Mick Channon: 'People are frightened to run a horse, to get beaten'
Ahead of Sunday's race, the trainer tells Chris McGrath why his three-time Arc runner-up Youmzain is a champion in his eyes
Friday 01 October 2010
You can hardly call it the secret of his success. After all, Youmzain has won just one of his last 21 races, over four seasons. During the same period, equally, he has finished second in three consecutive runnings of Europe's richest race, and he retains every right to win it at last when he returns to Paris on Sunday.
Mick Channon accounts for the seven-year-old's competitive longevity in characteristically earthy terms. "It's like the young bull and the old bull, looking across the valley at a field of cows," he says. "The young bull says: 'Let's run over there and shag one of those cows!' The old bull says: 'No, let's walk over, and shag them all'."
Channon grins expressively. There was a time when these same gallops were owned by the monarch herself, and the horses trained by the formidable Major Hern, a stickler of the old school. It has since become a familiar miracle that Channon, modestly dismantling the mystique of his second vocation, should have matched his achievements in football by restoring West Ilsley as a home of elite thoroughbreds.
Yesterday morning he watched Youmzain complete his preparations for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe with one last, uphill breeze between silken tresses of dew. Below, wreathes of mist clung to folds in the Berkshire downland; above, contrails feathered the pale autumn sky. The glow in the old horse owed more to his own health than the cold sunlight. "He's got that rich colour, isn't he?" Channon said. "Last year everyone was raving about Sea The Stars, and he was a big, imposing horse. But Youmzain was two boxes away and looked different class."
He promptly deprecates that judgement with another biologically involved analogy. An opinion, it would seem, is not the only thing we all have. Channon is gloriously free of affectation. Affection, though, is another matter. You can hear it in his Wiltshire rasp, as he pardons those punters who long ago gave up on Youmzain. From time to time, no doubt, he has shared their exasperations himself. But the one thing they should not doubt is the horse's appetite, which has sustained a career that began before many of Sunday's rivals were even born – and won him more prize money than both Dylan Thomas and Zarkava, who beat him in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
"Ever since we put bits of steel into their mouths, and chimpanzees on their backs, there's never been a horse fast enough," Channon said. "All this business – 'he doesn't try, he's a dog' – it's a man-made thing. With that high cruising speed, the way he comes into the race, you think you'll win easy. But when he gets his head in front... They're almost herd animals, it's just like a game. Some of them aren't that way. But he's lasted. What would you rather have?"
The rest of his career makes it far-fetched that Youmzain would have won three Arcs, but for Dylan Thomas, Zarkava and Sea The Stars. Doubtless he could have found others to follow home instead. But when Channon insists there is more to sport than simply coming first, he is speaking from the heart. Remember how he famously persevered with Southampton, through thick and thin. After excelling in two walks of life united only by the imperative to win, he is entitled to have his protest heeded now.
"Listen, I want to win every race I run in," he said. "But it's not something you can plan. It's something that happens. And all I'd say is to be very careful, because we're in danger of going money-mad. People are frightened to run a horse, to compete, to get beat. And it's not just racing, sport in general is going that way. It's down to you in the media, making it all about winning. That shouldn't be the be-all and end-all. You try hard, and if you don't win, you ask how you can turn it round next time. Is it mental, physical, tactical? If we're not careful, we'll push ourselves away from being competitive."
Channon had spent the previous couple of days at the yearling sales in Ireland, seeking the next Youmzain – for whom a place at stud finally beckons, in France. ("He wouldn't be appreciated by breeders here," Channon scoffed. "They're that far up their own arses.") In bloodstock terms, Youmzain himself was a steal at 32,000 guineas. But that is another of the marvels about Channon. Tomorrow, at Newmarket, he seeks a second Group One success for Music Show, who cost just 15,000.
He restocks every autumn with 40 to 50 yearlings. "And they're all supposed to turn into something in the next 18 months," he said. "Then you get something like this horse, something that comes through the system, and survives. Just about the only time in his life Youmzain was ever lame was the day he was going to Godolphin. He failed the vet. That was a good day for West Ilsley. He's quite a character. He's his own man, has his own little ways and quirks. But he loves going to work every day."
Much the same might be said of Youmzain's trainer, especially in the couple of years since he lost a cherished friend in a motor accident he was himself lucky to survive. Little wonder if Channon can see the bigger picture, to the extent of being "glad" the Longchamp stewards allowed Dylan Thomas to keep the race after that excruciating 2007 inquiry. "You never heard me whinge," Channon emphasised. "According to their rules, though, Youmzain should have been given the race. Not according to my rules. If you ask me, once you're first past the post – well, you've got to commit murder to lose it.
"You're talking about horses running as fast as they can, about fatigue, about jockeys throwing everything at them. And you expect them to run in straight lines? Yes, I've been kicked out for far less, in France. But I'm pleased Youmzain didn't get it. He'd have gone to stud otherwise, wouldn't he?"
He paused, perhaps pondering everything this horse has meant to him. "It's not that I didn't want to win," he said. "But you want to beat 'em proper."
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