Racing: A winter of goals, a summer of foals

More and more footballers are being lured to the sport of kings. Greg Wood finds the reasons why
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The Independent Online
PROFESSIONAL footballers have a lot of spare time on their hands in June and early July, but you will not generally find them at Wimbledon or the Lord's Test match. Go to some of the high-summer racing festivals, however, and it can be difficult to turn around without bumping into the forward line of one club or the entire midfield of another.

The working class game and the sport of kings may come from very different backgrounds, but they have grown up to be close companions. For some, such as Mick Quinn and Mike Channon, racing has become a full-time second career when their playing days are over. Others, including David Platt, Kevin Keegan and, more recently, Alex Ferguson, have sampled the risks and occasional rewards of ownership, and dozens of other players and managers have a leg or two in a partnership.

Harry Redknapp writes a regular - and very stimulating - column in the Racing Post, and recently beat the newspaper's best form expert in a charity tipping competition. And there is scarcely a dressing room anywhere in the country which does not have its resident band of dedicated punters.

It is no coincidence, of course, that a footballer's daily training session tends to finish at around one o'clock, just as the afternoon's racing kicks off. Three hours in a betting shop can be an irresistible, and sometimes disastrous, diversion for a young man with plenty of cash and time to kill.

Yet the relationship between racing and football is about more than easy thrills. For some, there is also a fascination with the way in which preparing thoroughbreds to race can resemble their own daily lives.

``Before I was a footballer, I used to have my 10p Yankee on a Saturday," Niall Quinn, the Sunderland striker, says. "But then I was able to cross over and see how the racing world works. I like to watch the professionals going about their jobs day in and day out, like we do.

``I admire the different approaches of the jockeys and I like to watch the saddling and unsaddling, where you see all the nerves. When you see an up-and-coming trainer who's a nervous wreck, it's a bit like a football player who knows he's got a chance at the big time."

Quinn is an ideal representative of the common ground where football and racing meet, since it is clear that while football is his life, the turf is his passion. "I can put them on a par," he says. "Scoring the winning goal tonight [against Sheffield United in the First Division play- offs] in front of 40,000 people would be very exciting, but as a professional you're paid to do it and you don't get carried away with the whole thing.

``But if I own a horse and it's coming to challenge in the last 50 yards, I'm jelly. I can handle big games, because it's my career, but keep my hands steady during a race, forget it."

His hands were trembling fairly frequently a few seasons ago, when the first horse Quinn owned, a cheaply-bought two-year-old called Cois Na Tine, turned out to be of Group-race standard. He was sold to race in the USA at the end of his first season, with his owner clearing a pounds 100,000 profit. Quinn, though, "being the big softie I am", bought him back when his racing career ended, and Cois Na Tine now stands at stud in Ireland. ``That first horse got us in deep," he says. "I'm not one of those owners who only ring their trainer the day before their horse runs. We've got one entered on Saturday [Melbournefiftysix runs in the 3.20 at Thirsk, though her owner is not optimistic] and I'll be thereto see her work at eight o'clock tomorrow morning."

Racing tends to take as it finds, meaning that even a famous footballer can often blend into the background in a way impossible elsewhere. Quinn, for obvious reasons, finds this more difficult - "especially when everyone around me in the racing world is five foot three" - but he remains hopelessly hooked.

``What I enjoy most is the healthy respect you get in racing," he says. "In football, people are trying to out-perform each other all the time, but in racing there's no animosity. Everyone knows how tough it is to make a go of it."