It’s not the closure we should remember, it’s the beginning. Think not of today’s end of era sadness of John Dunlop bowing to the years inevitable toll. Instead cast the mind back to 1964 when the Beatles were topping the charts, Muhammed Ali was still Cassius Clay and a tall young man with no typing experience reported for work as a secretary/assistant to the Duchess of Norfolk’s trainer Gordon Smyth at Arundel.
“Someone in the town taught me how to do it with two fingers,” he remembered last week. “But I was really quite magnificently unqualified. I hadn’t a clue about PAYE and found out about that by asking someone in the pub. I can’t say I was madly ambitious, I just enjoyed things and got on with it.” The tone, as ever, is so urbane and wryly amused at life’s absurdities that it is easy to underestimate the enormity of John Dunlop’s achievements amidst the autumn gloom which surrounds his departure from the training scene. Easy but wrong.
For by any standards this has been one of the great careers of his or indeed any other profession. It was not just the three and a half thousand winners, the Derby’s with Shirley Heights and Erhaab, the ten English and nine European classics. It was the enquiring mind which could reduce the complex to simplicity, inspire others to help wider causes and which never passed up an opportunity to broaden his and others’ horizons.
“When we flew out to Milan, Rome or Berlin on a Sunday,” said Willie Carson at Newmarket Sales on Thursday, “we would check in at the hotel and he would ask the hall porter which Museum was open and off we would go. I have seen so many paintings and other things with him. John Dunlop was not just an employer, he was like a schoolmaster to me. I never understood how he fitted so many things in. Not just training the horses, but he loved winning prizes with his cattle, his show hunters, his pigeons, his chickens and he got his OBE for all the work he did for charity across the board.”
Erhaab’s Derby victory in 1994 was just one of a string of big race successes Carson shared with Dunlop dating back to Trusted‘s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes in 1977 and including the likes of Bahri, Wassl and Lahib as well as terrific fillies such as July Cup winner Habibti and the extraordinary Guineas, Oaks and Irish Derby winner Salsabil. “He was the ultimate professional,” recalls Willie. “He would ring up with his ideas of what he wanted to do with a horse but then he wanted your opinion and finally left it to you. He gave you a lot of confidence because he was so consistent. He never had any great highs and lows. In the unsaddling enclosure with Erhaabl I remember him just putting his arm around my shoulders, and just giving me a tap to say ‘well done’ but you could see he was absolutely glowing with pride.”
Despite the closeness of his association, neither Willie Carson nor Pat Eddery or any other of the great jockeys who steered home the Dunlop stars were ever invited down to ride work on the Arundel gallops. “This is where I do the training,” John Dunlop would say in those patrician tones which actually carry amusement rather than arrogance. “The last thing you want is jockeys messing about and trying to get involved and complicating everything. And anyway we seemed to have got on all right without them.”
Avoiding complications is part of Dunlop’s secret and you have to think that part of the keen intelligence and easy questioning manner comes from the impression made on him by his father, a doctor in Ross on Wye. What Dunlop senior certainly did was to instill a love of racing to his only son. “We didn’t have any horses and things because our house was in the centre of the town”, said John last week,. “But my father was a founder member of Chepstow and we always went there and to Cheltenham. My father was no great gambler but he liked the whole scene and I suppose that must have stuck.”
Actually getting involved in the racing business came about far more by chance than any life defining plan. “When I was doing my National Service in Germany there was a wonderfully mad Irishman called Jerry Flynn who had a horse he used to race at weekends,” Dunlop recalled with a chuckle as he watched the half dozen horses on third lot plod rather unexcitingly away back towards Arundel. I used to help him out, driving the box and picking up the bits when he fell off and all things like that. When I came out of the army I had not really given much thought what I would do but somehow thought I would give racing a try and so put that famous advertisement in the Sporting Life.”
It has long gone into legend how the whole Dunlop saga started from the fourteen word spot of wishful thinking which read, “Young man, no practical experience, wishing to be involved in racing – remunerations important.” The chance of this unpaid albeit also unskilled labour drew a response from Derby winning trainer Arthur Budgett but instead Dunlop ended up in the little Brockenhurst yard of ex-schoolmaster Neville Dent who handled some twenty mixed horses as well as standing a premium stallion on the edge of the New Forest.
“It was all fairly bucolic,” chuckles Dunlop. “Girls from the forest, pony round ups and all that sort of thing. Neville’s runners were mostly in the West Country. We had both jumpers and flat and I lived in an old caravan under a huge oak tree and I rode what I was able, mucked out, did the stallions, a bit of everything. Neville was and is a very nice man. I loved it all and then one morning I saw an advert in the Sporting Life for a secretary / assistant for Gordon Smyth at Arundel and asked Neville if I could take the afternoon off to see Gordon at Salisbury and found out later that while I was talking to him the Duchess was studying me with her race glasses from the other side of the paddock.”
She must have liked what she had seen but so too did the staff at Castle Stables and it is typical of Dunlop’s style that he speaks as warmly about going to the dogs at Hove with head lad Dennis Hartigan as he does of going to the Metropole Casino in Brighton with the Duchess’s daughter Lady Anne. “I remember him as a thoroughly nice young man,” says Eddie Watt who was then travelling Head Lad and later succeeded Dennis Hartigan before stepping down only three years ago. “He was very straightforward but he would always listen to you. We hardly had 40 horses when he came, just those belonging to the Duchess and her friends, but he kept building up and when we had over 200, we also had a second yard in Findon.”
Eddie may have been long serving but so too has John’s wife Susan whom he claims to have ‘stolen’ off some luckless Naval Officer at a dinner dance and who, despite a hunting background in Northamptonshire, was slightly shaken on her first visit to Brockenhurst to be greeted by stable stallion Mosquito II having his oats with libidinous relish. When in 1966 Gordon Smyth moved to Findon to take over the Lewes yard of the ailing ‘Towser’ Gosden complete with future Derby winner Charlottown, Sue was able to deploy her professional secretarial skills after riding out with first lot every morning. Last week both she (billed as “Secretary Susan”) and Eddie Watt beamed out of an old framed group photo taken from the local paper. It is dated 1973. By then they were already on the climb.
John’s had opened his account in style when Tamino won the Palace House Stakes in the spring of 1966 ridden by stable jockey Ron Hutchinson. By 1968 he had made the top ten of the trainers table with 44 winners and the Gordon Stakes and Derby third exploits of Mount Athos. By 1970, he had a classic on the board with Black Satin in the Irish 1,000 Guineas. In 1973 he won the Eclipse and in 1974 he hit the jackpot for his employers by winning the Ascot Gold Cup with Ragstone. “Considering Bernard (the Duke of Norfolk) was in charge of Ascot, you can almost say that was my most important winner,” Dunlop added last week. “It certainly felt so at the time.”
His fame had spread across the continents and in 1977 the New Zealand star Balmerion was sent to Castle Stables and ended up running second to Alleged in the Arc de Triomphe. “He had been rather messed around and been sent to California,” says John, “but he was a hell of a good horse, quite brilliant in the mornings. We had some good horses then but I have never had anything work quite like him. Ron (Hutchinson) got criticised when he got beat in a few races the next year and although the horse was beginning to turn it in Ron was fifty and I had to tell him the time was up. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done and for some reason I did it sitting at the end of his hotel bed waiting for some race in America.”
The move avoided embarrassment the next season when Greville Starkey was always going to be in the saddle of Lord Halifax’s 1977 Royal Lodge winner Shirley Heights who then swept through to win the Dante and both the English and Irish Derbies. “After he won the Dante I asked Greville if Shirley Heights would act at Epsom”, says John. “Greville looked at me and replied, it doesnt matter a **** if he acts or not, he will still win a minute.”
The Classic roster was followed in 1980 by Quick As Lightning’s 1,000 Guineas under Brian Rouse whose uneventful pre- race spin was to be the last time a jockey was seen on the Arundel gallops. In 1984 Circus Plume won the Oaks under Lester Piggott and in1986 Moon Madness won the St Leger under Pat Eddery but the best horse of this period was undoubtedly Habibti who reverted to sprinting after failing to stay in the English and Irish 1,000 Guineas and promptly reeled off the July Cup, The Vernon’s Cup and the Prix de L’Abbaye in an astonishing 54.3 seconds, a track record which stands to this day and which took more than a second off the previous best. “She was a hell of a filly,” says Dunlop with the relish of a master chef remembering one of his greatest creations. “When she was right nothing could touch her.”
If 1977 marked the end of the Hutchinson era it also saw, with a crooked legged filly called Hatta at Brighton in June, the start of something rather more momentous, a first winner for Sheikh Mohammed and the Maktoum family. Sheikh Hamdan eventually became the main patron at Arundel but Dunlop recalls the early days with characteristic lightness of touch. “Old Dick Warden (the bloodstock agent) and I had been sitting with Sheikh Mohammed at Tattersalls Sales and he had already bought two colts when Dick dug me in the ribs and said, “Come on he wants to buy a filly.” We had not got much budget and there were only ten lots left and eventually found this thing with a foreleg sticking out at 45 degrees. I said to Dick, “I can’t train that”, and he told me ‘yes you can, win a little seller at Catterick and everyone will be happy.’ ” As the poet said “from little acorns great oaks do spring.”
The world now knows that Sheikh Mohammed’s budget has increased a touch since Hatta’s day and it was to Arundel that he sent the $10.3 milllion dollar yearling Snaafi Dancer only for the colt to prove an absolute non- athlete. “He had quite a nice character,” says Dunlop with a laugh, “held himself well and was rather a good walker. But once he tried to go quicker he was useless.” Such sanguine humour has been needed for John to survive some cruel moments in his life most notably when his oldest son Tim was killed in a car accident in 1982 and when he himself came within minutes of death with a ruptured aorta in 2001.
The innovations and questing intelligence which Willie Carson had talked about had led Dunlop to put down first a wood chip canter and then a sand gallop but his search for simplicity meant that he kept his horses to an abolutely basic routine. “I think it is a lot of old cobblers saying they need to go a different place every day,” he joked one morning, “They like routine and when Salsabil had her amazing year the only time when she was on the grass was in her races.”
Such simplicity was not what Marcus Hosgood expected when he joined the stable after thirteen years with the Evening Standard and six with the Daily Star as a through -the-card tipster. “I thought I knew a bit about racing” says Marcus whose ncyclopaedic form study has ever since been central to the Dunlop team’s strategy at home and abroad. “But he knew so much more he frightened the life out of me. He seemed to train horses all the same but he understood them and where they should run wonderfully well. He would challenge me to find a race not just in Britain but all over Europe and it became very exciting thinking of targets. At one stage we had over 200 horses and some wonderful animals like Salsabil, Erhaab and Bahri who won the St James Palace and the Queen Elisabeth II in our championship, 124 winner season of 1995.”
Soon the winter will come and John Dunlop will no longer drive out away from the Castle up the Arundel hill. “It will be sad,” he admitted last Saturday, “But I have to reflect on my amazing good fortune to have lived and worked in such a wonderful environment with so many marvellous people. I don’t know what I will do now but I can watch the lives of my two boys and their wives and children in what has been a marvellous way of life.” There is one last wistful look and a final rhetorical question “Can you ask for more?”