Obituary: Humphrey Cottrill
Wednesday 15 September 1999
Cottrill was acting as a steward at Newbury races when he was introduced to the Saudi Arabian businessman Khalid Abdullah. Abdullah was keen to develop an interest in horse-racing on a major scale. Cottrill, recruited to be Abdullah's racing manager between 1977 and 1982, had the skill and foresight to start him off with just three, low-level horses.
A greater investment would have been unlikely to reap significant, quick rewards and almost certainly have disillusioned Abdullah before he had time to make his mark. But, a year after those first purchases, Cottrill bought for him a yearling who was named Known Fact. The colt turned out to be a top-class miler and later an influential stallion.
Abdullah, spurred on by that purchase, went on to become one of the most significant owner/breeders that British racing has ever seen. The number of mares he now breeds from extends into three figures. His most successful horses have included two Derby winners, Quest For Fame and Commander In Chief.
Cottrill's racing background was significant, but not quite as glamorous as the deals he found himself conducting for Abdullah. Cottrill's father Harry was also a trainer and succeeded where his son was later to fail by training a British Classic winner, first Adam's Apple in the 1927 2,000 Guineas, then Lovely Rosa in the 1936 Oaks. Humphrey's own instinct for horses underwent a severe challenge when he was just seven and fell from a pony. He lost his nerve as a result and subsequently feared horses.
It was a family tragedy that helped him overcome that fear. His brother Alec, a successful amateur rider, was killed in a fall at Lewes racecourse in 1933, when Humphrey was 26. His father broke his leg shortly afterwards leaving his surviving son in charge of the well-known training yard at Seven Barrows near Lambourn in Berkshire.
After serving during the Second World War in India and Burma, Cottrill spent time in South African racing working as a race-course steward. Much to Cottrill's frustration, his own instincts for integrity were not always shared by the locals. So he returned to England to act as assistant trainer first to William Pratt, whose daughter Lola he later married, and then to Marcus Marsh, trainer of the Derby winner Tulyar.
It was the notoriously awkward owner Major Lionel Holliday's latest falling out with one of his trainers, in this case Geoffrey Brooke, that gave Cottrill the chance to take out his own licence. Among the notable horses he trained for Holliday were the two-year-old filly Bride Elect, a winner at Royal Ascot, and Narrator, who was a maiden when taking the 1954 Champion Stakes and went on to win the following year's Coronation Cup.
In 1956 Cottrill finished third in the trainer's championship; a year later he enjoyed his best ever total of winners in a season, 46. Soon after he was sacked by Holliday. In anticipation of that inevitability, Cottrill had already bought the Beverley House stables in Newmarket, from where he trained a top-class sprinter in Bleep-Bleep, who won the Nunthorpe Stakes at York.
The closest he came to winning a British Classic was with St Pauli Girl, second in the 1967 1,000 Guineas and Oaks. Unfortunately, he had earlier rejected the opportunity to train Pia, the filly who won the Oaks. He had even suggested that Bill Elsey should train Pia instead. None the less, Cottrill did win the prestigious Irish Derby with Your Highness in 1961. He quit training in 1974, but left a legacy by being the founder member of the trade organisation the National Trainers' Federation.
He was well known for a cynical sense of humour, which was highlighted recently by his friend Jeremy Hindley. Cottrill, a keen golfer, had suffered a stroke while watching Greg Norman win the Open at Royal St George's in 1993. Doctors had ruled out a complete recovery and warned of serious long-term consequences, only for Hindley to receive a midnight call from Cottrill in hospital, saying: "What the hell am I doing here? Come and fetch me immediately."
Humphrey Lawson Cottrill, racehorse trainer and bloodstock manager: born Ashton upon Mersey, Cheshire 10 September 1906; married 1951 Lola Pratt (one son); died Newmarket, Suffolk 26 August 1999.
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