x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Cricket's loss is racing's gain

Unlike some of Barbados' cricketing knights, who dreamed of captaining the West Indies against England, Sir Michael Stoute had no such boyhood fantasies.

Sir Michael Stoute saw early in life that cricket was his recreation but racing was his life.
Sir Michael Stoute saw early in life that cricket was his recreation but racing was his life.

Unlike Barbados' quartet of cricketing knights - Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Everton Weekes, Sir Clyde Walcott and Sir Frank Worrell - all of whom dreamed wondrous dreams of captaining the West Indies against England, Sir Michael Stoute harboured no such boyhood fantasies. He struck many a lusty century on his make-believe Lord's - a sandy "pitch" by the Caribbean surf with the trunk of a palm tree for stumps - but Sir Michael's future lay in the Turf.

A winner of 14 English Classics, including four Epsom Derby winners in Shergar (1981), Sharastani (1986), Kris Kin (2003) and North Light (2004), and champion trainer on nine occasions; cricket's loss has undoubtedly been horse-racing's gain. "Not that I was ever going to make it as a Test batsman. I was always too much of a pragmatist for that particular dream," smiles Sir Michael, his rich tones still recognisably Bajan despite spending more than 40 years in his adopted homeland. "I don't know about not troubling the scorers as a batsman but I certainly wasn't going to trouble the selectors."

As a trainer of thoroughbred racehorses Sir Michael, knighted in 1998 for his services to the sport, is recognised the world over as an absolute master of his craft having saddled winners in France, Ireland, Hong Kong, Japan and the Dubai World Cup. On Saturday, he completed his third victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf when Conduit, winner of this season's St Leger, stormed through the field to complete a one-and-a-half length victory.

So how was it that this son of the Barbados Commissioner of Police, born with no pedigree in horses and who did not learn to ride until he was 12, develop such a magical equine touch? "When my father was appointed deputy commissioner, we were given a house overlooking a racecourse and that's how it all began. I was captivated by the movement, the sound, the spectacle, the colours and, of course, the speed."

Soon after, the tot got to help out the shadow English jockey Freddie Thirkell, who was engaged in putting together a stable in preparation for his retirement from the saddle. "I loved any job I was given. From holding the horses while the grooms were washing them down, helping to bed them down for the night, or just standing to the side watching and learning from everything that was going on." At 19, Stoute left his island in 1964 to assist trainer Pat Rohan at Malton on the edge of Yorkshire and where, he recalls with a shiver, "the first winter was a bit tough. I used to wonder why I had a permanent cold".

It was during his three years in the unforgiving northern climate that Sir Michael developed a burning passion to become a full-time trainer in his own right. "At that time, my intention was to return to the Caribbean as a trainer but, after moving to Newmarket where I worked with Doug Smith and Tom Jones, I realised that there couldn't be a better place to train horses than this corner of England."

Now a master of Freemason Lodge - a short stroll from Newmarket's famous gallops - Epsom, Ascot and Goodwood may be his places of work but the Kensington Oval where he grew up watching the "Three Ws" - Worrell, Weekes and Walcott - remains a special place in his heart. "Being a small island, the Oval was very close. Horses are my life but cricket is my favourite recreation. "I love my job. It's impossible to work so closely with horses and not develop a genuine affection for them but, I don't regard them as children. They're equine athletes in a training camp.

"I enjoy every moment, but for me, the loveliest time of the day is up on the gallops. I never carry a mobile up there, so the only sounds are bird songs, thudding hooves and the craic of the lads. It's a wonderful life." rphilip@thenational.ae