Fifty years ago this weekend the racing world hailed a new champion — and had to say hello to me. The big news was that Brigadier Gerard won the 2000 Guineas en route to establishing himself as the greatest miler of them all. The minor note was that my ITV career got off to an inauspicious start with an interview in which almost all the answers came in French.
The benchmark of greatness has to be the quality of the opposition, and by that criterion Brigadier Gerard outranks any 2000 Guineas in my memory, probably of all time, and certainly includes Frankel’s. The nearest to him since 1971 has to be El Gran Senor who in 1984 toyed with Chief Singer, Lear Fan and Rainbow Quest, three horses who subsequently won at the highest level. Frankel? He was a supreme thoroughbred and his 2000 was certainly the most spectacular any of us will ever see. But his actual achievement was to beat a horse called Dubawi Gold by six lengths. That cannot live in the same sentence as Brigadier Gerard beating Mill Reef by three.
For Mill Reef was one of the horses of the century. As a two-year-old he won over five furlongs in May, and went on to take the Coventry Stakes by eight lengths, the Gimcrack by ten and the Dewhurst by four. After being trounced by Brigadier Gerard in the Guineas, he went on to win the Derby, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Eclipse and the Arc, breaking the track record in those last two. You see what I mean about opposition?
Incredibly, though, Brigadier Gerard’s Guineas’ rivals included another horse rated Mill Reef’s superior. My Swallow had been rated Europe’s champion two-year-old, a pound higher than Mill Reef and two above Brigadier Gerard. He won first time out at York in May, took the Woodcote at Epsom in June, and then reeled off a still unmatched five-race sequence in France ending with the Grand Critérium at Longchamp.
In the first of those he had beaten Mill Reef a short head. The 1971 2000 Guineas was the place to settle the argument. Bookmakers made Mill Reef the 6-4 favourite with My Swallow at 2-1 and Brigadier Gerard at 11-2. They knew “The Brigadier” was good. He was unbeaten and had impressed when winning The Middle Park. But surely not that good?
But he was. There were only six runners. Lester Piggott rode a Vincent O’Brien lesser light called Minsky. But the action concerned only the big three. My Swallow was a big, long striding chestnut and racegoers relished the battle as he duelled in the lead alongside the diminutive, white nose-banded Mill Reef with Joe Mercer on the handsome Brigadier Gerard poised behind them. We fixed our glasses on the two leaders. We were wrong.
Joe is 86 now but his recollection is as clear as the days when he was the outstanding stylist of any era. “We were very confident,” he said as we reminisced at the track last week. “I knew I had them beat before we got to The Bushes. Then — whoosh — he just took them. He was different class.” Asked about what would have happened if Frankel had been the target, Joe just sucked his pipe and chuckled.
I wish I could recount such happy memories of my ITV debut that weekend. I cannot recall much about the 2000 Guineas broadcast but that is probably because of the scars left by the 1000. Asked to find a jockey, I opted for the legendary Yves Saint-Martin, whom I knew from riding in France and who, despite not arriving at the track until about 30 seconds before the interview, immediately agreed to help.
Saint-Martin was one of those whose magnificent presence was in direct contrast to the smallness of his stature. Picking up my complete ineptitude he rattled away about how Noel Murless had told him that Altesse Royale was a nice filly, how good it was to ride in England, how fine a track was Newmarket.
However, all was not well. The director was shouting in my ear. I stopped, stumbled out another question, and tried to listen. Then I got it. He was yelling: “Get him to talk in f***ing English.” My ITV career looked like dying at birth but then the mighty Yves did me a second favour. He booted Altesse Royale home at 25-1 and viewers got the idea that I was a top tipster.
Whichever horse and jockey emerges victorious today should know they have very big boots to fill. And those TV shoes of mine? Ah, I am still at it but they will not take much filling.