Racing: Right-hand man speaks volumes for Pipe

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The Independent Online
Chester Barnes has come back from the dead twice. He managed to swap his table-tennis career for a role as assistant to Britain's top National Hunt trainer and he also survived a near-fatal cardiac arrest. He is also one of the few people who has ever seen Martin Pipe off-duty.

He's a hard man to knock off the stage that Chester Barnes. Over 20 years since he last won a major title (and with apologies to Desmond Douglas) he remains the only table tennis player anyone has ever heard of.

Chester, who was christened George but renamed after the comedian Charlie Chester because of the incessant babble coming out of his mouth, is hardly less prominent in his second career.

The Eastender could have taken the quiet path on active retirement and set his bats to work as a marshall on an airport apron. Instead, he became assistant to the foremost National Hunt trainer in the land. Martin Pipe is shy, reserved and uncommunicative. Chester is not. In our conversation he thrashed me 1,673-3 and my scoring words were "hello, Chester", and, after lots of nodding, "goodbye".

Chester, who is now 50, can talk for England as well as he used to play ping-pong for them. He was an international before Gazza was childish and blubbering. A long time before that, actually.

Wee Chester won the News Of The World championship at Butlins Holiday Camp in Clacton aged 13 and from there the only way was up. He captured the British title two years later and became a cult (sic) figure under a hairdo with which you could clean a kitchen floor. The noblest men from the Fourth Estate tagged him the Beatle and were happy to reproduce the white water of words which spewed from the tyro.

Barnes particularly enjoys recollecting the nonsense of a trip to China at the age of 16, when the England team flew into a military airport and young Chester was required to inspect a horizon-touching line of pilots and officials.

The thrill of the Union Jack on his shoulders soon palled for our hero, however. Barnes wished rather that an expensive Italian garment was there in its place. "We used to play at Pontins all the way through the summer and the money we earned there paid for the winter and representing your country," he said. "It couldn't go on."

By the time of the last of his five British championships in 1975 the amateur fun had evaporated and Barnes went on the remunerative circuit of the south-west holiday camps. This posting brought him into social contact with a strange little man who was just embarking on a training career.

Martin Pipe had a shrewd bookmaker father to back him up, but that was it. His premises in the Somerset village of Nicholashayne were so spartan they may have been embarrassed to introduce farmyard animals to them. "There was no swimming pool or gallops and where the hostel is now there was just an orchard," Barnes said. "There was only the centre block of stables. Some of those had furniture in, and there were greyhounds in the others."

This vision is hard to equate with the Pipe glory we have today. Pond House employs 70 staff and is serviced by its own covered ride, laboratory and manicured gallops. "This is not a yard any more," Barnes said. "It's a town."

In between, Pipe has made himself a monstrous figure in the sport, a man who has gobbled up the statistics like Godzilla used to consume blocks of flats. He did it from knowing virtually nothing about thoroughbreds. Barnes did it from knowing actually nothing. "Martin still has the occasional ride up the gallops to see if a horse feels okay before he has a punt," Barnes said. "He's a good judge up the gallops, but the problem is that the following day he can't walk and he looks like John Wayne when he pulls out."

"I'm hopeless in the saddle. When I started here I was an East End lad and the only horse I'd seen before was in front of Steptoe's cart. It was probably better not knowing anything about horses at all because Martin's way is the only way I know.

"We've had loads of assistants from other yards who tell us `we don't do things like that in Lambourn or Newmarket' or wherever they come from. I say `hang on but we've just had 200 winners', but they still look at me in amazement."

Chester's riding career on the gallops may have ended after two days and a broken wrist, but he is serious about his racing. After all he called his son Lester after much persuasion of his third wife, Jane. All three of Barnes's wives have been schoolteachers. "I must like a caning," he said.

No one, though, pretends this is your conventional, forelock-tugging, yes sir, trainer and assistant relationship. They hardly look the part around the nation's race-tracks, diminutive men at the jog, Pipe at the hobble and Barnes shuffling along with an anteater gait. They have to be taken most seriously though when leaning on the rails after a claiming race, like cheetahs on the edge of the savannah looking for something with a limp.

There is no doubt that Barnes tickles Pipe and is also prepared to put up with his odd little habits. The only vegetable the trainer will eat is processed marrowfat peas. When his wife, Carol, gets on her finery before accompanying hubbie on a candlelit supper the last thing she does is plonk a can of the stuff in her handbag to give to the maitre d'hotel.

Mr and Mrs Pipe now have a bolt hole in Devon's coastal resort of Brixham, an apartment marina with no telephone. Chester lives in the town too and sees a rejuvenated Pipe off the leash. "He's completely different down there," he said. "We go in one of the roughest pubs in Brixham and you can see him there singing along with all these hairy trawlermen."

Chester enjoys these days. In fact, he enjoys every day after the one that almost took him off the sports columns and a litle further back in the newspaper pages four years ago. The effects of diabetes gave him a heart attack deep into one night. Two more followed in Torbay Hospital. "I was lying there half dead one morning with drips all over the place when the specialist, who was a bit of a table tennis player, came in," Barnes remembered. "This is a bit of luck," he said, "I'm having trouble with my backhand."

"They put the jump leads on me in there. When I came round all my mates asked me if I'd seen a light at the end of a tunnel. I couldn't see anything, not even West Ham winning the League.

"When you've had a heart attack you look at life completely differently and I think Mart looks at me differently too. I had some of my instructional table tennis books out the other day while we were watching SIS and Mart asked me if I was feeling all right. I said I was but he insisted I signed them because they'd be worth more once I was dead."

There is an inaudible boom-boom at the end of just about everything George "Chester" Barnes says. It doesn't grate though because he's only enjoying times he once thought would never happen. Chester appreciates there are those on the planet who have not been fortunate enough to follow his tried and trusted path of Cornwall and Devon ping-pong exhibition player to assistant to Britain's most voracious jumps trainer. If you're going to get thrashed at table tennis and nattering it might as well be by him.