Two weeks ago, he was at Cheltenham when Protektorat just failed to overhaul Sue Smith’s Midnight Shadow in a dramatic Paddy Power Gold Cup. “Is she Harvey Smith’s wife? I never realised. Good trainer.”
A week ago, Sir Alex was at Haydock where a recent purchase, Sonigino, was a disappointing third. He listened intently during the post-race debrief on a day later compounded by Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat at Watford.
Today, Sir Alex hopes the forecast rain will arrive in time for Monmiral to confirm his burgeoning potential when lining up in the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
And it is burgeoning interest in National Hunt ownership, alongside long-term friend Ged Mason, John Hales, Paul Barber and others, that has provided a focus and interest after his life-threatening brain haemorrhage in 2018. By joining forces, they have been better placed to source some of the sport’s most exciting prospects – notably in France where Hales, and his daughter Lisa, of One Man, Neptune Collonges and Politologue fame, have extensive contacts.
These tactics paid off when Protektorat, Monmiral and dual King George hero Clan Des Obeaux won the first three races, all Grade Ones races on the opening day of this year’s Randox Grand National meeting at Aintree.
This day meant as much as Manchester United’s wins at Liverpool when Sir Alex was in his managerial pomp. “That’s the best day I’ve had in my time in racing,” he said after a unique ‘treble’. “It is different to when I was managing. I was in control of what was going to happen on the pitch, but I’m not in control of that [on the racetrack] as the trainer does all of that.”
But it is Clan Des Obeaux that has a special place in his affections because the horse, trained by Paul Nicholls, was just beginning to fulfil his potential when Sir Alex became gravely ill just over three years ago.
Now the chaser will bid to win Kempton’s King George VI Chase – jump racing’s mid-winter centrepiece – on Boxing Day for the third time in four years after following up his Aintree success with a stirring win in the Punchestown Gold Cup.
“Very consistent,” Sir Alex tells The Yorkshire Post when asked to define the chaser’s special characteristics. “He’s never far away from being involved. He was still there when he finished third in the King George last year. He carried on when beaten and showed his guts. Consistency, doing his best. I think that is a great quality for a horse. It is good to have one to trust to do his very best.”
He is as animated now as he was in the Old Trafford dugout as he discusses Clan Des Obeaux on Tuesday despite a brief hiatus when a tradesman turns up unexpectedly and there’s confusion whether he – or his remarkably patient wife Cathy – is answering the door. “How long do you get for murder?” he laughs in his droll Glaswegian accent.
There’s an awareness that the nine-year-old horse is not as effective on heavy ground, as illustrated by Clan Des Obeaux’s wide-margin defeat to Bristol De Mai in a previous Betfair Chase at Aintree. He is also accepting of the fact that the undulations of Cheltenham, as opposed to flat tracks like Aintree and Kempton, do not play to the horse’s strengths.
“Everyone wants to win the Gold Cup but you can only win it if you have the material to win it,” explains Sir Alex. “I think we have accepted the probability he’s not a Gold Cup horse.”
And an appreciation of when big races don’t go to plan – like last year’s King George when Clan Des Obeaux was denied a third straight win by stablemate Frodon and an inspired Bryony Frost.
“Frodon reduced the pace to suit them,” he observed. “The jockey [Frost] did a great job, she’s a terrific jockey. There’s going to be real depth to the King George this year, I think because a lot of the Irish are going to come across. Real competition, but I think we will have a good chance now Paul [Nicholls] has found the key to Clan Des Obeaux which is to go out in front rather than be held up. I think that will happen in the King George.”
They were also the tactics deployed to perfection by Sam Twiston-Davies, deputising for the injured Harry Cobden, when Clan Des Obeaux beat dual Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo, and the very best of a formidable Irish force, at Punchestown.
Sir Alex, who is 80 on New Year’s Eve, remembers it well. He watched the race at the house of former Manchester United captain Bryan Robson with a group of around 20 people. He also never made it to his intended engagement that evening. Why? He’d become so animated by the race, and resulting celebrations as Robson’s wife Denise provided hospitality that did more than justice to this slightly unexpected ‘away’ win.
“Coming to the second last, he’s still there, mixing it with the great Irish horses, and we’re screaming at the TV,” says Sir Alex. “Over the final fence, he’s still in front. Pure guts. Brilliant. So exciting to watch. And be a small part of it. Nerve-wracking.”
At racedays, he is more restrained because he’s a public figure – even hardened Liverpool fans were asking for Sir Alex to sign their racecards and pose for selfies last weekend (and which he did with great patience and politeness).
At home, he says, he becomes even more involved because he knows, more than most, what it takes to win and why he’s fortunate to have some of the best jockeys riding for him. And they get in the saddle knowing they have the respect, confidence and understanding of a sporting legend in awe of them.
“They have a fall in one race and are winning the next race,” adds Sir Alex. “Courage. Footballers have all the sports nutritionists ... Jockeys, sometimes I still don’t know how they do it.”
Monmiral is Ferguson hope at Newcastle
CHAMPION trainer Paul Nicholls is hopeful that rising star Monmiral can win today’s Grade One Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle for the Sir Alex Ferguson team.
The horse will have to be at his best to defeat former Champion Hurdle heroine Epatante, victorious in last year’s Fighting Fifth, and durable hurdlers like Silver Streak, who is owned by Dales farmer Les Fell.
Bit Monmiral was Britain’s leading juvenile hurdler last season after winning all four of his starts, culminating with a seven-and-a-half length victory over Adagio in the G1 Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle on day one of the Grand National meeting when Sir Alex’s horses won the first three races.
There have been four four-year-old winners of the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle, including the great Night Nurse in 1975 for Great Habton’s Peter Easterby and most recently Countrywide Flame in 2012 for Malton trainer John Quinn.
“This is a step up for him, but he could not have done any more than he has, having won all of his starts,” said Nicholls.
“Monmiral was bought to be a staying chaser. He has a high level of form and this will tell us where we are. Last year he was quite lazy and, while he has sharpened up a lot at home, Saturday is a fact-finding mission.
“Monmiral saves his best for the track; he is no morning glory. He worked well at Newbury with Clan Des Obeaux and Enrilo – two three-mile chasers – so he has had a good prep’ and won’t need the run.
“Four four-year-olds have won the race, but he doesn’t know that. We didn’t want to go chasing this season, so we were going to end up running in these races.
“Sean Bowen has won on him twice. He gets on with him and had a sit on him recently. The horse looks great and we’re hopeful of a very good run, but I can’t predict that he is going to go and win. We’ll let the horse do the talking.”