong Kong stopover. On October 23, it finished second in the Geelong Cup and might have pursued a run in the Melbourne Cup, but has never run 3200 metres so will settle for the Mackinnon Stakes on the last day of the Flemington carnival. Greed gets his dander up. “I don’t see the point in pushing it to do something it probably can’t,” he says.

Recent revelations about the fate of retired thoroughbreds in Australia unsettled him deeply. “I’d be devastated if that was one of mine.” It staggers him to hear people say Darren Weir should be welcomed back into the sport when he’s done his penance. “No, he shouldn’t … I think they should be put inside,” says Gemmell. “It’s happened, you can’t turn a blind eye to it.”

Growing up, he always had dogs at home that he loved to walk. A guide dog would be great company, but living alone in a tiny London flat, “with the things I like to do … it wouldn’t be fair on the dog”.

He thinks himself lucky – his parents were diligent in putting away money to ensure their sons would be okay after they were gone. That Gemmell spends most of it on racehorses makes him chuckle.

Next weekend, after True Self races in the Mackinnon, he’ll fly home, shake off jet lag and catch a train an hour out of London to visit Paisley Park, armed as ever with a pocket full of Polo mints. “Some feed them carrots; I find they like mints.” People tell him his horses recognise him.

The pundits say there’s no reason Paisley Park can’t do it all again in England’s big winter jumps races. Asked if perhaps he deserves this run of good fortune, Gemmell shrugs. He’s not a huge Ian Botham fan, but defers to something he once heard the former cricketer say. “Life’s not a dress rehearsal, is it? You’ve got to make the most of it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as "Beyond the barriers". Subscribe here.

Peter Hanlon
is a former Age sportswriter turned freelancer and bus driver.