The legendary trainer of today’s favourite can make it six in the Epsom classic
Saturday June 04 2022, 12.01am, The Times
Wisdom is what is wanted. Preparing a three-year-old thoroughbred for the unique trial that is the Derby is the greatest test of animal understanding and sporting preparation yet devised. No one does it better than Sir Michael Stoute.
He first cracked it with Shergar in 1981 and now — four decades, five Derbys, ten Trainers’ Championships, 15 English classics and multiple worldwide successes later — the 76-year-old is back at Epsom with the favourite, Desert Crown.
What’s more, Stoute is pitching this elegant bay into the galloping helter-skelter of the Derby track with only two races behind him. With any other trainer it could seem folly to risk so inexperienced a horse, but Stoute did just that in 2010 with Workforce, whose seven-length success set the Derby record of 2min 31.33sec.
In the summer of his season as a three-year-old, Desert Crown is the equivalent of a 20-year-old athlete, though in this case the sportsman is also half a ton of highly volatile muscle, often — in the words of Sir Mark Prescott — “intent on killing itself every morning”.
To handle all this needs vision, patience and attention to detail — just what you need to be a great detective. Much has been made of Stoute’s instant early intoxication with the Garrison Savannah racetrack over the wall from his father’s house, but many of the qualities that have made him such a legend are inherited from Stoute Sr, who was head of the Barbados police force.
Yet racing had cast its spell and the tale is well told of how the young fan became a teenage commentator and even did a couple of turns for Radio Trinidad alongside Trevor McDonald. How, after getting a job as assistant trainer with Pat Rohan at Malton, Stoute was the runner-up in a trial for the new BBC racing correspondent and might well have won but for the enterprising Julian Wilson upgrading himself to first class and chatting up the judges. That deep, mellifluous voice with its Bajan lilt would have made him a fine commentator — albeit racing’s honours board would have looked, and sounded, rather different.
In England, those key qualities were evident from the very beginning, most particularly the attention to detail. By 1969, he was assistant to Doug Smith in Newmarket and playing such a part in the training of the Oaks winner, Sleeping Partner, that jealously ended the relationship. Word of his excellence was spreading and after joining the Tom Jones team he again had a significant classic role when Athens Wood won the St Leger in 1971.
Although without ego, Stoute never lacked self-belief. The next season, aged 26, he rented a little yard at the bottom of Warren Hill, and got 12 two-year-olds, two three-year-olds, and a five-year-old, Sandal, that in April became the first officially Michael Stoute-trained winner — ridden, as indeed Athens Wood had been, by Lester Piggott.
Stoute’s wife, Pat, then bought Beech Hurst Stables. In 1973 the three-year-olds, Blue Cashmere and Alphadamus, each won four top sprints, with the latter claiming the Stewards’ Cup. Leading owners moved towards Stoute. In 1978, Sven Hanson’s Fair Salinia won the Oaks. A year later, yearlings arrived from the Aga Khan, for whom a 19-year-old Walter Swinburn sent Shergar into history in 1981.
Over the decades Stoute has cut a genial but slightly unhelpful figure in interviews, liking to take the question thoughtfully and then, after a couple of prodding replies, push an answer to midwicket and trot off for a single with his trademark jolly guffaw. Cricket has always been a diversion, and all sports appeal for their competitive nature. In 1990, we went to Rotherham to watch the great miler, Peter Elliott, train and talk to him afterwards. In his younger days, Stoute could shift a bit himself. When two brash trainers challenged him to a holiday foot-race, he treated them as Shergar would slowcoaches.
His passion and patience have not dimmed. That latter quality has been key in his unrivalled handling of older horses, developing them to peak performance. Rarely was he more satisfied than when long-held transatlantic ambitions were landed with his two four-year-olds, Pilsudski and Singspiel, fighting out the Breeders’ Cup finish at Woodbine in 1996 — or, more recently, when the five-year-old Poet’s Word beat his four-year-old Crystal Ocean in a battle royal at Ascot.
Desert Crown has his future ahead of him. As ever, Stoute has not been in a hurry, but the colt had shown the trainer enough to be entered in the Dante Stakes at York last month. His victory was impressive enough to make him the rightful favourite at Epsom.
Success would be extra special, not only to the trainer but also to his many friends who were worried about him after the death of his long-time partner, Coral Pritchard Gordon, almost two years ago.
Michael Holding first met Stoute in the summer of 1985 or, as he describes it, eschewing any cricketing reference, “when Green Desert [a top Stoute sprinter] was a two-year-old”. Their friendship became so close that when the former West Indies bowler switched to commentating he rented a house in Newmarket and became a welcome daily presence at the stables of a morning.
Back in the Caribbean now his commentary days are over, Holding says, “I know I am biased, but I got the feeling that people were saying that Michael had lost it. He may be no spring-chicken but that man can still train racehorses.”