WINNERS TO THE END

11 April 2004

Brough Scott pays tribute to two diverse characters who enhanced the world of racing

Not just sadder but emptier: the death of Fred Winter on Monday and Robert Sangster on Wednesday meant that racing has lost two mould-breakers, two livers-and-givers, two absolute legends in a week.

They were very different; Fred, the trainer’s son who became the most successful jump jockey and trainer of his era despite not initially wanting to enter either profession; and Robert, the fun-loving Vernon’s Pools heir who changed the face of international ownership because he liked to play to win and who needed to win to play.

Yet, in their contrasting roles, they both loved life and were in turn loved for it. Winter was feared, revered and loved in equal part, but, above all, was respected for what he showed as a man and for the kindness of his touch. Sangster was never much into reverence or fear, and for all the Derbys and other Classic wins and the revolutionary way he made a business out of working the bloodstock market, it was his generosity and his willingness to back others which has been so remembered this week.

Fred was the most extraordinary product of mind as well as muscle. Although short and exceptionally strong in the upper body, he did not take lightly to the role of jump jockey forced on him in 1947 after his weight soared on army service. He won on his second ride but dislocated his shoulder on his fifth and, by the time he won his first title in 1953 (with the then astonishing total of 121 winners), he had the seemingly more hazardous courses of Plumpton and Leicester excluded from his Ryan Price retainer.

Fred was not without fear, but neither was he fearful. He knew the dangers and went to Mass every Sunday to overcome them. He did so to a unique extent and with a unique style and with an integrity which no sane man would ever question. He would clamp his body around a horse and thrust his strength into it with a physical compulsion never seen before or since. The mere statistics, a `mere’ four riding titles and a 923-winner career total are comparatively meagre pickings in these McCoy-glutted days but, once established, he won two Grand Nationals, two Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles and remained an icon of excellence who often left the rest of us in wonder.

Forty-one years ago this week, a 36-year-old Winter was having one of his last rides at Cheltenham in a handicap hurdle in which I was having my very first. Beforehand he had looked every inch an ageing fighter, the barrel torso beginning to run, the famous face and eyes lined with care. By some miracle my horse landed in contention over the last but, on the run-in, the famous hunched figure swept past in a way that brooked no argument. He had come from last to first with such power that back in the weighing room all the other jocks stood and cheered.

He did not want to be a trainer, but his short lived attempt at dieting down to Flat-race weight shortened the crustiness of his temper to breaking point and the Jockey Club, in their wisdom, rejected as `unsuitable’ his application to be a starter. Stuck with being a trainer, Fred then won the Grand National in both his first and second seasons before taking the championship a full eight times. He was the ultimate professional but knew how to party and his early-morning countenance would have faint hearts running for the exit door. Yet Fred’s bark was a lot worse than his bite and his unswerving support for those who worked with him left the likes of John Francome and Richard Pitman forever in his debt.

After Pitman’s fateful swerve on Crisp before Red Rum took him on the line in the 1973 National, it was not until three weeks later that Fred raised the subject. “You know what you did wrong on that horse?” “Yes,” replied Pitman. “Then we don’t need to mention it again,” said Winter. Little wonder that Pitman and Francome were among those most affected, and most supportive, when Fred was cruelly stricken by a stroke in 1988 and forced to spend the rest of his life without speech in a wheelchair.

Fred was 77 on his death, Sangster only 66 when cancer took him last week, but in his own way Robert, too, had lived life to the full. He may have been the first international owner combining with Vincent O’Brien and a young John Magnier to start the operation, which was to found the present Coolmore empire, but he was also an enthusiast. The plan, to use bloodstock as currency, to buy yearlings in America, have them win Classics and then cash them for millions as stallions, worked immediate dividends with Derby winner The Minstrel and Arc winner Alleged in 1974. The big winners that followed, including all the Irish Classics, another Derby, two more Arcs, the Breeders’ Cup Mile, the Melbourne Cup and the super stallion that was Sadler’s Wells, made Sangster the first truly global player.

His hospitality was extraordinary. Last week thousands of people, many of them not particularly connected with racing, are relating tales of entering the Sangster box at Ascot, Melbourne or wherever, being greeted by this slightly shy, smiling figure seemingly so pleased to see them and insisting they help themselves and have a good time. When Beldale Ball won the 1980 Melbourne Cup, scores of us were scooped up and taken to a restaurant to celebrate and – yes – Sue `The Sheila’ Sangster really did dance on the table. I have a photo to prove it.

Robert remained a fan as well as a player and could never talk for long without seeing the funny side, often told at his own expense. Like the time when he was leaving the Arlington Million with Lester Piggott, who greedily helped himself to a couple of very pricey commemorative sweaters from the vendor outside the gates. On the request for money, Lester paused momentarily before moving off with his booty and nodding across at Robert muttering, “he’ll pay.”

But such self-deprecation should never cloud the real business achievements, the world-wide bloodstock empire epitomised at its peak by a series of squash ladder type analysis boards at his Isle of Man HQ indicating the present prowess of every horse in every territory. He was a visionary who brought Steve Cauthen to dazzle us in the Eighties and who revived the Manton training centre to win the Derby again with Dr Devious. Sangster was a man of good fortune who wanted to share it with others. Business or not, he insisted on fun.

His chief ally in these forays was invariably the noted wit, bon viveur, and betaholic Charles Benson who died last year and who might still be awaiting St Peter’s assent when Fred Winter and Robert Sangster come knocking this weekend. With Fred to vouch for them, there should be quite a party at the Pearly Gates.

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