Now I know what it feels like, writes Tony Stafford. Coming to the end of my eighth decade, I can now honestly tell you what it is to experience pain. Thinking back to my football days, a broken wrist and a regularly sprained ankle were about the size of it.
I’m sure every woman past puberty has been doubled up on a regular basis and most sportsmen – none more so than jockeys – accept it as part and parcel of their lives. Sorry Keith - and boxers!
But I’ve poodled along and, despite the odd bit of skin cancer on my face and Type 2 diabetes for the past 15 years which has realistically only involved taking the tablets (and not passing up biscuits and cakes), have had a trouble-free run. My friend George Hill, who has had his share of scary medical issues over the years, always says I’m made of tungsten. The tungsten has run out.
It started a few months ago with a twinge in the corner of the mouth, usually when eating. That developed to such an extent that I went to a dentist to see if there was a problem. Nothing on the X-ray.
The pain got worse – not permanent, just intermittent concentrated bursts for seconds or minutes, often while eating in company with friends at the races or in restaurants with my wife. How embarrassing! Ask the editor!
I finally booked an appointment with the doctor for last Thursday but went to watch Ray Tooth’s Glen Again at Sandown the previous evening. It was after his race, trying to have something in the owners’ room that the pain got unbearable.
The nice guy who monitors the room and likes Chelsea FC and Surrey CCC said: “If you need painkillers go to the First Aid room in the main stand.” I did, to be greeted with a: “Painkillers won’t make a difference. I think I know what you have.”
To my shame, I didn’t take down her name, but this highly capable woman told me that she had been originally a dental nurse and for 30 years a paramedic. She was clearly the boss, working very congenially it seemed with her two male colleagues: “It’s trigeminal neuralgia.” Relief, I know what it is. I’ll tell the doctor tomorrow.
Then I Googled it after I left her room and, for relief, read horror as I realised I will have this condition for the rest of my life.
I slunk to the surgery on Thursday, telling the GP the symptoms and it took about ten seconds for him to repeat the dreaded name. “I’m pretty sure it’s trigeminal neuralgia, but it’s not entirely certain. We’ll prescribe the usual drug for the condition. Start with one a day for a few days, then go to two.
Thursday, Friday, I had one each day. Saturday, I went to Ascot, had the good fortune to be in a box where the food was laid out in glorious, nay luxurious profusion. To that point, all I’d managed to get down me from Wednesday had been a couple of coffees and a diet coke, but anything that involved access to the right-hand side of my mouth was the inevitable trigger for another shooting pain.
On Wednesday evening, post paramedic, I was trying to put away a little soft dessert, to no avail, and recently retired trainer Harry Dunlop hove into view. I was keen to ask him what he was doing now and just as I began, the pain came at maximum force. All I could do was stand there like a moron; mouth open trying to stave off the agony. Kindly, with an apologetic smile, he moved away.
So what is trigeminal neuralgia? It stems from the trigeminal nerve, the biggest nerve in the brain. That sends signals of pain to the face, ear, upper and lower jaw and teeth. When it gets damaged for whatever reason, the neuralgia follows.
The literature says that the sharp pain, like an electric shock, can be induced by talking, smiling, chewing, brushing your teeth, washing your face, a light touch, shaving (or putting on make-up – pass), swallowing, kissing, a cool breeze or air conditioning, head movements, vibrations, such as walking or travelling in a car. If that catalogue wasn’t comprehensive enough, it can happen spontaneously with no trigger at all.
Looks like I’ll have to change many of the things I thought I could do!
The literature suggests it can never be cured, the medication – a smaller dose, but the same that is given to epilepsy patients, great news eh - can help ease or even stave it off for periods, but it’s always lurking in the background. A bit like the tablets I must take for the diabetes.
If you’d have asked me yesterday morning how I felt, it was still at stage one. I was beginning to see why patients with this condition can go into depression or even worse. I won’t. At Ascot, I drank a coffee without incident, but thinking soup would be the only sensible option, I asked if they had any and a nice bowl of tomato was put in front of me.
I needed two goes. The first when I managed three spoonfuls; the second, a third of a bowl, before the wave of pain sailed in. That was game, set and match and after the King George I went straight home.
Yesterday, though, the fourth day of medication and the second with the full daily dose of two tablets, I thought I would try to drink my soup rather than eat in the conventional way, for lunch. That worked. For dinner, a Tesco Fish Pie, spooned minutely so that it took 25 minutes to consume, also went without a problem, although two or three times, the hint was there. So, you pause, take even more care for the positioning of the next morsel. For now, I’m still clear.
The menu is to go back for a blood test tomorrow (Tuesday) and see the doctor again on Thursday week. As I write this, for the first time in weeks I’m feeling optimistic. Maybe the tungsten is still in there somewhere, but boy does it hurt when that shockwave of pain comes!
Two years ago, I sat down – eating again, in the days when I could – having a bite before racing at Brighton racecourse and for the first time, met and had a chat with Owen Burrows. He was clearly anxious about his future as Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum had recently died and the entire Shadwell Estate Company organisation was very much up in the air.
He told me: “There’s a big meeting in Dubai next week and all the trainers are worried that the Sheikh’s daughter Sheikha Hissa and the rest of the family won’t be inclined or even able to keep it going.”
At that time most of Owen’s horses ran in the blue and white Hamdan livery and with the prospect of massive numbers of mares, horses in training and young stock on their way to market, it was understandable the uncertainty, indeed trepidation, that all the Shadwell trainers were feeling.
Project forward two years to Saturday July 29th 2023 and within 25 minutes, Owen’s older generation horses in the Shadwell ownership collected two big prizes. The four-year-old Alflaila, in his first run since last autumn, made it four wins in a row and six from 13 career, in the £70k to the winner Sky Bet Stakes at York.
Then at Ascot in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Qipco Stakes, his Hukum picked up almost exactly ten times that in beating last year’s Irish Derby winner Westover after a sustained battle. Jim Crowley, used to winning big races as recently as last year on Baaed, expressed great joy at picking up this massive pot with a six-year-old entire, whose tally over five seasons’ racing is 11 from 17. At six, he matches dual winner Swain and triple heroine Enable, the only previous horses of that age to win the race in its 73-year history.
This was a second flop of the year for Derby and Irish Derby winner Auguste Rodin, whose sudden capitulation before the home turn after which Ryan Moore looked after him, coasting home a long way behind, was a shock, no doubt especially to connections. Minute medical checks will be taken, but Auguste Rodin was not the only disappointment in the race.
Emily Upjohn, who gave Paddington such a brave fight in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown three weeks earlier, probably left her race on the Esher slopes, and never looked like getting Frankie Dettori a last King George winner, finishing 27 lengths behind the first two in seventh.
The Classic generation form was given a small nudge by King Of Steel, second in the Derby clear of the rest and an easy Royal Ascot winner. For a while it looked as though Kevin Stott was bringing the Amo Racing/ Roger Varian representative with a telling run, but he weakened and had to be content with an honourable third.
Tough stuff this Group 1 racing, especially in soft ground. Hukum is tough and Owen Burrows knows how to keep his golden oldies going.