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.

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