The St Leger Stakes, year after maddening year, was the race that got away from Sir Michael Stoute. English Flat racing's other four Classics had delivered him numerous winners, starting with Fair Salinia in the 1978 Oaks and including Shergar of blessed memory in the 1981 Derby, but by 2008, the oldest Classic of all was still missing from his record. Kieren Fallon very nearly did the business on Quiff in 2004, but didn't. In 23 attempts Stoute's horses had finished second six times, first never.
This, he cheerfully concedes now, was an irritation. It didn't diminish his stature as one of the finest trainers ever to put a thoroughbred through its paces, but it nagged away at him. And the more the media snapped at his Achilles' heel, the more defensive he got. "I remember saying, 'the St Leger, I'm not very interested in that'. Mike Dillon [the Ladbrokes PR chief] nearly fainted."
Sitting on a sofa in his Newmarket office, from which every so often he leaps up and walks to the window, to cast the keenest of eyes over horses returning from their morning work, Stoute roars with laughter. He can afford to, not because tomorrow at Doncaster he saddles the hot favourite for this year's St Leger, Sea Moon, but because in 2008 he finally broke his duck. Conduit won that year, with Frankie Dettori on board.
"Frankie came in the parade ring beforehand. He said, 'You've had Piggott, Cauthen, Swinburn, Ryan Moore, and finally, finally, you've come to me. It'll happen now'. And it did. When he came in I said, 'Frankie, don't you fucking kiss me?' It was the worst thing I could have said..."
Another roar. Stoute doesn't give many interviews and, when he does, it is usually with reluctance, which has conferred on him a reputation as a slightly tricky customer. Yet on this bright September morning he seems the very soul of bonhomie. Admittedly, I have taken advice from a mutual friend who knows him well. The advice is to get him talking about other sports, especially his beloved cricket. "Don't talk to him about Sea Moon," says my friend. "He won't tell you anything you can't write down now. Get him going on West Indian cricket, on his great pal Michael Holding, who's at his stables most mornings, on Sir Alex Ferguson..."
If my racing tips were that good, I'd have long since retired to Stoute's native Barbados. We talk cricket for 10 minutes before racing gets a mention, and when it does it is in the context of other sports. What makes one man champion trainer 10 times in 30 years, and makes another man an incomparable manager, over a similar period, of Manchester United? What are the common ingredients?
"Passion," he replies. Even after so many years in Suffolk, his voice still carries a West Indian lilt. "Some days you get pissed off, but you don't tell the world. You've still got a team to lead. No, you've got to retain the passion. Look at Alex. You can see he's not ready to go home yet. And there's much more sophistication in what he's doing. He's buying and selling. He's thinking about contracts that might be up in a year's time. Here, that's usually covered by the ownership. But yes, there are similarities. We both need the raw material. And we both have injuries to contend with. Training horses is so much about preventing injuries, especially with the two-year-olds. We have to make sure they're perfectly sound before they go out to canter, which is frustrating for the owners, but we mustn't press the buttons too soon."
Owners, he thinks, have acquired more patience down the years. "They will keep horses on for longer now, they're not rushing them to the breeding shed, and it's a great benefit to me to have them for longer, because they're more mature and you've got to know them better. It's a delight having those older horses."
Fergie would doubtless say the same about Ryan Giggs. But what about actually borrowing ideas from other sports? "I often quiz Alex, as I know Paul Nicholls does. And I remember early in my career Michael Dickinson and I spent some time watching Stan Long, who was training Brendan Foster at the time. Stan came and stayed with me, and we had quite a few tête-à-têtes. I remember him coming to see the horses warm up. He said, 'My fellows wouldn't take their tracksuits off to do what they've just done'. Well, yes, but ours are doing weight-training at the same time. The jockey with his tack, that's 10 stone on the back."
What also helps, I imagine, in the longevity of a racehorse trainer or a football manager, is at least one enduring rivalry. But when I ask Stoute whether he might be the Alex Ferguson to Sir Henry Cecil's Arsène Wenger, I realise that I'm straining too hard for my parallels. He laughs. "I don't think so. Henry's a real flair trainer. He has a lot of faith in his powers of observation."
Nonetheless, as with Fergie and Wenger, their rivalry has mellowed. "It used to be more aggressive, years back. We're both a bit more settled now." What's made the difference? A chuckle. "Mileage. We've both got a lot more miles on the clock. But I'm delighted for Henry. He's probably going to be the champion trainer of 2011 and what price would you have got on that six years ago? His comeback is remarkable because they just don't happen, you know. Six years ago he had maybe a dozen winners, he was numerically very reduced, and in any walk of life if you're going downhill, it's very hard to correct it."
Stoute's own journey, by contrast, has taken him steadily uphill. It will be 40 years next spring since his first winner, and, at 65, he has every intention of pushing on towards the 50th anniversary. "My enthusiasm is intact, and I've got nice quality horses. The owners will hint when it's time to pack in, when they start diluting the package they're sending, but I haven't noticed it yet."
That first winner, at Newmarket in April 1972, was Sandal, owned by his father, which was apt, because it was his father who had indirectly fostered his love of racing. "When the old man became deputy Chief of Police in Barbados, we moved to Garrison, next to the racecourse. I would have been about six, and it all started then. I found it a great thrill. I was very lucky, you know, to grow up in Barbados. If you had a bicycle you could get to the beach, to the cricket ground. I saw Garry Sobers make his first first-class hundred, aged about 16."
There ensues another long chat about cricket, encompassing just about every fine player of the past 50 years, and concluding with F S Trueman. "I met him once, just after he'd had a hernia operation. He said, 'That's my missus down there, Michael, in t'black dress. I said to t'doctor, when can I get t'leg over again? And t'doctor said, 'Oh Fred, not for three weeks'. I said 'What, not even off me short run-up?'"
Again, Sir Michael Stoute bellows with laughter. It would quite spoil the mood to ask him about Sea Moon.
Tomorrow's Ladbrokes St Leger is part of the Qipco British Champions Series. Visit www.britishchampionsseries.comReuse content