In my earliest memory of Dad, he’s gently shaking me awake, helping me out of my pyjamas and into my clothes, and leading me out the back door of our house. It’s a dark winter’s morning, some time in the late 1950s. Our blue Zephyr is parked in the driveway, motor running, the windscreen and side windows covered in a thick frost. A steaming jug of hot water sits on the ground beside the car. Dad opens the passenger door for me, I scramble in, and he pushes the door shut. ‘Stay there,’ he says.
I hear the chugging of the motor and feel its vibration through the car seat, making my teeth chatter. Through the windscreen I see Dad pouring water onto the windscreen and using his hand to swipe flakes of half-melted ice onto the ground.
It’s still dark and there are no other cars on the road. Dad sings, Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go, as we speed along. The gravel on the driveway of the Awapuni racecourse crunches under our wheels. Dad helps me out of the car, and I follow him across the silvered grass and around the side of the grandstand, to a small hut near the fence on the side of the track. Uncle Eric, Eric Temperton, and another man sit at the window looking out onto the track, each holding a cup in one hand and a silver stopwatch in the other, slurping tea and breathing smoke into the air.
‘Okay Billie, for Deceptive,’ says Uncle Eric, ‘just canter him along and wait until you get to the clocktower, and then boot him along, gallop home.’
Dad pushes me inside and says, ‘Be a good boy for Eric,’ then the door clicks shut, and he’s gone. I nod yes when Uncle Eric asks if I want a cup of tea. Do I want sugar?
‘Yes, please,’ I say.
How many spoons, he wants to know?
‘How many am I allowed?’ I ask.
‘As many as you want, just don’t tell your mother,’ says Uncle Eric. I have six.
I hear the horses before I see them. I hear their diddle-oop, diddle-oop, diddle-oop, diddle-oop, diddle-oop. It’s like the sound when Grandma turns the new kerosene bottle upside-down and puts it into the back of her heater. The diddle-oop is joined by the snort-snort-snort-snort sound, like a steam train shunting its way into the Palmerston North railway station. I hear the squeaking of leather straps on the saddle, and the jingle of the rings on the reins. Two horses come charging out of the mist, creamy sweat whitewashing their chests, steam rising off them and hanging in the air, a heavy fog spewing from their nostrils. Dad’s horse passes the winning post first. I can tell it’s him by his shape on top of the horse.
‘Dad won, Dad won,’ I shout.
‘That he did, son, that he did. Let’s hope he can do the same on Saturday,’ says Uncle Eric. ‘Come on, lad, let’s go and see how the horse has pulled up.’
His hand in mine, we leave the hut and walk through the crispness of the morning. I’m aware of the smoke from my mouth as I walk. It’s not the outpouring I see coming from Uncle Eric’s mouth up above me, but no matter. I’m here, puffing, just like the men.
Dad brings his horse off the track and stops in front of Uncle Eric and me. This horse, this animal my father rides, it’s a wondrous thing. It dips its nose down and sniffs in the essence of me, then dismisses me with a snort, turning its head to the side and down, the upper lip wrapping itself around a tuft of grass, its teeth chomping it clean off, making the sound of a man lazily eating a raw carrot.
Its presence is as huge to me as my father appears to be small, looking down over the top of its mane. I know that Dad and the colossus can do wondrous things. This master of the universe and my father, the master of it.
By his early 20s, my father was a working-class boy made good, in the world of rugby, racing and beer, sung about on the radio by a man who learnt about these things when he was knee-high to a keg.
Dad’s wins on local tracks appeared on the pages of the Manawatū Evening Standard: four winners in a day at Wairarapa, five at Awapuni, winning on Hy-Spin despite losing his irons after a furlong. He became a household name nationally when he rode Manawatū and Taranaki-trained horses to big wins in other parts of the country: at Ellerslie in Auckland, the Easter Handicap and the King’s Plate on Wandering Ways in 1951, and the Great Northern Derby on Fox Myth in 1954; at Te Rapa in Hamilton, the Waikato Gold Cup on Deceptive in 1954 and 1955; at Riccarton in Christchurch the Welcome Stakes in 1951 and the Stewards Handicap in 1953 on Impress and the Churchill Stakes in 1956 on Lucrative.
He worked hard for his success, and chasing success meant a constant battle to keep his weight down. I remember getting bundled into Mum’s Morris 1000 and driving out to drop Dad off at A-Cow-Tree, although today I call it Aokautere. Dad ran the five miles back dressed in a woollen singlet and long johns, long pants, a heavy jersey and a balaclava. When he got home, he mowed the lawns with a push mower, and when he had finished that he sat in our small sunroom with the heater on full bore for a long time.
All that sweated a few pounds off him so he could ride some horse allotted 48 kilograms in some big race. He also kept his weight down by wasting, which meant not only the sweating, but also missing meals and eating laxative chocolates. He told people that laxatives were a good cure for a bad throat. ‘You’re too scared to cough,’ he’d say.
When he wasn’t sweating, he was a suit-and-tie man with not a hair out of place, Brylcreem his constant companion. He’d comb his hair forward so that it hung over his face, and then slick it back over the top to give himself that bouffant style. He wasn’t much of a bather, because you weren’t in those days. Hot water was still something of a luxury and a bath full of water saw a family procession: girls first and ‘no peeing’, then women, then boys who couldn’t be trusted on the peeing front, and men last. Dad never smelt though. Every day he’d be at the basin, flannel in hand.
If he rode the winner of a big race that saw a cup, plate or other trophy awarded, a bigger-than-usual crowd would gather around the birdcage to hear his speech. They knew that they’d be in for a laugh about something he, the trainer or owner had said or done.
Dad liked telling stories, many of them about himself, which is probably why some people called him Watch-Me Willie. The truth or otherwise of his stories was less important to him than the entertainment value. One of Dad’s party favourites was about when he was in the Mounted Rifles during World War Two. He and the other jockeys were often promoted to non-commissioned officer rank and assigned to an officer as a batman. Lance Corporal Aitken was assigned to Major Tyson.
According to the story Dad told, there was a five-foot height requirement for those looking to serve overseas. ‘The Major said to me, You’re a smidge under the height requirement but if you stand on your tiptoes, I’ll push you through.
‘Don’t push too fucken hard, I said, I’m staying here.’
Someone made the necessary arrangements for Dad to escape any possibility of an overseas posting and he spent the rest of the war years as a shepherd for Sir Thomas Duncan, a designation that exempted him from army service. ‘I couldn’t even whistle, but I rode his horses for him,’ Dad told people, expecting others to be as delighted as he was at his having dodged a bullet, literally.
In the tale about the army, Dad was most definitely four-foot-eleven-and-a-half. Otherwise, he was, without any doubt, a five-footer. A half-inch might not sound like a lot, but it’s like in the shops where things are always nine shillings and six pence, not ten shillings. Much cheaper.
Another of Dad’s favourite stories was about the time he rode a horse for Sir Willoughby Norrie. ‘I was riding a horse called Pirate for the Governor-General. Halfway down the straight, I was well clear, but I turned my head and got a glimpse of the race favourite, Hillcrest, coming up fast on the outside. I knew I was going to get beat, so I slid Pirate out and cut him off. Rod McPherson had to ease up and change to the inside. It cost him a couple of lengths and, in the end, I won by a long head.
‘When I got to the weigh-in room, Barney Sage, the Stipendiary Steward was waiting for me. He was fucken ropable. He said, Aitken, that was blatant interference. One of the worst cases I’ve ever seen. You won’t get away with this. I thought I was in the shit but luckily, a few seconds later, I was able to say, Excuse me Mr Sage, the Governor-General is standing right behind you. Barney Sage turned around, bowed slightly and extended his hand, and said, Sir Willoughby, congratulations on your win.’
Sir Willoughby, of course, wouldn’t have been at all aware of how his privileged position had just decided the outcome of a horse race. Nobody was ever going to tell him that his horse should have been disqualified. Dad knew though. He knew that if they couldn’t disqualify the horse for interference, they couldn’t suspend the rider either.
I still have the letter, on Government House letterhead, that the Governor-General sent to Dad, along with a generous sling in the form of a cheque. ‘If you can get a photograph of yourself winning, I would be very pleased to autograph it,’ Sir Willoughby wrote. Dad wasn’t too interested in an autographed photo; the signature on the cheque was fine by him.