As a boy, Andrew Gemmell remembers how radio opened up his world, how he would tune in to follow the fortunes of his beloved West Ham and the exploits of England cricketers in faraway, exotic places. Of all sports, though, it was horse-racing commentary – the thunder of hooves, the roar of the crowd in the final furlong, the sheer thrill of it all – that entranced the youngster.
The love affair that began then will, Gemmell hopes, lead to a glorious afternoon in the amphitheatre of dreams that is Cheltenham racecourse this week. Yet, should the horse he owns, Paisley Park, win the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday – and he is a short favourite to land the prize – the 66-year-old will be unable to see the moment he has dreamed of for so long.
Gemmell has been blind since birth, although not for one second has this prevented him living life to the full – “what you’ve never had, you don’t miss,” he once said.
That indomitable spirit has already taken him all over the world to experience some of the greatest occasions on the sporting calendar: the Australian Open, the Melbourne Cup and Kentucky Derby to name a few. But Cheltenham is special for Gemmell and he is struggling to contain his excitement over Paisley Park’s bid for Festival glory. He is also thankful for the radio commentaries that started it all.
Gemmell, who grew up in Shropshire to Scottish parents, said: “I think of all sports, racing is great in that respect. You can get the commentary on the radio – or if you’re at the races it is on the tannoy – and that’s all I need.”
As a racing-mad youngster, Gemmell enrolled in a “horse racing for the blind” scheme, although his need for speed meant he did not last long. He said: “Basically, I wanted the horses to go faster than the people in charge wanted them to – and ended up getting barred! You’d get led round by someone on the front rein, and they would only get the horse into a trot or canter – but I wanted to go faster, so I started booting hard and shouting ‘gallop’. My guide went mad and told my mum she didn’t want me back.”
While boarding at the Royal National College for the Blind, Gemmell would regularly ask the maintenance man to place bets at a nearby betting shop in Shrewsbury – on occasions even sneaking out to do so himself.
Gemmell’s love of racing continued into adulthood when he worked for many years as a civil servant with Westminster council in London. Savings amassed during that time, plus an inheritance, then allowed him to take a more active role in the sport he loves.
He had already enjoyed plenty of success in racehorse ownership before Paisley Park came along, most notably as part of the syndicate which owned Ed Dunlop’s 2015 Ascot Gold Cup hero Trip To Paris. Gemmell recalled: “I got involved with Trip To Paris late – after he won the Gold Cup – but I was the only owner there when he ran in the Caulfield Cup in Australia, which was a great thrill. He then ran really well in the Melbourne Cup [fourth], before unfortunately getting injured in Japan.”
Gemmell is involved in around 20 horses at the moment, but the undoubted star of his string is Emma Lavelle’s seven-year-old Paisley Park. A smart performer last season, he came up short in the Albert Bartlett at the Festival but has raised his game hugely this term to win all four starts.
Handicap victories at Aintree and Haydock were followed by a top-level triumph in the Long Walk at Ascot and a facile success in last month’s Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Reflecting on his latest performance, Gemmell said: “It was unbelievable. He had to give weight away to a lot of horses, because he’d won a Grade One, but the way he confirmed the form with West Approach (runner-up at Ascot and Cheltenham) was incredible. After the Long Walk we were thinking about taking him straight to the Festival. But 12 weeks is a long time to keep a horse on the boil, and we decided it would be good to give him another run, take him back to Cheltenham to see if he handled the track.”
The decision to run in the Cleeve meant Gemmell gave up tickets for the Australian Open semi-finals and final – but it was a straightforward call. He added: “I’ve been to the Australian Open a few times, and I actually normally go out early to watch the cricket as well. Once it became clear Paisley Park was going to Cheltenham, I had no hesitation giving the tickets to a good friend of mine. ”
Paisley Park is named after the palatial home of the late singer Prince . “I’m not very good at naming horses,” Gemmell said, “but when the time came it was three days after the death of Prince and I’d been a fan, so I called him Paisley Park after his home.”
Indeed, after the Cleeve Hurdle, Gemmell was heard to roar “let’s go crazy” in the winner’s enclosure, a reference to a song other Prince fans will instantly recognise. Of course, he could have used another of Prince’s songs to celebrate, but, perhaps, he’ll party like it’s 1999 should Paisley Park triumph on Thursday. Certainly, the rest of the racing world will be partying with him.