30 April 2006

IT BEGAN It began with a horse called Hit Parade but for a while Martin Pipe was anything but. To understand the mould-breaking drive behind the record-busting career you have to appreciate how unsuccessful and uncertain Pipe was at the start.

He talked yesterday of his “humble beginnings” but that gives a false picture. He was the son of the genial and cunning West Country bookie Dave Pipe, began work clerking in one of his father’s string of shops and was set up with a blue Rolls Royce registered MCP 1 when his training operation was only just out of the joke stage.

This may sound absurd about someone awarded the CBE for his unprecedented 15 training titles, 35 Cheltenham victories, 4,000 winners, but part of Martin Pipe’s dynamic was an inferiority complex in comparison to his father.

Another was an almost ‘chippy’ wish to find things out for himself rather than pursue the old school, follow-the-leader education normally deemed fit for the racehorse trainer. This meant that the operation he founded in Somerset at Nicolashayne was entirely self-taught and built at first on his own mistakes. In the wash of tributes to the great sea of Pipe success most have forgotten that when he began training in 1974 (after a singularly unsuccessful one-winner riding career) it took him until 1979 to get into double figures for a season, and until 1983 to get out of the twenties.

“Look,” he said in 1990 after logging the fourth of his 15 titles, “I’d never got on a horse until I was 18 and then I promptly fell off the other side. When we started with point-to-pointers I didn’t know anything except for bookmaking. I’d never even worked in another yard. So I just read books, tried to analyse and carried on from there. We are only just beginning. There are so many things that we don’t know about the working of a horse.”

By then he had already evolved the basis of his system and like all mould breakers, it was founded on a mistrust of the status quo, on having to accept the two most common of jockey excuses that “there was no pace” (if the race was slow) or that the horse “blew up” (if the pace was fast).

Not being inculcated with the traditional ‘long canter-long gallop’ method, he installed a wide four-furlong (there wasn’t room for further) uphill all-weather gallop on which his horses breezed up three abreast, hacked back down and did it again. Pipe had brought interval training to the jumping game.

The results began to become sensational. In the 1986-7 season he first became champion trainer with 106 winners. Two seasons later he saddled 243 and many of his fellow trainers were seething with resentment as the shape of jump racing and jump horses was transformed in front of their eyes. How could these greyhound-lean horses blaze off in front and keep finding extra? Unable to admit someone like this little limping bookie’s son with his former table tennis-playing side-kick Chester Barnes could have reinvented the training manual, they resorted to the oldest of jealous refrains. Martin must be “giving them something.”

 People who should have known better insisted that Martin was red-cell blood doping in the style of Lasse Viren despite the fact that this was anatomically impossible as a horse, unlike a human, already has a 30 per cent extra red-cell count in their spleen. Embittered rivals even fuelled an ITV Cook Report programme from which Pipe emerged correctly unscathed. I remember writing a piece entitled ‘When will the losers learn?’ in which stable jockey Peter Scudamore said “the reason his horses win more races is that they are fitter”.

Anyone visiting a leading jump trainer’s yard nowadays will see how prophetic Scudamore was. All of them, especially the new champion Paul Nicholls, have developed their own short uphill training work benches, which have been the Pipe legacy along with the records that include every big race, bar the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It has been an awesome career, if not one in which his relations with his public were ever entirely comfortable. Even the nature of his leaving, a direct call to Channel 4’s The Morning Line programme on the day his long-term rival Nicholls was at last to be crowned champion could even be taken as a touch attention-seeking as well as an understandable wish to hand over to his son David with a significant flourish.

Pipe was a man on the edge and he found his perfect foil in the equally obsessive Tony McCoy with whom he shared so many triumphs. McCoy, a guest on The Morning Line, was as shocked as everybody, but then led the tributes. “I would just like to thank Martin for everything he has done for me,” said the 11-times champion jockey. “I have learned so much from working with him. He was a brilliant boss and racing will be the worse off without him.”

But while Pipe hasn’t been in the most robust of health he is still likely to play a major if less stressful role under the banner of the son in whom he and his wife Carol have such justifiable pride. After more than 30 relentless years, he may even allow us to see more of his softer side.

Maybe he, and we, deserve it.

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