Call heralds an Irish feast

Eddie Wiley on the colourful but hazardous exploits of the trainer who saddles a top challenger for Tuesday's Gold Cup second favourite

The green bunting and plastic shamrocks that bloom each March heralding St Patrick's Day always bring a smile to the Irish. But the smile in many Irish eyes has nothing to do with the saintly reptile exterminator but rather that the sprouting of ersatz green foretells another, some would say more important, festival held in the foothills of the Cotswolds.

Helping the Irish racing fraternity grin this year are the training skills of a fellow Celt, Fergus ``Fergie'' Sutherland, and the precocious talent of his Cheltenham Gold Cup contender, Imperial Call.

Sutherland is essentially a modest man. From a well-to-do Scottish family his abiding maxim has been to "let the horse do the talking". And Imperial Call, the seven-year-old young Turk of Irish racing, was especially voluble at last month's Irish Gold Cup meeting at Leopardstown.

The ambient level of distracted chit-chat in the press box was suspended and replaced by querulous raised eyebrows at his six-length win over last year's Cheltenham champion, Master Oats. While some occupied themselves with statistical diversions such as the fact that this will be the 64- year-old trainer's first runner at Cheltenham, the man himself commands most interest.

The vagaries of chance influence everybody's life at some juncture but it was a very potent intrusion of circumstances that brought an Eton and Sandhurst-educated career officer to train horses from a small village in West Cork.

Soldiering was in his blood (his father was commander of the Black Watch in the Great War) but his own military career was abruptly ended in the Korean War.

A lieutenant with the 5th Dragoon Guards, he was injured in an explosion and lost his left leg. "Going up a hill, one of the four troops I was with tripped the wire of a land mine and set off the blast," Sutherland recalls. "I was the only one badly injured. One of the troops said `You're okay Mr Fergie, it's only the leg'. I knew that because I had already checked."

A lifelong horseman, the courage of the man is typified in that he just recently gave up hunting with the Muskerry pack. "I'd always ridden horses so I invented a peg that I could stick in the stirrup. I had to pack it in when my other knee went." This is an abiding testimony to the youthful summers spent at Porlock, in Somerset, where he learned his horsemanship. It is also a testimony to his mentor there - Dick Hern, who half a century later remains one of Sutherland's closest friends.

After Korea he returned to England and worked in the stables of Geoffrey Brooke in Newmarket, where his contemporaries included Peter Walwyn. Sutherland went on to work with Joe Lawson, who won a Derby with Never Say Die, and after Lawson retired, Sutherland's father purchased the stable for his son.

Thus, at the beginning of the Sixties, Sutherland was training on his own. Success came early and he won the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot in his first season.

But hunting was his abiding passion and circumstances again contrived to present him with an unexpected opportunity. His mother wanted to sell her home in Killinaridish, Co Cork, but Sutherland, familiar with the area's hunting and racing connections, asked her to keep it. After remarriage caused him to leave Newmarket it was to Cork that he eventually moved.

At the heart of a National Hunt breeding district, it was the ideal location to indulge his passion for teaching young jumpers. As much a horse trader as trainer, this is how, 30 years later, he still sees his role. "For years that was how I got by. Getting a horse, riding it myself and selling it on when it was educated."

A fortuitous meeting with Sarah Lane, the estate director of Lisselan Farms, owners of Imperial Call, set in train the sequence of events that now provides Sutherland with his greatest challenge.

Imperial Call was bought for Lisselan Farms from the Co Clare-based Tom Costello as a three-year-old. That Costello has already sold on three previous Gold Cup winners in Midnight Court, Cool Ground and The Thinker - might just begin to assuage Sutherland's wildly superstitious nature.

Imperial Call is only a seven-year-old and a year ago the trainer resisted the temptation of coming to Cheltenham for one of the novice chases. He knew his horse and had the requisite patience to deliver. "He was a young horse, I knew he would be a contender for the 1996 Gold Cup and I didn't want to muck it up asking him to do too much too soon."

And for those who hope that Imperial Call and his regular rider, Conor O'Dwyer, can answer the call this time, Sutherland has some significant words: "One Man is rated the best in England, 5lb higher than our horse who is the highest-rated in Ireland. After Cheltenham I expect those ratings to be reversed."

It has been an unlikely journey that has brought Sutherland to Cheltenham as the trainer of the second favourite for the Gold Cup, but there is a suspicion that those confident words might ring true. Sutherland may not need to repeat them on Thursday evening. By then the horse will have done the talking.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest in Sport
Sport
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test