As Winston Churchill entered his 9th decade, he was giving and getting great pleasure from the racing game. Now another great older statesman is doing just the same. Protektorat, Monmiral and Clan Des Obeaux, the first three winners at Aintree yesterday, all carried the white red and blue silks of the racing partners of Alex Ferguson.
Sir Alex won’t be 80 until New Year’s Eve but his racing interest began way back in his Glasgow boyhood when his father was a follower. “He backed Devon Loch, that rather summed up his punting,” and his mother would do a “tanner yankee” every Saturday. Slightly different from Winston who as a teenager rode across the Heath to watch his father’s Oaks winner on the gallops at Newmarket.
But both cherished the paternal connection. When Churchill returned to the racing game with a grey horse called Colonist II in August 1949, he used his father’s racing colours of chocolate and pink. When Ferguson first had a runner, a two-year-old at Newmarket in April 1998, 23 years ago on Friday, he named it Queensland Star after a vessel his father had helped build in the Clyde shipyards. Both horses ran out as winners.
Both men found very real escape amidst the racing welcome. One lovely Tipperary morning in the spring of 2000, I had the delicious privilege of riding out at Ballydoyle and the splendid surprise of finding Alex in the passenger seat of Aidan O’Brien’s jeep. It is now a matter of unhappy history how that Coolmore relationship peaked into the 2002 Classic winning triumphs of Rock of Gibraltar but ended in acrimonious dispute. Lesser men might have walked away but Ferguson did not want to lose the enjoyment and under the wing of his friend Ged Mason has kept going to reach yesterday’s magnificent peak.
It is perhaps significant that this was in the jumping game which majors in enthusiasm without offering the financial breeding jackpots of the flat. Paul Nicholls, trainer of yesterday’s winners Clan Des Obeaux and Monmiral, and of Hitman, second to the Dan Skelton trained but Mason and Ferguson owned Protektorat in the first, speaks warmly of Sir Alex’s visits to his stable. How, on a spare day when still managing Manchester United, the great man would helicopter down to Dorset, watch the horses on the gallops and share a drink and dispense wisdom in the local pub.
“He is fascinating to talk to,” Nicholls has said, “he understands people and sporting challenges so well. I have often gone to him for advice. It is great to have him in the game.”
Like Ferguson Nicholls is a passionate competitor and the Irish domination at Cheltenham will have hurt him as much as a Liverpool drubbing would Sir Alex at Old Trafford. The fact that yesterday’s treble was in the city of the old enemy will not have been lost on all parties.
Pundits were quick to point out that it was Ferguson’s first treble in Merseyside since 2007, when his Manchester United side defeated Everton 4-2 in the April and 1-0 in the September – both at Goodison Park – and then Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield in the December. What’s more, this racing treble was taken at the very top, all three of yesterday’s winners being at the highest Grade 1 Level. Protektorat’s win in the Manifesto Chase sets him up for even bigger things next season and Monmiral’s devastating success in the Doom Bar Hurdle led Harry Cobden to say he was “the best juvenile I have ever sat on” and prices quoted for next year’s Champion Hurdle albeit Monmiral’s build and athleticism may send him straight over fences. But it was Clan Des Obeaux who was the revelation.
When the now nine-year-old won the first of his two King George VI Chases in 2018, it looked as if Sir Alex had a Gold Cup horse. But things have not worked out at Cheltenham and in recent races he has seemed, in that lovely racing euphemism for lack of effort “to have been keeping a bit for himself.” Rather than, or perhaps for fear of, asking his owner to try the “hairdresser treatment”, Clan Des Obeaux was equipped with a pair of big brown sheepskin cheekpieces and without the chance of taking a Ferguson forbidden backward glance, he buckled down like the champion he can be and the best jumper Sir Alex has owned to date.
“That’s the best day I’ve had in my time in racing”, he said yesterday. “It is different to when I was managing my football teams – I was in control of what was going to happen on the pitch, but I’m not in control of that (on the racetrack) as the trainer does all of that and as an owner you hope it goes well. You do get the same excitement when you win big races like that as it does get you very excited.”
On Saturday the excitement could go even higher when Give Me A Copper runs for him in the Grand National, an event where the owner’s first bet was 60 years ago when he had half a crown each way on Nicolaus Silver. Expect rather more substantial support this time for an outsider not without a chance if he brings his best game to the track this afternoon.
Winston Churchill’s greatest racing days came in that 9th decade. Expect Sir Alex to emulate him.