Racing: Stable condition provides cause: Mystery on the Turf: Why has Martin Pipe, last year's all-conquering trainer, suddenly become a chaser?

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The Independent Culture
DESPITE Fragrant Dawn's win yesterday, one of the talking points of the current jump season has been the slow start by the four- times champion trainer Martin Pipe. The explanation is actually simple: the man's horses have been ill. But one of the sillier rumours galloping alongside Pipe's failure to head the winners' table comes from the 'he-must-be-giving-them-something' brigade. He has been, they insist, and the authorities have found out what it is, and shown him the yellow card. Ergo, goes the argument, he has had to stop 'giving it,' and that is why his horses are doing no good.

Racing's masters were quick to stamp on such fancies. 'Absolutely not,' said their PR person David Pipe (no relation). 'Categorically, on the record, off the record, any way you want, we have not been down there, not given the man a warning, do not suspect him of anything. Honestly,' he added, exasperated, 'I thought this sort of drivel had died out with the blood- doping nonsense a long time ago.'

Pipe's success in recent years, far from being achieved with the help of any outside agency, has been largely due to his superior understanding of what makes a horse tick and how to push away the pain barrier that all athletes meet. Humans understand why they must run through this wall towards glory; horses do not. But Pipe's unusual training methods have made it easier for them to do so. Pipe hasn't made slow horses fast; he has, by appreciably raising their level of fitness, helped them to keep running.

Now, nature is at work against him. Pipe has a virus in his yard, nothing more sinister than that. The only extraordinary thing about the situation is that he has managed to keep the scourge at bay for so long. He is not the only trainer currently affected, but a fall from the top is the most noticeable, and the gossips gather round the bowl.

And that hurts, make no mistake. Pipe cares about his charges. To see them unwell is as upsetting to him as to any trainer, and his distress over the situation makes him reluctant to talk about it. The frustration of not being able to do his job - that is, to train winners - hits the wallet as well as the pride. Even after yesterday's Cheltenham success, Pipe is only fifth on the trainers' list, his owners' horses having accrued pounds 137,087 in prize-money. This time last year the total was pounds 257,592.

There are other factors that may have upset the routine of the record-setting Devon stable. The serious illness earlier this year of Pipe's best friend and aide-de- camp Chester Barnes, for one; and the retirement of stable jockey Peter Scudamore, for another. No one would suggest that the new man, Richard Dunwoody, is any less professional or able than his predecessor, but he is different, and the Nicholashayne team will take time to adjust.

But it is illness among Pipe's horses that has done the damage. An ailment like equine flu renders athletes ineffective, and there is no cure, only prevention. The trouble is that the virus responsible, like its human equivalent, mutates over the years, so that, when it strikes the thoroughbred, the vaccine available may not be effective.

Flu has been identified in several West Country yards, and in one in Lambourn. David Elsworth, clear so far at his isolated Dorset base, remembers a previous outbreak. 'The horses were coughing and had nasal discharges,' he says. 'That was desperate but you could swallow it. What caught you out were the ones who went off to the races looking fine, but ran stinkers and came home sick.

'There are six races a day, and someone's got to win each one. If you've got flu in the yard it's like being left out of the game. And as a racehorse trainer you depend on success. You can't continue to operate without it.

'It's a miserable thing - it affects your own confidence, and that of the owners who have horses with you. The horror is that it's such an abstract thing. You can't see the bugs, and it all seems very complex and mysterious. It lingers in yards, too, and there are some trainers whose careers have nearly been finished by it.'

The last major equine flu epidemic was in 1989. That proved a key year in the fight against the disease, because samples sent to the Animal Health Trust research station in Newmarket, which now acts as an international monitor for flu, proved that the virus could change.

The disease is taken seriously all over the world; it closed down Hong Kong's lucrative racing operation for several weeks last year.

One of the characteristics of equine flu is the difficulty involved in containing it. 'No trainer should feel guilty about having flu in his or her stables,' the AHT's Phil Spibey says, 'but some do get paranoid. We encourage people to try to isolate it by not sending horses to race meetings, but it is an extraordinarily virulent virus, and can travel airborne almost from yard to yard.'