BY his own admission, Sir Michael Stoute has enjoyed better weeks. The hardest thing about being a trainer, he says, is telephoning owners when their racehorse is injured.
This task is even more demanding when the owner is the Queen – and the horse in question is Her Majesty’s Carlton House, the ante-post favourite for today’s Investec Epsom Derby.
The pressure intensifies further when the thoroughbred with a slight ankle strain represents the Queen’s best chance ever of winning the one Classic missing from her racing roll of honour.
“It will be fine if he wins,” says Stoute who is looking to win the Derby, now the lynchpin of the Qipco British Champions Series, for a sixth time. “Touch wood, he’s fine. We gave him a piece of work on Thursday and he has been ticking over since then. You can do without setbacks like that so close to a major competition. In any sport. It just messes things up.”
If Carlton House prevails, and the likes of Seville and Recital from the Ballydoyle stables of Stoute’s great rival Aidan O’Brien will be formidable opponents, it will be one of horse racing’s greatest stories – because of the Royal connection.
Yet it will also be another remarkable chapter in the trainer’s personal journey after leaving his native Barbados, where his father was chief of police, to becoming the most successful Derby trainer since the war – and just two victories away from equalling the record seven triumphs held by Robert Robson, John Porter and Fred Darling.
It is a journey that began with three formative years spent at the Malton stables of Pat Rohan – a trainer associated with Nunthorpe Stakes winners Right Boy (1958 and 1959) and Althrey Don (1964).
Rohan can still remember coming home on a winter’s night in 1965, Ryedale knee-deep in snow, and seeing his new ‘pupil assistant’ thawing out by the fire and being fortified by a strong drink. It was the beginning of a lasting friendship.
“I’d never given winning a race like the Derby a thought,” Stoute, 65, told the Yorkshire Post yesterday as he left his Newmarket stables bound for Epsom. “It was an exciting adventure. I was 19, still a teenager – just. Everything was new – especially the cold weather. I thought I had a job in Ireland, but that never materialised. My father met a Cork man one evening, they got talking – as they do – and he wrote to Pat Rohan’s mother.
“Pat’s stable management was absolutely first class. So, too, his enthusiasm and dedication. He worked harder than all of us, he set such an example. You had no time to get cold. I was most fortunate to start there.
“Once you showed willing and a good work ethic, he would let you get along. He got questioned a lot by me – but he was very patient. It was a wonderful time. I’d ride out some of the bigger horses, though I wasn’t as heavy then as I am now. I was also a professional mucker out.”
Rohan, who retired from training after concluding his career in Bahrain in 1996, would laugh. Mucking out horses was evidently not one of his assistant’s strongest suits and he would do anything – even paying colleagues – to escape this chore.
Yet it also gave the Barbadian a chance to witness the Epsom Derby in person – he had previously relied upon a crackling transistor radio as well as newspaper cuttings to track Lester Piggott winning on the likes of Crepello and St Paddy.
He led up the Rohan’s horses at the 1966 Derby meeting, a Classic won by the Scobie Breasley-inspired Charlottown who held off Pretendre in one of the great finishes.
“I don’t remember thinking, on that day, ‘I’m going to win the Derby’, but it did make me realise that it was a special race,” said the trainer. “The colour, the excitement, the undulations. It was the greatest race in the world. And, while racing has changed, it is still a great race – it is the one every trainer still wants to win. I’ve been lucky enough to win it five times, and you’re never satisfied.
“That’s why you keep going back. It’s the race the public judge you by.”
The most impressive of Stoute’s five Derby triumphs was the electrifying and ill-fated Shergar who won the 1981 renewal by a record-breaking 10 lengths.
“He is still the best because he was the best,” says the trainer in an emphatic manner that leaves no room for doubt.
“He is the most talented horse I’ve trained. Yet my reaction was one of relief at a job done. I expected him to win, and that brings about certain pressures. But I wanted him to win with style.”
After one of the most pressurised weeks of his career, Stoute will just be satisfied if Carlton House, a horse with battling qualities, gets his nose in front today by a whisker.
There is relief in his voice that the horse can take his deserved place in the 13-runner line-up. There is, nevertheless, understandable tension because of the responsibility that Her Majesty has entrusted with him and his staff.
“All Derby winners are very different in their character and composition,” says Stoute. “What I will say is that the Dante, at York, is a great trial and Carlton House won that, though it was not a truly run race from a pace point of view and that is frustrating.
“He doesn’t have an outstanding mile-and-a-half pedigree, but we’ve got him there and I’m fortunate to have such an understanding owner.”
As Carlton House’s condition started to cause so much angst among the racing fraternity, Rohan confided that his protege’s greatest strength was his “patience” – and that this would stand Stoute in good stead ahead of, arguably, the toughest decision of a distinguished career.
“His patience, his judgment of a horse and his relationship with his owners,” adds Rohan. “He’s got the owners who listen to him – that’s 90 per cent of training, the owner giving the trainer the time. That is the secret of a good stable.”
Stoute concurs. He says the Queen, and her racing manager John Warren, have been remarkably “philosophical” – and their laid-back attitude has rubbed off on big-race jockey Ryan Moore.
“I speak to her (the Queen) occasionally about the horses. She adores everything about it, from the foals onward. She sees the horses regularly and loves the sport. She’s very easy to deal with,” he says. “You just treat this horse in the same way as if it belonged to any other owner in the yard. I know exactly how I’d like to ride the race.”
As for Stoute, he has not even had time to think about tactics. His next job was to check the Test score from Lord’s.
Talk of cricket, his great relaxation, prompts roars of laughter – probably for the first time this week – when he recalls how he trained North Light to complete the Dante and Derby double in 2004.
“Kieren Fallon was riding for me, and Dickie Bird, the great umpire, had come down to the paddock at York,” said Stoute. “Kieren had told him to back North Light. I think Dickie was in Lord Halifax’s box. Anyway, the story came back that Dickie had 100 on. People were shocked, before I pointed out that I thought it was 100 old pence. Old habits die hard...
“A great man. One of my heroes. I know he’ll be supporting Carlton House and Her Majesty. Fingers crossed, he wins. We’ve got the horse there. That’s a start.”