Monday, March 03, 2008

Happy Birthday to Two Racing Legends

Today is the birthday of not one, but two horse-racing legends.

Celebrating his 90th birthday today is 'The Voice of Racing', the one and only Sir Peter O'Sullevan (above, top). Hugh McIlvanney once famously said of Sir Peter: "His admirers are convinced that had he been at Balaclava he would have kept pace with the Charge of the Light Brigade in precise order and described the riders' injuries before they hit the ground". Sean Magee has a lovely celebratory piece in today's Racing Post entitled 'The Voice at 90', in which he quotes Sir Peter, a man of great humanity, writing about his experience as an ambulance driver in Chelsea in WW2. "The first body I helped carry from an air raid shelter that had received a direct hit was a young girl, whose right hand showed that she had one finger left to varnish when the bomb struck. Among all the 'incidents' (as they were euphemistically termed) that were to follow, this one became printed indelibly on my memory- a symbol of the obscenity of war".

Also celebrating his birthday today is the legendary Flat trainer Sir Mark Prescott (above, bottom), who is 60. They say that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. But there's one more: Sir Mark Prescott runners having their first run in handicaps. Sir Mark has long been one of my sporting heroes- and to commemorate his birthday, here's my Observer tribute piece to the great man, from 2004.

Sir Mark Prescott Bt, Old Harrovian son and grandson of Conservative MPs - scion of an old establishment family - might seem an odd choice of sporting hero for someone whose non-sporting heroes include 1930s Labour leader George Lansbury, Tony Benn and the Hungarian communist Gyorgy Aczel. But the principal enemies of peace and justice in the world today are not hare-coursing baronets, but rapacious multinational corporations and their political emissaries. If I had to choose between Sir Mark and his namesake, the Deputy Prime Minister, as a future leader of Britain, 'Three Cambridgeshires' would get my vote over 'Two Jags' any time.

Prescott's multifarious talents deserve to be known far and beyond the world of horse racing. He first started training racehorses in 1970. In the intervening period, he has saddled more than 1,500 winners at a strike rate that is regularly one of the highest in the country. His modus operandi of always running his horses in the suitable grade as well as scouring the programme book to find exactly the right race for them, wherever that race may be, from Sweden to Germany to France to Brighton, has stood the test of time.

Prescott sees the job of a racehorse trainer as akin to that of a school teacher: it's his responsibility to know as soon as possible what his pupils are capable of and to make sure that they are entered for the right exam. In 1980, he placed the two-year-old Spindrifter to win an astonishing 13 races in one season, equalling the all-time record for juveniles. Between 1981 and 1985, he trained Misty Halo to win 21 out of her 42 races, which is still a postwar record for a mare.

I began following Prescott's horses in the late 1980s. Others may think first of famous architects, but for me the name Quinlan Terry will for ever be associated with the gelding that in 1988 won Prescott his first Cambridgeshire, the ultra-competitive handicap first run in 1839, and in the process helped pay for my new racing bike. Buoyed by this success, a year later I ambitiously backed the Prescott duo Plain Fact and Serious Trouble to pull off a 192-1 Stewards Cup/Golden Mile each-way double at 'Glorious' Goodwood. Defeats by a short-head and a head meant the difference between an around-the-world air ticket and a weekend in Ilfracombe.

The following year the splendidly named Two Left Feet ploughed through the mud at Chester to win at 20-1 and more than made up for the agonising near-misses.

Prescott has always enjoyed the challenge of laying out a horse to win one of the Flat's major handicaps. Six years after landing his first Cambridgeshire he won his first Ebor, the most valuable handicap in Europe, with the giant grey Hasten To Add. Three years later, Pasternak, owned by Prescott's great friend, the late Observer racing correspondent Graham Rock, pulled off a memorable double in the Magnet Cup and the Cambridgeshire.

Most in racing would agree that there has never been a better trainer of moderate racehorses than Prescott. But he showed with his handling of the filly Alborada that, when the right ammunition comes his way, there is no better handler of top-class horses, too. In 1998, Alborada won three Group Twos and then the prestigious Group One Champion Stakes at Newmarket, beating among others the Frankie Dettori-ridden Daylami. This was a fine enough achievement in itself, but Prescott's feat in getting the filly to win a second Champion Stakes, on only her second start of the 1999 campaign and after a season racked with injuries and setbacks, must rate as one of the greatest training performances of all time.

The new millennium has bought fresh additions to the Prescott CV. Last year, he won his third Cambridgeshire, with a horse, Chivalry, that was making its seasonal debut. In February, Fall In Line became the first horse in a century and a half to win six races in one fortnight, while in July Masafi broke another record by claiming seven wins in 17 days.

Yet Prescott is a hero not only for producing a prolific flow of winners. There is the quality of the man himself to consider. Remember loyalty? In an age in which everything - human relationships included - is considered freely tradable, Prescott remains impressively loyal to his jockeys and staff. 'I have looked at many another woman, but I have never looked at another jockey,' he once quipped of his 30-year plus association with George Duffield, the Yorkshire miner's son with whom he established the most enduring trainer/jockey combination in modern racing history.
When Duffield was involved in a fight with millionaire owner Peter Savill, the furious Savill rang up Prescott and asked what he was going to do about it. Prescott stood by his jockey, even though it meant losing a wealthy patron.

In spite of his long hours, Prescott still manages to have a life beyond racing. He is a passionate and eloquent defender of field sports and his argument that hare coursing and bullfighting are both in the general interest of the species is persuasive. He is a film buff, theatre-goer, art connoisseur, reader and amateur boxing referee. And, as I discovered when I interviewed him for a racing newspaper last year, he has great charm and erudition.

With his dynamism, intelligence and attention to detail, Prescott would no doubt have excelled in whichever career he had decided to pursue. But one suspects that nothing would have given him quite the same thrill and sense of satisfaction as laying out one of his charges to win the Cambridgeshire, or training a horse rated as low as 86 to win a Group race at Doncaster.

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