THE white scuts of almost-tame rabbits bob about among the grass tufts. I haven’t actually seen it, but I’ll swear there’s a red deer nosing about in the thicket.
It’s Sunday afternoon in the sort of English countryside that makes servicemen abroad write nostalgic record requests and, presumably, made Henry VIII write “Greensleeves.”
Most appropriately, the tall, clean-cut figure striding at my side, showing off his 30 acres, is a character in the tradition of an English gentleman — John Rickman, ITV racing expert and a countryman of charm and dignity.
It’s a two-hour drive from London, past a picturesque mill-pond, up 500 feet of twisting farm track in what racing types would call undulating country, that you find the rambling farm-house where John Rickman lives.
Graciously, of course, as be fits a man whose manners and courtesy every time he appears on television are reminders of a gracious age.
This is his working headquarters and this is where he relaxes.
There are five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a lounge, his study with over 1,000 racing reference books dating from 1887, a Regency-style dining room, two garages.
John, over 6ft. tall, is all smiles over a pinkish face, and magically produces sherry before ushering you into deep cushion seats.
“Delighted to see you,” he says. “Delighted. But what on earth you are going to write about me I do not know.”
Well, I’m fascinated by his old-style courtesy on television. The raising of the hat before addressing viewers. What’s the story behind that?
With great good humour he says: “It all goes back to my first appearance before television cameras. On a Derby Day… oh, 12 years ago. I was wearing a grey topper at the time.
“Naturally, I was a little nervous, and the topper seemed to be so conspicuous, it seemed perfectly natural to doff it. Since then hat raising has become my personal trade mark.’ John is certainly one for getting ahead in a hat. He has a wardrobe of 12, including that grey topper, and a bowler which he wears to his office in London.
He was born into a racing family (his father was also a famous Fleet Street tipster) and he is now Gimcrack on a national daily.
This habit of hats goes back to the days when an Englishman simply wasn’t seen on a racecourse without a hat. And, says John a trifle sharply. “That habit still applies in many places, too.”
Of his television manners he says: “People want you to be informative and entertaining. And as informal as possible.
“I don’t believe in all this bullying questioning; trying to overwhelm people before the frightening eye of television cameras. Simply isn’t on with me. Anyway, you get better results by trying to be civil.”
“But you’ve always been courteous, John,” says wife Peggy. “It’s just your way.” They married in 1939, have three children and three grandchildren.
Nobody will question the results John Rickman gets. A consistent winner finder, he puts this success down to hard graft. Covers more than 200 meetings a year, and something like 60,000 miles.
A fast, but careful driver, he logs every trip — “so I’ll know the quickest way in future,” he explains. He doesn’t think he’s missed visiting one course in Britain.
Yes, but how does he find winners?
“I make a detailed research into about 180 horses each day.” he says. “And by personal knowledge of people in horse racing.
“It’s handy to know if an owner lives, say, close to Lingfield. If he has a horse running there, he obviously wants to win at his local track and show off to all his friends who will be at the meeting.
“It takes time to get to know the habits of racing folk; a racing journalist can take 10 years before he is accepted. Television had been a great help; it’s made me much better known than I was.
He rarely bets himself. “Backing is a full time job on its own,” he says. “I couldn’t possibly fit it in with my life.”
His biggest win was about £200. [£3500 in 2018 allowing for inflation]
John says his most memorable moment was when, as zoo correspondent for a Fleet Street paper, he wore evening dress to the birth of a chimpanzee.
“I left a dinner in a hurry to do the story,” he says.
Now I’ve done some fairly unusual things since being at large. But evening dress at a chimp’s birth? I’ve got to take off my hat to John Rickman on that one…