Music to soothe a sybaritic horse

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The Independent Online
One mile west of Marlborough, a narrow lane strikes up over the downs to the north, and the higher it climbs the more frequent become indications that it leads to a splendid private kingdom.

The grass verges are immaculately mown, the hedges perfectly clipped; fine trees grace the vistas, and paddock after paddock is bounded by tall post-and-rail fences. At last, in a hollow, the road ends at Manton, the celebrated training stables owned by Robert Sangster, who bought the place in 1984.

For the proprietor, who has stud farms in Ireland, America and Australia, this is the hub of a global enterprise, and the day-to-day running of Manton is now in the hands of his second son, Ben. From here horses go out to race all over the world.

Last Monday was a glorious May day. A cool wind had driven off the heat of the previous week, and by 7.30am the trainer, Peter Chapple- Hyam, was casting a critical eye over his first string of horses as they went out to the gallops.

To a stranger, the speed with which he picked out individuals at a distance was extraordinary. "That's Court of Honour, a possible for the Derby ... The horse second now is Musick House, a half-brother of Rodrigo de Triano ... That's Bedivere, runs in a handicap tomorrow." After a warm- up canter round a circuit of wood-shavings, they headed out on to the gallops proper. As we waited on a vantage-point 650ft above sea-level, we could see for miles over the rolling uplands, lush with young corn and grass.

Then, far below us, a pair of horses sped into view, galloping round a smooth, banked bend and into an uphill straight. Up they came, and in a few moments passed us, snorting hard. In their brief, fast passage up that brilliant green track, through the early sunlight, there was something thrilling and heroic, and it was easy to imagine that giants from Manton's 130-year history were watching with us from on high.

Sceptre, Bayardo, Trelawny - surely their ghosts were also up and running? For me the magic was enhanced by the presence of objects infinitely older than any racehorse - the huge sarsen stones which stud the landscape. Local legend claims it was from here that the builders of Stonehenge dragged monoliths to their chosen site 20 miles to the south. Hundreds remain, most spectacularly in Stony Valley, where a glacier scattered them as it ground to a halt.

Like the sarsen stones, everything at Manton is on a big scale. Of the property's 2,300 acres, no fewer than 400 are down to gallops. The deep, velvety texture of the grass is the creation of Brian Spink, the head gallop man, who not only supervises a programme of harrowing in spring, weekly cutting in summer, and top-dressing with peat moss in winter, but also wages constant war on moles. Several of the gallops can be watered by a motorised sprinkler which hauls itself slowly forward, and water comes from the estate's own borehole, sunk deep into the underlying chalk.

Down in the yards - all recently rebuilt - standards are equally high. For breakfast, every one of the 100-odd horses in residence gets an individually measured ration of oats, bran and alfalfa, laced with salt, mineral supplements and shots of various oils. Some go for a swim in the ring-pool, and then for a warm-up in the solarium. It costs an owner £38 per day, plus VAT, plus £50 per month for the use of the gallops, to keep a horse here: about £16,000 a year.

For a journalist, it is salutary to find that most of the incumbents live on beds of shredded newsprint, and all have music available. Until recently, music was not laid on: then one morning Peter Chapple-Hyam noticed that Rodrigo de Triano - "who was very fractious, very nervous" - calmed down completely when a radio was switched on. So now transistors are ubiquitous.

Today the original yard, handsomely built of red brick in the 1870s, is no longer used for horses. The 40 stable lads live in parts of the upper floor, and in one lower corner is their own club and bar, the Trelawny. Another side of the yard has been turned into a stylish dwelling for Robert Sangster, who touches down there from time to time.

Manton has an air of calm and efficiency, spiked with the excitement that the unpredictability of racing produces. It therefore comes as a surprise to hear even the Sangsters are seeking sponsorship from industry or commerce. Less surprising is the fact that several firms are jockeying to gain a foothold in this high-lying, high-flying enterprise.