Racing: McManaman in turf's big league

Two leading footballers own the horse who is the first recipient of an award to the season's leading novice chasers
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The Independent Online

Those inspiring Grand Nationals of the 1970s fought out between Red Rum and L'Escargot are still vivid in the mind of David McManaman. He used to take advantage of the near deserted enclosures that, despite the legendary names out on the track, haunted Aintree in those days but served as an ideal place for pushing his infant son around in his pram.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the lad would grow up with a taste for the turf, less predictable that when baby Steve reached adulthood he would be such a successful footballer that he would be able to buy his way to the other side of the track as a leading owner of National Hunt horses with a private box from which to look down on Aintree's now packed enclosures.

Now Steve McManaman of Real Madrid and England has in his possession the leading two-mile novice chaser in Britain this season. The six-year-old, the first winner of the Royal & SunAlliance/Independent Novice Chaser Award, has already amassed six successes worth £55,000 over fences and is among the favourites to be crowned at the head of his division in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.

McManaman owns Seebald jointly with his former colleague at Liverpool Robbie Fowler as The Macca & Growler Partnership. With McManaman in Madrid and Fowler now at Leeds United they may no longer be team-mates on the pitch, but share a passion for horse racing that set them apart from their colleagues in the Anfield dressing room.

"The team had a horse, Some Horse, with Michael Meagher, who trained up at Ormskirk," McManaman said this weekend, on one of his flying visits to Liverpool to see family and friends. "It was a bit of fun and it was easy for me to go up and visit the horse, but when that team disbanded and the partnership broke up I wanted to carry on. I wanted it more. I wanted a Cheltenham horse."

McManaman wanted a transfer to an outfit where he could win trophies. In the sport of National Hunt racing that means joining up with Martin Pipe and Tony McCoy.

Pipe has worked his usual magic for McManaman and Fowler and the three horses he has trained for them have won 22 races, with Auetaler and Major Lando, who had to be put down after injury, contributing seven apiece.

It is in speaking of McCoy, though, that McManaman shows the appreciation and understanding that top sportsmen can share for each other's talents. "The man's a fantastic athlete," McManaman says. "What he has to put his body through to keep his weight down is amazing. He doesn't drink, hardly eats."

"You can see from the way his weight fluctuates so much if he's not riding the sort of strain he must be putting on his body. Then there are the falls and driving the length and breadth of the country to meetings."

If there is some relief that the life of a modern top-flight footballer is rather more cosseted, the risks somewhat lower and the rewards enormously greater, there is a tinge of regret too from McManaman that the trappings of his lifestyle keep him so far away from the sport that he loves.

"I've got the Racing Channel and Channel 4 Racing in Madrid and I watch all the racing that I can, but when you've got a runner you just wish that you didn't have to be 1,000 miles away.

"When I was a boy back in Liverpool I used to sit down with my dad and his brothers on a Saturday afternoon and watch all the racing on telly. My grandad was a street-corner bookie in the days before betting shops and I've always loved horse racing.

"I knew one day, if I could afford it, I'd love to buy a horse, but it's a pity I can't be there to see it run. I haven't been racing in England since I moved to Spain and even the Hippodrome in Madrid has closed down except for festivals.

"My dad and Robbie Fowler's dad get a lot of fun out of our horses, though, and it's great to watch them on the telly in Spain picking up the trophy after Seebald has won a race. They keep talking about it as 'our horse'."

The years of being dandled on his dad's knee to the rhythm of hoofbeats from the television have served McManaman well and he has made some shrewd moves in setting up the Macca & Growler string, not least in appointing Graham Bradley, the Gold Cup winning jockey turned bloodstock agent, as racing manager and purchaser of fine horseflesh.

"The great thing about Brad is that he can test drive the horses before he buys them," McManaman says, "and there are not too many bloodstock agents that can do that."

McManaman, knowing that the wage packets of top players makes them permanent targets for charges of excess, is reluctant to talk about specific amounts that he and Fowler have paid for their horses, but they seem to have been pretty canny with their cash.

"When David Johnson [Pipe's main owner] splashes out £340,000 for Magnus nobody says a word, but footballers have to be a bit more cautious," McManaman says. "We don't pay big money for our horses. The prices now in France and Ireland are just too high, but Brad has tapped into the German market and done a great job."

That is an opinion that Bradley holds too. With a strike-rate of three multiple winners from three purchases it is hard to disagree with the self-assessment. The only danger is that he may have spoilt the boys. If he had not spent years at his dad's knee, McManaman might think this racing game is easy.

"Steve and Robbie, and their dads, are very keen and very knowledgeable," Bradley says. "I talk to them two or three times a week and they understand that it would be madness to mess the horses about and run them in the wrong race just because they can get to the races to see them. I'd rather send them a tape.

"I buy the horses off the Flat in Germany and ride them all before I buy them. It's the best way to find out if they're going to be brave enough for jumping.

"They really decided who was going to train the horses. There was only one person they wanted to ride for them and that was A P McCoy. If you want to be sure of getting him, then the horses have to be with Martin Pipe, who's a genius, and A P knows it. A P's ridden every winner for them.

"Seebald surprised me at Ascot when he stepped up to two and a half miles and wasn't stopping. He could get three and could be a King George horse."

It is early days to be talking in those terms, though, too soon too to be talking about McManaman's involvement in racing increasing to the level of Sunderland's Niall Quinn, who has made a success of breeding and selling on young horses, and further still to the level of Mick Quinn, Francis Lee or Mick Channon, who have made, respectively, sorry, satisfactory and superb jobs of the switch to horse training.

First there is Seebald's career and probably one more outing before the Cheltenham Festival, where, as McManaman says, "Moscow Flyer, the best of the Irish, looks the danger."

The Macca & Growler silks are all white, save for a blue star on the cap, strangely similar to those of Real Madrid and Leeds United. What odds Seebald starting a winning treble to take in La Liga and the Premiership?

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