Skelton still holds real presence

Bill Skelton is determined to get out of his lounge chair and say goodbye.

It is only 10 metres to the door but it may as well be 10 miles.

New Zealand's best known jockey suffered a stroke 19 years ago and it has never let up.

For 90 minutes this day he has sat and listened to talk about him. He has followed the conversation but his contribution is trapped inside his mind.

Besides his presence in the room, all Skelton can offer is a single phrase "himagottago".

The phrase has no particular meaning but is a constant sound every time he tries to talk.

"When you have a stroke, you have a saying," wife Nella says.

"The first couple of days after his stroke he kept saying 'Jesus, Jesus'. I said 'Bill, I hope he hears you'."

Nella never strays from Bill's side. She is a remarkable lady who can seemingly read his mind and knows the details of all 2156 winning rides in New Zealand.

Once or twice Bill says "yes" or "no". He says "Orari" where he began his apprenticeship at age 14. He says "marriage", which he did with Nella having first met her when she was a 12-year-old.

Bill is 82 and a picture of peace at their Levin home.

For 18 years he lived at home following the stroke down the right hand side of his body that severely restricted his movement and speech.

Then last year his health took a turn for the worse, with a bout of pneumonia, and Nella and the doctors decided it was best for everyone if "WD" went into permanent hospital care across town at the Masonic retirement home.

Sitting still for long periods is making him stiffer. A rolled up bandage is stuffed in the palm of his right hand to stop his clenched fist closing up completely and his fingernails cutting his skin.

On Thursday Nella brought him home for this story, to a modern villa which fittingly backs onto the Levin racecourse.

"He always comes home once a week, it just makes the week a bit shorter, otherwise he gets a bit unsettled," Nella says.

"I'm there every day, I wouldn't dare not. I go there between 2-4pm every day. If I'm five minutes late, I get a dirty look. He was like that when he was riding, he was always on time."

The TV is on, but Bill is watching a western movie rather than the races from Hastings. He doesn't care for the horses much these days unless Our Gazza, which races in his ownership, is lining up.

Even then, he won't have a bet. Never has.

Nella used to bet. During his riding career she would accompany him to the races and place a couple of dollars on Bill's rivals, primarily to "slow them down".

Nella remembers the fateful day when their lives changed.

The records show Bill stopped riding in 1985 and was training 12 horses in Levin in 1994, with the stable star being Car Park Flyer.

She said Bill had completed his training duties for the day and she had tied down anything that could move as a storm hit Levin.

"I was in the house and he had just finished the horses, he'd come home and had tea.

"You'd done the dishes hadn't you Bill, that was the last time you did them.

"He said 'I'll go and have a shower' and next thing I heard that 'thump'.

"I called out to Bill and said 'are you all right' and he was slumped on the floor.

"He had already dried himself and done his hair like he always does."

Bill spent the next five months in hospital undergoing rehabilitation. Optimism of a recovery faded over time. He can shuffle a few slow steps with assistance but a wheelchair is his other constant companion.

"It wasn't fair really, because you retire and think 'it's time to have some fun'," Nella says.

"But you cope pretty good, don't you Willy."

To which he replies "yip".

"He's marvellous really," Nella continues.

"I don't know how he has coped. I couldn't. I'd be bawling my eyes out."

Little things give Bill a lift. Like the other day when top Central Districts jockey Darryl Bradley poked his nose in for a visit.

"He gets quite a thrill when the boys [jockeys] call in. He tries to converse with them," Nella says.

Skelton was gifted a share in a horse by close friends Cliff and Betty Condren. The Wellington couple then asked him what he wanted to call it and predictably he replied 'himagottago'.

The horse went on to win seven races in the Central Districts as Him A Gotta Go.

Skelton has diabetes. His mother had nine children and four of the five boys suffered diabetes like their late father.

Nella and Bill have three children of their own, David, Anthony and Maria. David rode, as did his daughter Amy, fleetingly.

Bill nods to confirm Daryl's Joy was the best horse he rode. They combined to win the 1969 Cox Plate, a race that will be run today in Melbourne.

The Dominion Post