FROM the moment Doug Jemmeson was born next door to a blacksmith’s, his future was cast in steaming hot metal.

Even before he started school, Doug was a regular visitor to Freddie Alderson’s forge in Sedgefield, in the days when every trader – the coalman, the milkman, the fishmonger and the rag and bone man – had horse-drawn wagons.

The inquisitive son of Frank and Minnie Jemmeson soon got to know by the smell of burning hooves if there was a horse in to be shod, and it wasn’t long before Freddie was giving the little lad a leg up on the inmates.

These were the first sparks of a passion which was to lead to an incredible career as a blacksmith spanning 72 years. Even as he hits 90 today, Doug is still casting an expert eye over the pampered racehorses in Middleham, which has been his home for 65 happy years.

Doug’s original ambition was to be a vet but wartime demanded that he took a job as soon as possible to support the family income. At 14, straight from school, he took a seven-year apprenticeship as a blacksmith, farrier and agricultural engineer with Dick Sanderson, who had a blacksmith’s shop on the site of what is now the Otter and Fish pub in Hurworth-on-Tees.

Making horse shoes and farm tools, it was a move that made Doug exempt from military service because it was considered work of national importance.

“Mind you, it was hard work, but then I’ve always liked hard work,” he recalls, reflecting on his life from his cosy of kitchen in his white-walled home close to Middleham’s market square.

After the apprenticeship, the opportunity arrived to be “head man and farrier” for racehorse trainer Joe Carr, who was also based in Hurworth. Doug jumped at the chance, later following Joe when he relocated to Sutton Bank and then Middleham in 1952.

There was a shortage of farriers in Middleham at the time so there was plenty of work. As well as Joe Carr, Doug shod horses for trainer Avril Vasey, and picked up extra work, looking after Lady Bolton’s hunters and her children’s ponies.

Doug married the love of his life, a Darlington lass called Joyce Waterston, who happened to be a Bluebell Girl and beauty queen. “I met her at a wedding and she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever clapped eyes on,” he says. “She was engaged to someone else but I tried hard to change her mind. I was about to throw the towel in when she shoved a note through my blacksmith’s shop door and that was it. I was the luckiest man in the world.”

The couple went on to have three children – Amanda, Michael and Joanna – and Joyce died eight years ago. 

Being newly married and wanting to start a family inspired Doug to ask Joe Carr for a ten bob pay rise. When it was flatly rejected, he switched his allegiance to an “absolute gentleman” of a trainer called Joe Hartigan, who not only gave him a pay rise but a £10 bonus for every winner.

Despite it being a happy working relationship, the combination of being head man and farrier became too much so Doug opted to go freelance. He’s never looked back, though it’s been a painful way to earn a living at times. He’s broken just about every bone from being kicked or in falls from horses.

He winces at the memory of one horse rearing up and kicking him in a particularly sensitive place which required extensive stitches. Let’s just say that, had he been a horse, he may well have been gelded.

Remarkably, Doug was still riding up to a couple of years ago when a horse fell under him and he broke his leg in three places. Six or so years before that, his horse, Red Spectacle, was hit by a wagon when the driver was blinded by the sun. The horse had to be put down and Doug ended up in hospital with multiple injuries.

There are, however, many highlights from his lifetime amongst his beloved horses. Pride sparkles in his eyes as he recalls making the shoes for Teleprompter when the Bill Watts's tough gelding travelled from Richmond to America to win the world’s richest race, The Arlington Million, in 1985. He also shod Watts’ One Thousand Guineas winner Waterloo in 1972, and George Moore’s Highflying when he won the 100th running of the Pitmen’s Derby in 1993.

His skills have also been in demand for the film and television industry, most notably being called in by the producers of All Creatures Great And Small to help make a horse look lame by manipulating its shoe.

Far less glamorous but still clearly cherished are the memories of his sideline career as a “flapping jockey” – in unlicensed races. There was the time, for example, when he rode in a flapping race at Easington, where a mile was four times round the pit heap, and he won on a black horse called Coal Dust.

The rules in flapping races were bent as easily as molten steel and Coal Dust had at least two other names, including Beautiful Dreamer, to confuse the bookies and punters.

“I never lost a race on that horse – no matter what name it ran under,” smiles Doug.

Indeed, there are a book-full of memories from Doug’s extraordinary life, which reaches an important milestone today (Friday, November 24) when he hits 90. 

Given all his injuries, it’s quite an achievement but he’s quick to pour cold water on the notion of any celebration: “I don’t do birthdays – it’s just a number on a bit of paper,” he says, dismissively, as another batch of thoroughbreds go by outside.

“No, I won’t be doing anything special – maybe just go for a walk and see the horses,” he says.