Resentment simmers beneath turf

Jojo Moyes on the tense world of Newmarket racing, where caps are doffed and trainers rule
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The Independent Online
A middle-aged groom harbours a deep, simmering resentment against his new, successful, young boss. An argument over the sale of a racehorse acts as a trigger, and amid a sacking and accusations of mental illness, the groom lures his boss to a barn and shoots him in cold blood.

Observers at Norwich Crown Court over the past fortnight could have been forgiven for thinking that they had walked into a Dick Francis novel. But to most of Newmarket's close-knit racing fraternity the murder of trainer Alex Scott by his head groom, William "Clem" O'Brien, jailed for life yesterday, was infinitely less explicable than one of Mr Francis's plots.

Lord Howland, a director of Tattersall's and one of Mr Scott's closest friends, last week voiced the incomprehension of many. "He was so well- liked," he said, recalling the day he heard the news. "Everyone was so shocked. No one could believe it."

To attempt to explain it is necessary to dig a little deeper than Newmarket's green-pastured, picket-fenced exterior. Underneath lies a society with an almost archaic class structure, with its own set of social and economic tensions. Alex Scott and O'Brien represented the polar opposites of Newmarket.

"It's a very clear hierarchy," said one assistant trainer. "On one side you've got young lads who have generally left school at 16 and spend their money on booze and gambling . . . On the other side you've got the pupil assistants, assistant trainers and trainers. There's hardly any crossover.

"Very few lads make it to trainer, unless they have a "touch" [a successful bet] and set up their own yards. The pupil assistants and assistant trainers tend to come from good backgrounds, straight over the heads of the lads. They're seen as the yuppies of the horse world." It was from such a background, having trained under Major Dick Hern, that Mr Scott took over the stud farm, and the seeds of O'Brien's resentment were apparently sown.

The assistant trainer said such resentment is not unusual. "I was warned about it beforehand," he said. "The owner who got me into my yard warned me 'they're not gentlemen'." He faced "insults, a lot of talking behind my back . . . Once it did actually come to violence - it was all down to jealousy really".

Mr Scott, the millionaire son of Lady Anne and Sir James Scott, bought the Cheveley stud farm in 1992 from Tony Shead, and inherited O'Brien with it.

"Scotty", as his friends called him, was one of the most promising young trainers, one of the few British trainers to have won a Breeders' Cup race. It is a testament to his talent that his horse Lammtarra has since won both the Derby and the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

Married with three children, he was, say his friends and colleagues, likeable and outgoing. "The kind of bloke who would lift you up when you were feeling down," Lord Howland said.

In Newmarket's insular racing community, such statements are to be expected. One on-course bookmaker warned: "No one will tell you the truth - they wouldn't want to upset the family", and the defence's description of a man with a filthy temper, who suffered a number of mental breakdowns, suggests a more complex character.

Either way, he stands in direct contrast to O'Brien, 58, a stud groom who had been at the yard for eight years before Mr Scott bought it. A stocky, ruddy-faced man, the defence presented him as a "workaholic perfectionist", a man steadily pushed over the edge by an unreasonable workload, loss of control over a yard he regarded as "his" and his employer's explosive nature.

In court Mr Shead said he regarded O'Brien as "somebody that I could place complete trust in", but admitted he had received complaints about the groom's temper. Others describe a bad-tempered, resentful man prone to fierce rows with colleagues.

But it would not be fair on either man to put too much store by reports of their tempers. One assistant trainer said: "Sure Scott had a temper. But they all do. They're all under pressure the whole time and occasionally something has to give."

Indeed, the pressure for those who work in Newmarket has probably never been greater. Years of recession have seen the withdrawal of many high- spending owners, reducing the numbers of horses in yards and increasing competition for those left.

Add to that the simmering tensions of one of the most clearly defined class structures in the world; a place where caps are still doffed, and as part of an archaic tradition stable lads box for the amusement of their owners and trainers, and it should not be surprising that violence occasionally becomes a by-product.

According to colleagues, the bad feeling between Mr Scott and O'Brien had increased to such an extent over the two years that O'Brien was openly criticising his employer, alluding to his nervous breakdowns and suggesting that he shoot himself. Mr Scott had told friends that enough was enough, and had apparently already decided on a replacement for O'Brien.

Mr Scott's other employees, according to Lord Howland, still "miss him terribly". They strongly refute allegations about his temper and are deeply protective of his widow, Julia, who recently suffered a further blow with the loss of her father.

But it was a police officer involved in the investigation who best summed up feelings around Newmarket when he said that while O'Brien's grudge against his employer was understandable - "Youth, money success, they're not endearing qualities with people twice your age who feel they've worked twice as hard" - it was still "a bloody long way" from there to a planned, cold-blooded murder.