Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Second-hand news

Two days down from Cheltenham, two to go.  Surprisingly, my tips from the Preview Evening at the Racing Centre aren't going too disastrously (ie don't look any worse than most other people's).  Special Tiara EW as the bet on the drying ground in the Champion Chase looks OK.  My highlight of the Cheltenham Festival so far has been the sick-making pre-race hyperbole on ITV of the supposed invincibility of the supposed super-horse Douvan being followed post-race by Matt telling us that his defeat wasn't actually that surprising as the word from the Mullins stable (which, unless I was making a cup of tea at the time, they had all forgotten to mention before the race) had been that he had been working badly.  My highlight so far has been the ultra-brave win of lovely Apple's Jade, who is just about my favourite National Hunt horse currently in training.

The main feature in my calendar so far this week, though, has not been watching racing (or even enjoying the lovely weather) but attending Brian Procter's funeral and wake yesterday afternoon/evening.  In one sense it is silly to refer to such a thing as 'a good funeral' but in another sense it isn't.  If it is acceptable to use such a phrase, then yesterday was a time to do so.  Sadness prompted the occasion, but basically the occasion was an opportunity to spend time with good people sharing memories of a good person.

Marcus Tregoning gave a lovely eulogy revolving around reflections from West Ilsley, and one came away reflecting that Brian had lived a good life and had earned respect and affection from all whose paths he crossed.  And, really, no man can ask for more than that.  I used my column in 'Al Adiyat' (the weekly racing magazine in the UAE) last week to pay tribute to him and to John Powney, and I reproduce it below.  Hence the title of this chapter, prompted by the fact that we've been watching a lovely 'Classic Albums' series on the TV, and the last one which we watched focused on Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours'.  As previously, not all the photographs are mine: the last two are stolen from an old Sporting Life, so I hope that the photographers don't mind.


This column has been spending too much time in the past recently.  At the start of last week I made a resolution that this time we would discuss something current.  The Cheltenham Festival, perhaps.  (And, why not?  Everyone else does, until the cows come home).  But then two of the nicest people in my home town (Newmarket) died.  And when the bell tolls for people like these, it tolls for all of us.

The world keeps turning.  Today’s big stories become yesterday’s news, until eventually they get lost in the mists of time.  It’s the same with people.  One doesn’t have to put it quite as bluntly as Robin Williams’ character John Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’, whose advice to his pupils was “Carpe Diem” (‘Seize the day!’) because eventually we shall all be “food for worms”.  Instead, one can merely reflect on Bart Cummings’ wry observation that a man could be “an institution one minute, and the next he’d fallen off the face of the earth.”

In retrospect and viewed from a distance of nearly half a century, that could be case with David Robinson, England’s biggest racehorse owner in the late 1960s and early ‘70s but rarely mentioned nowadays.  David Robinson was one of Britain’s commercial titans of the post-war era, riding the wave of the popularisation of television with his company Robinson Rentals (which he eventually sold, in 1968, to Granada for £8,000,000).  Nowadays televisions are relatively inexpensive, but until the 1970s they were very dear.  Consequently, many people preferred to hire, rather than buy, them.  Many of those who took that option did so through Robinson Rentals, and the company’s founder consequently made a fortune.

What set David Robinson apart from many tycoons was that, having made his money, he chose to put it to good use, rather than to hoard it.  He hailed from Cambridge and he loved racing.  And he used his money locally.  He donated £18,000,000 (and those were in the days when a million was a million, rather than a down-payment on a flat in the East End) to Cambridge University to found its newest college, Robinson College.  He gave £3,000,000 to found the Rosie Maternity Hospital in Cambridge (named after his mother) which is now part of Addenbrooke’s Hospital, as anyone from Newmarket who has become a parent knows.

David Robinson (who became Sir David Robinson in 1985, two years before his death) also devoted his attention to racing, buying both Clarehaven and Carlburg, adjacent properties in Newmarket’s Bury Road which are now occupied by John Gosden and Roger Varian respectively.  He employed Michael Jarvis (who had been head lad to Gordon Smyth in Sussex and who had led up the 1966 Derby winner Charlottown) and Paul Davey (whose father Ernie trained in Yorkshire) as his principal private trainers.  For a few years he was the country’s most successful owner.  His best horse was My Swallow, an outstanding colt who had the misfortune to be born in the same year as both Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef; while his other stars included the top-class sprinters So Blessed, Deep Diver and Green God, as well as Meadowville, runner-up in 1970 to Nijinsky in both the Irish Derby and the St Leger.

David Robinson’s trainers also included at various times Bruce Hobbs (who subsequently became very successful as a public trainer), Bob Smart (who had previously trained in a small way in Yorkshire) and John Powney.  The latter had preceded his appointment by working as head lad for both Sam Armstrong and Tom Jones.  During the two years that he trained for David Robinson, John Powney tended to be sent the lesser lights; and it was a similar case subsequently when he became a public trainer in Saville House Stables in St Mary’s Square.

After finishing training, John Powney worked on studs; and in retirement he was a regular fixture at both the National Horseracing Museum and Tattersalls.  In the museum, he guided visitors with his special blend of friendliness, courtesy, knowledge, experience and enthusiasm.  If you ever visited the museum in recent years in its site in the High Street (from which it moved last year to its new National Heritage Centre premises in Palace House) you may well have met John - or you may have seen cycling into town from his cottage in the Bury Road.  You would also have met him if you had bought a horse in Tattersalls and collected the horse yourself.  For years John manned the control office at Park Paddocks during sales weeks, his blend of efficiency and amiability ensuring that the potentially fraught process of making sure the right horses went in the right directions ran like a well-oiled machine.

Sadly John Powney died two weeks ago, aged 87.  Newmarket thus lost one of its senior figures and most loved and respected characters.  Additionally, we have also lost a link to the David Robinson era, a special chapter in the town’s (and British racing’s) rich and varied story.

Last week we lost another great racing man when Brian Procter passed away aged 75.  While John Powney was a Newmarket man from the cradle to the grave, Brian Procter only spent his final couple of decades here.  However, that was long enough for him to become part of the town’s furniture.

Brian Procter’s working life lasted a good 55 years, but he only ever had three employers.  In fact, one could almost say that he only ever had two jobs as his first flowed seamlessly into his second.  He joined Sir Gordon Richards from school, served his apprenticeship in the stable of the former multiple champion jockey, and stayed on until that legend retired from the training ranks in 1970.  Lady Beaverbrook’s horses and the Ballymacoll Stud horses owned by Sir Michael Sobell and his son-in-law Arnold Weinstock moved to Dick Hern’s stable at West Ilsley; and Procter went with them, staying there until Hern eventually retired in the early ‘90s. 

During his years working for Dick Hern, Brian Procter became a living legend.  He served as second jockey behind firstly Joe Mercer and then Willie Carson, achieving a status far more exalted than his totals of winners might suggest.  Although that was not long ago, it seems like another era.  Major Hern could be viewed as one of the last great ‘old-school’ trainers, concentrating on quality rather than quantity, running his stable along strict military lines, insisting on the highest of standards at all times.  He did not suffer fools at all, gladly or otherwise – so the fact that he clearly held Brian Procter in the highest regard speaks volumes.  The jockey became a byword for horsemanship, courage, loyalty and reliability.

So synonymous was Brian Procter with West Ilsley, and so much of an anachronism had Major Hern’s painstaking professionalism and attention to detail become, that it was hard to think of a stable where the jockey, by now in his 50s, could work without feeling that he had come down in the world.  Happily, a solution presented itself: Sheikh Mohammed offered him a job as a work-rider for the Godolphin string in Saeed bin Suroor’s stable.  This was a match made in heaven: he was perfect for Godolphin, and Godolphin was perfect for him.

Thus Brian Procter, having been synonymous with the Berkshire Downs, became a Newmarket man during his final couple of decades.  For those of us who like to think that we can ride adequately, he unwittingly provided a salutary reality check: riding out daily until the age of 70, he was plainly not only the oldest rider on the Heath, but also the best.  When you passed the Godolphin string on the Heath, it was like, if you fancy yourself as a bit of a runner, having Sir Roger Bannister lope past you in the park every morning.  For those of us lucky enough to make his acquaintance, the further joy was the discovery that he was every bit as decent, kind, friendly, modest and humble a human being as one would have hoped him to be.  Sir Mark Prescott often dispenses the wise advice that one should try not to meet one’s heroes, because it usually leads to disappointment.  Thankfully, Brian Procter was the glorious exception to this generally sound rule.

As the world keeps turning and time keeps passing, so do all good things come to an end.  The loss of John Powney and Brian Procter, two good men who were lifelong adornments to the sport which they loved and which they served so well, leaves racing poorer for their absence.  It behoves us to cherish their memories and to recall the parts which they played in some great chapters of racing’s rich history.

1 comment:

neil kearns said...

great piece
totally agree with your comments on apples jade