Newmarket’s Bury Road is a place where hustling horses and yellow jacketed riders can make you feel late even at 5-30 in the morning. “Don’t worry,” says* a familiar, deep, sugary, Carribean voice. “They are Clive Brittain’s horses. Stoutey’s will be twenty minutes yet.”
Michael Holding is not just informed about Stoute and these Newmarket summer mornings, for 25 years he has been part of them. “I first came here when Green Desert was a two year old,” he says with a true racing sense of history, “I was playing for Derbyshire and the son-in-law of the guy who trained my horses in Jamaica was a Bajan and knew Michael Stoute. He asked if I would like to meet him. I said ‘of course.’”
The throaty laugh and the softening of the rather severe, bespectacled face, is something millions of viewers world wide have appreciated this week as Holding adds his own West Indian wisdom to the Sky Sports commentary team for the final Test at The Oval. In that context he is instantly revered as one of the greatest fast bowlers in the whole history of cricket: the man whose 249 Test wickets included a record 14 for 149 at the Oval itself in 1976, and whose 6 balls culminating in an off stump cart-wheeler against Geoff Boycott at Bridgetown, Barbados in 1981 has long been logged as an over for the ages. Watch it on You Tube and appreciate how the swift silence of his run up and the fearsomeness of his delivery earned Michael Holding the wondrous nickname of “Whispering Death.”
In the world of cricket this is one of the true legends of the game, someone whom fans still seek out just to say they have shared the same sky. Yet to those arriving at Freemason Lodge before sun-up last Saturday he was just “Mikey”, a tall, lean, anoraked figure with the stubble silver on the chin, their names on his lips and their friendship as part of his DNA. “This is what I love about racing,” he says as sleep-in-the-eye staff (park*) drive up and shake themselves awake for the challenge of a Michael Stoute ‘work morning’. “I love going out early and watching the gallops. Going to the races can be all about dressing up and crowds, and I am not into that.”
There are exceptions of course – one of which came this June when Mikey and his wife Laurie-Ann rode in the carriage procession at Royal Ascot as guests of the Queen. But top hats are not normal Holding clobber. “I like the little tracks,” he says, “when I first came here I used to stay with Jimmy (Stoute’s long serving travelling head lad Jimmy Scott) and his wife Shirley. I would go racing with Jimmy in the horse box. I loved that. You see exactly what is happening, you see everything. But I do remember going to Leicester once with Jimmy and when we left here it was a morning like this, a bit overcast but not cold, so I went in just a shirt and a very thin jacket. We got there pretty early and had breakfast in the lads canteen, but by 12 o clock it was pouring with rain and I was shivering so bad that we had to run over to the shopping centre and buy a Puffa jacket. I still have it in the house.”
Since 2005 the Holdings have had a home in Newmarket to go with their winter base in Pembroke Pines, half an hour north of downtown Miami. “When I was playing I only ever had one or two days off at a time,” explains Mikey as the horses begin to file and prance on to the collecting ring under the watchful eyes of assistants Stuart Messenger and Owen Burrows. “But once I got a contract for Sky I started renting around Newmarket, and when the Tests are not on this is my routine. I love this time of year with the two year olds coming through and everything going forward. It is all very exciting. And of course I love watching this man.”
With a whistle and a hum, Michael Stoute strides through the early morning hush and into the paddock. The hair is silver now, the face a lot more lined than when he first pitched against Julian Wilson, Gavin Pritchard Gordon and Tim Richards for what was to become Wilson’s BBC presenter’s job all those years ago. But there is also a contentment in the concentration and in the quiet greetings to his team. Here is a master trainer at a crucial meeting** point with his horses. Michael Holding is not the only one to look on in fascination.
The horses and riders are circling on a railed sand track some 300 metres round. Whilst assistants and watchers stay out, Stoute steps between the white plastic uprights so that the string pass him within touching distance. It is not so much a daring manoeuvre as an intimate one. There may be more than 60 four legged pupils in this classroom but he is the master, 6 a.m. on this warm August morning is the time for the next lesson to begin.
The concentration spreads across the group. The chatter ceases not so much for fear of offense but in recognition that something special is going on. Stoute’s face is a mask as the procession files past him. Every now and then he singles out an individual and asks something clearly pertinent about well-being or activity. Then he steps back and the long posse continues its course (and )**whilst from the trainer comes an almost theatre-organ sound so deep that for a moment you think someone must have tripped a loud speaker. He stands on his own. There is no consulting of notes but the multiple classic winning process which today sees him en route to a tenth trainer’s championship is, at 62, more focussed and more confident than at any time in more than 30 years of watching what has become “Sir Michael” at work.
“I don’t invade his horse space,” says Michael Holding, stretching the syllables with Jamaican emphasis. “For that mind is constantly ticking over. It is like a com-pu-ter. While a cricket coach only has to react to what he sees in front of him, the wrist too far round, the elbow out, the run up ragged or whatever. Michael has to remember what the horse did last week, and the time before that, and where it went because there are so many different gallops. They are like his kids and he has to devise the exams to take them forward and it upsets him when he reads them wrong.”
“I remember him one morning this summer,” Mikey adds with the insight of one great practicioner about another, “coming up to the girl who had ridden a very promising colt called Zacinto in a rather disastrous first work after injury. The girl was upset but Michael said ‘look it’s my fault. He was not ready to work with that other one.’ Then he looked at Zacinto and said to her ‘I will make it up to him.’ He was determined to re-build ‘his kid’s’ confidence.”
If “horse space” is sacrosanct, car seats are clearly on offer and soon the long Holding limbs are folded into the front (seat)** of the Stoute Merc** to spin the half mile round to the Limekilns. A little knot of team members are already gathered there including Ryan Moore, Kieren Fallon, Helen Chrystal, still on crutches after her leg was smashed by a kick in June, and the baggy, blue, England-fan shorts of bald headed Mick Blair whose only affliction is fashion blindness and that came a long time ago. Eyesore or not, it hasn’t stopped Mick leading up Kris Kin in the Derby or Singspiel all around the globe and now running a video*** camera over each gallop.
It’s a cheery gathering made slightly odd in that it’s focus is not on each other but on distant spots in the distance gradually emerging into the four legged athletes on which everyone’s future depends. Conversation is peremptory as we await Owen Burrows brief litany of names as separate groups come through. Stoute keeps his own counsel and an outsider is struck how essential it is to have a constant monitoring of individuals if you are to make any sense of what is otherwise just a couple of horses galloping across the eyeline. If you do, the rewards can be rich, varied and sometimes unexpected too. “The best horse I ever saw work up here,” says Mikey Holding, “was the Guineas winner King’s Best. Before he ran (and broke down) in the Irish Derby he had been off with problems but as he came past us he was going so well that Gary Foster stood up in his irons, looked across at ‘Stoutey’ and shouted, ‘he’s back boss. He’s back’”
No notes are taken, but the computer is whirring in Stoute’s brain as he heads purposefully back to the car to drive across to the other side of The Limekilns to hear those who have worked and prime those who haven’t. Holding has seen all this before and as he hurries** to join his friend you see a glimpse of that long loose lope which used to quicken** so lethally towards the wicket. Back in the copse at the end of the Al Bahathri gallop**, Stoute consults eager work riders on steaming horses. Moore and Fallon are briefed and mounted, and Mikey gently joshes the string **about past losers and future fancies.
In minutes the two great West Indians are back in the car and off to the Limekilns where the whole scenario is re-enacted with a different cast but the same audience albeit with Blair’s fashion crimes partly mollified by the immaculate presence of ex-jockey Bruce Raymond here representing owner Saeed Suhail whose unraced grey colt by Verglas is one of the workers. To be honest, which most casual work watchers most definitely are not, the Suhail colt Magnetic Force was one of the few that one could truly identify as having worked well and that mostly because of his colour. But for the specialists this was another set of images to fire into the retina and file in the memory.
“I believe in my eyes,” says Mikey Holding. “I have often told people like Kevin Bradshaw (one of Stoute’s most entrusted work riders) that I don’t want them to tell me what they were doing on a horse. My eyes don’t lie to me. Mick (Blair) and I are very close and we talk to each other if the horses have worked in two different places. One day last month I rang him and said ‘Mick, I have just seen a horse breeze brilliantly. You want a 16-1 winner this afternoon?’ When I told him it was Kingsgate Native he thought I was joking. He didn’t after he had won the King George at Goodwood.”
Back at the yard Mikey checks a printed work sheet with Stuart Messenger and swaps genial insults with Kevin Bradshaw amidst the sponged legs and strewn saddles which are the equine equivalent of professional sportsmen’s dressing rooms the world over. At breakfast there is a younger star to attend to as Coral Pritchard Gordon affectionately chides Ryan Moore for his lack of smiles at the racecourse – “and it’s a lovely smile” she says. Britain’s 24 year old champion protests engagingly that he looks false if he does smile and grumpy if he doesn’t. He is bright and pleasant and earnest and maybe in danger of taking the whole thing too seriously. “Just keep going and don’t read the papers,” says Michael Holding, “I never did.”
It is a golden morning and with a rare no-runner Saturday Michael Stoute clearly relishes a third session back with a new cast up at the Limekilns. At the end of it Mikey repairs** (back) to the neat anonymous house on the Exning road where he tells of his obsession with the racetrack since his first pre-teen induction at Jamaica’s Caymans Park, of the horses he owned (only one in Jamaica didn’t make money, “over here I can’t afford it”) and then goes to another room to collect a large, leather bound diary which he produces with a sense of calm, understated satisfaction.
Just in case anyone thinks that Michael Holding spends his time around Michael Stoute’s as some feckless, whisper-addicted punter, here is a hand-written log of every bet he has every day. At the end of each week, and each month, (t) he** keeps the score under a plus or minus column. Without breaking confidences you will be pleased to know that at present the figure is handsomely in the “plus” leger.
“With Stoute horses I back on what I have seen on the gallops,” he says, “with the others I go on form. I keep a record of everything I do. It is only a hobby and it does not always work, but it is nice to keep ahead.” Next spring various cricketing luminaries will find the balls whistling round their head as Mikey’s latest book “No Holding Back” hits the shops. His contribution to the racing game is less dramatic but equally worth heeding. “You can’t change racing,” he says, “you can just have less of it and make people more welcome.”
Michael Holding stands tall in the doorway as we drive away. He links continents as well as sporting disciplines. He has a voice that is worth hearing.