Mick Channon: Epsom glory is the next goal for the lord of West Ilsley
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Saturday 05 June 2004
It is 9am at West Ilsley and Mick Channon has been up since five, swearing.
It is 9am at West Ilsley and Mick Channon has been up since five, swearing.
The lad brought up on Salisbury Plain in a council house with an outside toilet, who played football at the highest level and now occupies Flat racing's most aristocratic stables as one of the country's leading trainers, is notoriously, irrepressibly profane. And although readers of The Independent have grown-up sensibilities, decorum demands that I find a euphemism. "PIPPING HELL, BRIAN," he bellows. "YOU'VE GOT THE BRAINS OF A PIPPING ROCKING HORSE! DO YOU KNOW THAT?"
He looks at me and rolls his eyes. "Pip!" he adds.
I am still a little shaken from hearing my name roared so loudly and with such apparent rage, even though Channon's target is not me but a stable lad called Brian, who has mishandled his mount.
But the other Brian doesn't seem too disconcerted, so there's no reason why I should. Being sworn at by a fleetingly enraged Channon is as much an occupational hazard at West Ilsley as inhaling the whiff of horse manure. And, perhaps, about as threatening. His 60-odd employees know that behind the abuse, benevolence lurks. For example, when Channon realised that one of his lads was illiterate, he quickly and quietly arranged for him to be given some schooling.
"It took me two or three months to suss that he couldn't read or write," Channon recalls. "He used to ask the men in the yard what he was on each day. But he can ride a horse, that's for sure. That's the great thing about it, you don't have to be be a brain surgeon to ride a horse. You have to be a bit braver than a pipping brain surgeon."
We are up on the West Ilsley gallops, where a string of two-year-old colts are being put through their paces. Channon is watching from his Range Rover. He chats amiably while the horses are walked in single file back down the hill. Then he spots something that displeases him. He leaps out of the car as fast as his arthritic joints will allow. "HEY, FOR PIP'S SAKE! SOMEONE WILL GET PIPPING KILLED! OR YOU'LL BREAK YOUR PIPPING LEG! OR BREAK THE PIPPING HORSE'S LEG!"
He returns to the Range Rover. "I moan and groan at 'em but they're good kids," he says. "It's not that easy to find people who can ride, not ones who are under 10 stone. It used to be a lot easier than it is now, but now they all come out of centrally-heated homes, they've all been fed properly since birth."
While Channon reflects on the regrettably high quality of modern living, I admire the quality of the view over the Berkshire Downs. The sun is up, and Didcot power station, the only blot on an otherwise wonderful landscape, is shrouded in a convenient haze. Channon loves it up here.
"It's gorgeous in the summer, but in the winter it could break your pipping heart," he says. "I found two dead polar bears up here one day. Died of the pipping cold. HEY! LOOK WHERE YOU'RE PIPPING GOING! FAISAL, DOZY BOLLOCKS! And look at her, on the far side over there. Couldn't ride me, she couldn't. They're just kids, you see. You need experience in this game but in the middle of winter you need young people prepared to come out and freeze their knackers off."
All the discomfort of the winter - and if Channon thinks it's cold in Berkshire, he should visit Richard Guest's yard in County Durham - will be worthwhile if his outsider Gatwick, part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, happens to win the Derby this afternoon. Characteristically, Channon plays down his chances of winning the Flat's most famous race, this or any year.
"When you look at the Aga Khan, 300 mares and everything bred to win a pipping Derby. And he doesn't win the Derby every year, does he? Look at Coolmore, they've probably got 100 Derby-type horses. We'll give it a whirl.
"But you need the proper pedigree. A horse sired by Sadler's Wells and a dam out of one of the Aga's staying mares, that's what'll win you a Derby. Saying that, a lot of horses bred to win the Derby end up being the slowest pipping things in the world." He breaks off to administer another bollocking. "OI! LOOK WHERE YOU'RE PIPPING GOING!" A sigh of disbelief. "That [horse] there was a little bit pottery [doddery] last week an' all. If you knew the half of it you'd never have a bet in your life."
He pronounces half, "haalf", and life, "loife". It is not only the language that would bring a blush to the cheeks of Gordon Ramsay, but also the broad Wiltshire accent in which it is delivered. It all underlines the irony of Channon training out of West Ilsley, where Major Dick Hern and Lord Huntingdon used to train for the Queen.
It was Lord Huntingdon, better known to racing as Willie Hastings-Bass, who phoned Channon out of the blue to see if he fancied buying the stables where such legends of horseflesh as Brigadier Gerard and Nashwan used to reside. He bought the place from the Queen herself, but has nobly never revealed how much he paid. "It was too much for me and not enough for her," is all he will say. Whatever, in football terms it was like Jim Smith succeeding Arsène Wenger at Arsenal - and then doing even better than Wenger; last season, even the likes of Sir Michael Stoute trailed Channon in the league table of domestic winners.
And yet, for those of us of a certain generation, Channon is at least as much the ex-footballer as the racing man. He will never have a trademark in racing - not even the flat cap and stentorian yell of "PIPPING HELL!" - quite as enduring as the whirling arm with which he celebrated most of his 254 goals for Southampton, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Bristol Rovers, Norwich City, Portsmouth and England.
He gives the impression, though, that if he was born for anything, it was to train winners rather than score them. On the night of his greatest triumph as a footballer, Southampton's 1976 FA Cup final victory over Manchester United, he excused himself from the post-match banquet and went to see his first mare being born.
He had become an owner when he and his team-mate Brian O'Neill paid £400 between them for a yearling they named Cathy Jane after their wives - mainly, Channon mischievously suggests, to stop Cathy and Jane moaning if the housekeeping money went south. Royal Final, he called the foal born on Cup final night. Channon was a devoted royalist long before he starting hobnobbing with the Queen; he used to nag his England team-mates to sing the national anthem loudly and clearly before every match.
Royal Final produced the goods, in a way. Although she never won a race, she gave birth to Ghofar who ended up winning the Hennessy Gold Cup. As for Royal Final's own mother, her name was Blur Horizon and she had been given to Channon by the president of Southampton, Herbert Blagrave. In that 1975-76 season, with Southampton mired in the Second Division and Channon needing to be in the top flight to keep his England place, he had asked for a transfer. Blagrave wanted to keep him, so he bunged his leading goal-scorer a couple of brood mares, which I suppose makes a change from a brown envelope.
Channon is happy to reminisce about that 1976 Cup final and what happened afterwards, not only to him, but also to his close mate Peter Osgood, who absconded with the Cup and took it home, although not before showing it off at a motorway service station. Happy days.
However, when he talks about modern football, it is with the blinkered dogmatism of the fan rather than the calculated musings of the ex-pro. He does not have a high regard for Sven Goran Eriksson. Cannot, indeed, even bring himself to utter the England coach's name.
"I don't think he knows what he's pipping doing, the Swede." The word "Swede" is delivered with distaste, almost contempt. If the decision had been Channon's, he probably would have given the England job to his old mucker Alan Ball. Anyone but a pipping foreigner.
"I can't stand him, not for love or money. He keeps changing the team, still doesn't know what his tactics should be. All England need is pipping continuity. Mind you, [Alan] Shearer retiring doesn't help. I pipping can't believe that. In our day and age you'd want to play forever."
For the mandarins who run racing, Channon has the same contempt as for Eriksson. "It's like politics and religion, nobody agrees on anything. I'd get 'em all in one room, find the strongest and then have a pipping dictatorship. You need someone to run it for the good of racing, not for the good of the pipping courses, or the owners or the pipping trainers. But they can't agree on any pipping thing. Look at this bollocks with attheraces [the racing television channel which closed this spring after funding problems]. Christ almighty!"
We have now driven to the foot of the gallops, where he has a question for every rider who passes. "Was that any good, Tatiana? Have you got your sun lotion, Hannah? Was that a bit stronger, Amy?"
This is the other side of Channon, the caring side, that seems more in keeping with his crinkly eyes and engaging, honest face. But it isn't long before he loses his rag again. "JUST BE PIPPING CAREFUL WILL YOU! PIP IT! Now you know why trainers are nervous pipping wrecks," he tells me.
"The punters don't realise the work that goes into these horses, what goes into making the whole job pipping work. If he did there'd be no more bookmakers. As I say, if a punter came here he'd never have another pipping bet."
Even during his football career, Channon's first love was racing. And when he finished playing, while he flirted with the idea of going into coaching with Wolverhampton Wanderers, where there was a position available, he chose to work his keep at a small yard run by John Baker in Devon. He struggled to get a licence - another reason for his low opinion of the racing establishment - but was eventually given one in 1990, and gradually proved his mettle, using nobody's methods but his own.
"There's no right or wrong way," he reflects. "There's only a successful way. Martin Pipe's got it. Michael Stoute's got it. But they all do it differently. How many people have tried to copy Pipe? Those who do are only his apprentices."
Pipe has consumed just about every textbook ever written about the workings of a horse. I don't suppose Channon has been that rigorous with his studies. But the supposition rather offends him.
"I know quite a bit about the anatomy of a bloody horse," he insists. "But the most powerful drug in the world is adrenalin. When I was playing football, if I waited until I was properly fit I'd only have played 50 to 100 games. It's the same with horses. You can get away with an awful lot, not with pulls, but with knocks and bumps. You just have to apply commonsense, and look after them properly.
"They get their arses washed twice a day. That's more than most humans. Pipping hell!"
He drives me back to the yard, parks the Range Rover and gets out.
"This is a dream factory," he says, in a rare moment of pipless lyricism. "And in the next couple of months we'll find out how good some of these two-year-old colts are."
As we part, I ask him what horse he would most like to own, in a perfect world. "In a perfect world," he says, "a horse like Mill Reef. A trainer's dream, that horse. A proper horse. Pip me!" And which race would he most like to win, as if I didn't know. "A Derby," he says, with a lopsided smile, "would be pipping fantastic."
Mick Channon life and times
1948 Born in Orcheston, Wiltshire on 28 November.
1966 Makes the first of his 510 appearances for Southampton.
1973 Scores on his England debut, against Scotland, and goes on to win 46 caps.
1976 Wins the FA Cup with Southampton, beating Manchester United in the final.
1977 Signs for Manchester City in July for £300,000.
1979 Returns to Southampton for three seasons before moving on to Hong Kong, Newcastle, Bristol Rovers, Norwich City and Portsmouth.
1986 Retires after a short spell with the Irish side Finn Harps.
1987 Begins his racing career as assistant trainer to John Baker and Ken Cunningham.
1990 Takes out his own training licence and starts with 10 horses at Lambourn. Trains his first winner, Golden Scissors, at Beverley in March.
1994 Trains his first Group 1 winner, Piccolo, in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York in August.
1999 Moves to stables at West Ilsley, Newbury, previously owned by the Queen.
2002 Trains 100 winners in a season for the first time.
2003 Trains 142 winners.
Mick Channon: The Authorised Biography
by Peter Batt
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