Riding out almost done . . . one at Hexham today . . . then Kavos tomorrow #boom

TWENTY-FOUR hours after Campbell Gillies wrote the above sentence on Twitter, he was dead.

The 21-year-old, Scotland’s most promising National Hunt jockey in a generation, had travelled to the Greek island with a group of fellow jockeys and Mark Ellwood, head lad at Scottish trainer Lucinda Russell’s Arlary House stables, to celebrate Gillies’ 22nd birthday.

Early one morning the friends went swimming. They were in high spirits after a night out and challenged each other to see who could hold their breath under water for the longest. Campbell did not resurface and all attempts to revive him were in vain.

His death on June 25, 2012, resonated across Scotland – from Russell’s Kinross-shire base where Gillies lived and worked to the Lothian village of Haddington, from where he hailed – and beyond.

Campbell’s death, five weeks after that of Russell’s stable star Brindisi Breeze, marked the end of an era which had barely begun. Three months earlier, the pair had lit up the Cheltenham Festival with a superb display of front running to win the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Raiders from the north don’t win big races at The Festival and here were the nation’s two brightest hopes in tandem, striking a blow for Caledonia.

Fin Gillies, erstwhile hooker for Glasgow Warriors, Scotland 7s international and now of Glasgow Hawks, says his family’s life was changed irrevocably by his brother’s accident. Only one who has experienced the death of a loved one can know what it is to pick the scab off grief’s never-healing wound but Fin does it with remarkable candour.

“I don’t entirely know what happened and that’s the honest truth,” says Fin, his voice rising and falling on an eddy of emotion. “They had been out drinking, got in the pool at 7am, they were doing competitions and then Cam just didn’t surface.

“I find it very difficult to believe he chose to stay under the water rather than come up for a breath in a pool he could stand in.

“About a year after Campbell’s death, I had a bad concussion and I went to see a doctor and he said ‘do you mind if I ask you about your brother?’ I told him the post-mortem report said it was an alcohol-related drowning incident and he said ‘I really doubt that that was the case’. He thought it was maybe something like an aneurysm. It makes sense something like that, maybe he had a brain trauma.

“I was at Glasgow Warriors,” says Fin. “Pre-season training started in the gym at 6.30am.  I came out to 36 messages and missed calls and the first thing I thought was ‘jeez, my grandad must have passed away’. I got in touch with my mother and she said ‘you’ve got to come home right now, Campbell’s dead’.

“It was a long drive home to Haddington. I remember the pain and shock, the numbness came after. I didn’t just think about myself and how horrible it was for me. I was thinking about my poor mother.”

Fin’s career at the top level in rugby was cut short by a succession of injuries, but he is sanguine about his fate in light of what happened to Campbell. Today, he is a PE teacher at St Thomas Aquinas RC Secondary, a stone’s throw from Scotstoun Stadium in Glasgow’s West End.

“You don’t try to let it but it does define you. My life would 
be in a completely different place if Campbell were alive now; my mum’s would be different; my sister’s would be different. I had a horrendous time with injuries.

"I had two neck surgeries by the time I was 23 but putting it into perspective I’m still here, I’m still swinging. Back then, the most important thing was I wanted to play for Glasgow, I wanted to play for Scotland and then I thought ‘how important is that?’”

The sporting gene was prodigious in the Gillies family. Mother Lesley jumped ponies as did sister Rita, and there was little doubt that Campbell, “a very good rugby player who didn’t have the temperament for it” was going to become a jockey, just as there was never any doubt that Fin was going to play rugby.

“I was desperately allergic to horses,” he recalls. “We couldn’t have horse hair in the house, in the car. My face would explode. 
“Campbell got into racing through our grandfather, John McNeil. He owned racehorses and pointers and he managed to convince my mother to buy an ex-racehorse for Campbell.

“He also had Lie Forrit, which was his jewel. He took him to Cheltenham a few times, he was a favourite for the Scottish National. At the age of 90, he 
still talks about buying another horse.”

Allergies aside, Fin remains passionate about racing and says that it, rugby and Campbell are his three favourite subjects.

“He was a very charismatic young man, very likeable and great company. He had this unwavering confidence in himself. By the age of 14 or 15 we knew he was going to be a jockey. He had a one-track mind about that. He had it all planned in his head.

“He used to read all the racing books. Jonny Francome was a particular favourite; As a kid, Francome would take his horse out for the day and Campbell would say ‘that’s what I need to do’. During the holidays, when other kids would be causing carnage, him and his friend Zander Voy would take their horses and a packed lunch and off they’d go hacking. He’d come back looking pretty sheepish and mum would say ‘what’s up?’ and he’d say ‘is it legal to jump any hedges or fences that you see?” and we’d be thinking ‘oh, God, what did you do?’”

Watching a re-run of the 2012 Albert Bartlett is to observe horse and rider in perfect harmony. Brindisi Breeze responds to each gentle urging from Gillies, the horse barely brushes timber on its way to victory. For all the world, Gillies could be galloping across the Haddington countryside with Alexander Voy in tow.

Left in his wake were Boston Bob, soon-to-be Group 1 winner under Ruby Walsh, and a slew of other useful chasers. A year earlier Bobs Worth, the 2013 Gold Cup winner, had won the same race. Aged just six, the stage was set for Brindisi Breeze and Campbell Gillies. Cheltenham was simply approbation of what insiders already knew: the horse was going places.

“I spoke to him that morning on the phone,” says Fin. “He wasn’t saying get the mortgage on – Boston Bob was the banker. When I was at Warriors, everybody had money on him, everybody in Haddington had money on him, maybe everybody in Scotland had money on. But I don’t think anyone appreciated how good a horse he was.”

Two months later, he was dead. Showing the kind of exuberance he had displayed for the Cheltenham hurdles, he vaulted out of his paddock and into an oncoming tanker. He was killed instantly. Campbell’s death five weeks later delivered a hammer blow to Scottish National Hunt racing’s collective psyche. Gillies had always thought his hopes and ambitions were inextricably linked to those of Brindisi Breeze and so, tragically, it proved.

“You don’t get to the top without riding the top horses. Brindisi Breeze made a mockery of Boston Bob and Boston Bob has won Punchestown Gold Cups and won lots of big races.

“Campbell was really cut up. Surprisingly so. I remember him phoning me and he was having a tear to himself about Brin because he lived at Lucinda’s and got to see him every day.

“They worked really well together. After the race, Lucinda was asked if she was worried when she saw Boston Bob and Ruby [Walsh] creeping up on the outside. She simply said: ‘Well, no, I had Brindisi and Campbell Gillies.’ I love that quote from Lucinda.”