Countdown to the Grand National: Man of the people

He may be one of racing's richest figures, but J P McManus remains true to his roots: a lover of the sport and a fearless and much admired gambler. In a rare interview, he talks to Chris McGrath about being broke, his love of horses and the challenge he faces from the younger generation

In 1960 a nine-year-old Limerick boy had his first bet - "a few bob" - on the Grand National favourite. Merryman II won at 13-2. Any investment made by J P McManus on the favourite at Aintree tomorrow would cause a ripple of panic across the betting ring, even measured against nationwide turnover expected to reach £150m.

It would seem unlikely that McManus will back Clan Royal, one of around 300 horses he has in training. The bookmakers tend not to take chances about any of them, never mind one liable to command a tidal wave of public support. "A lot of our horses, they're a bit underpriced," McManus said on arrival at the track yesterday. "You tend just to let them run."

Just as the bookmakers remain automatically wary of his horses, so the betting public tends to suspend all caution. If they have the remotest sniff that the money might be down, they are not too fastidious about the odds. To them, McManus is a cherished icon of the modern Turf. His green and gold silks are like the banner of a Celtic warrior, leading a people's army against oppression - not so much against the bookmakers, but against the daily grind, against the possibility that there is no way out.

For while they know very little about this mild, reclusive man, they know that he is one of them. A few years ago, currency speculation took him into the stratosphere, but for a long time he shared the same struggles as any young man desperate for financial oxygen. He was barely 20 when he started as a bookmaker and he quickly ran out of cash. He returned to his father's farm and plant-hire business, saved up for a fresh start, and promptly went broke again.

"I was skint," he reflected yesterday. "But I wasn't in debt. I had lost all my money, but I could still walk on to the racecourse. There's a big difference being skint and leaving a trail of debt behind. I had to go back to my dad a couple of times, looking for my job back, because I had no money. But at the same time I didn't owe anyone.

"I was lucky I didn't start with more money, lucky that I didn't have more than a couple of thousand - if I even had that. If I had started with a hundred times as much, I'd have lost it. If I had started with a thousand times as much, I'd probably have lost it. It's a learning process. When you have to go back and milk cows, or sit on the bulldozer for a few weeks, you start to think about where you went wrong. When you get up at six in the morning and go through till eight at night, you soon work out if this kind of life doesn't appeal too much. You won't make the same mistakes again."

The second time he came home, his mother loaned him a few hundred pounds, without his father's knowledge. He never had more respect for any money, and he never went broke again. "She was very kind to me," he said. "I didn't go back to her - she volunteered. That's what mothers are for, I suppose."

Gradually, McManus learned the stealth and composure required in the betting jungle. Increasingly, he would leave his own stand to bet with other bookmakers. In 1976 he bought his first horse, Cill Dara. Six years later he had his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, Mister Donovan. He backed him and won £250,000. By this stage, he had become known in the ring as The Sundance Kid, a preposterously glamorous name for such an undemonstrative, abstemious man, married with three children.

However, the diversification of his business interests over recent years have certainly given McManus an increasingly exotic allure. In 1997, along with Dermot Desmond, he bought the Sandy Lane resort in Barbados for £38m. His friendship with Tiger Woods is sufficiently strong for him to play at his charity pro-am, one of many philanthropic endeavours. Four years later he joined another friend, John Magnier, as a major investor in Manchester United.

As is well chronicled, that particular cream turned rather sour, and McManus is understandably reluctant to dwell on it. "I got into it as a bit of fun," he said. "And the fun went out of it, for one reason or another." But there is no disguising the heightened respect he has obtained, through his adventures elsewhere, for the fellowship of the ring.

As a gambler, he depends on instinct, nerve and honour. "You don't have time to think," he said. "If you're playing cards, you can't read the book in between hands. I would say in my life the smartest guys I've met, and the most honourable, are bookmakers and people who work with them. I don't believe I have ever had a dispute, or at least one that wasn't sorted out immediately, as a misunderstanding on the part of one person or the other. I never need a lawyer with me when I'm going to have a bet; like, I don't need someone there to hear what I said or be a witness."

Nowadays McManus cannot go racing as much as he would like - he is required to spend much of his time in Geneva - and he reckons that he could manage perfectly well without ever having another bet. That said, he reportedly won £675,000 in one afternoon when two of his horses won at the Cheltenham Festival last month and - much as was the case with the late Robert Sangster - it appears that no amount of wealth can ever stifle the buzz of beating the bookmaker.

On the other hand, at 55 he claims to be vulnerable. "The younger generation is smarter off the blocks," he said. "I still class myself as young, but a lot of the younger guys are more with it. The stage comes you may enjoy the life, the occasion, the excitement - and you might have a bit of wisdom on your side - but they have more enthusiasm, they know what's going on. You have a little more hunger when you are young.

"Maybe when you're older, you have the discipline, and that kind of balances it. When you're younger, you always know the right thing to do but you don't always do it. Discipline is very important. If you're not disciplined, you may as well throw your hat in. You know the old saying: 'If you're in luck in the morning, you're in luck in the evening.' If you find you're out of luck, just take your beating, like. There'll be another day."

There are many in racing indebted to McManus for his undiminished passions - he is conspicuously loyal, and loves to give young trainers a chance with horses. Some observers are baffled by the amount of mediocre horses in his empire, but then he has no commercial agenda. "It's a luxury," he shrugged. "Luxuries cost money. Some guys put their money into yachts. I put mine into jumping horses, and I get a lot of pleasure from it. No disrespect to my family, I love them all, but if you have an athlete in the family, something like that, that's a way of being involved. And in horse racing, the only way of being involved is to buy your way in."

Every Eden has its vipers, but in McManus the innocence of the Turf seems pristine. He is a man that could be envied by anyone, but he seems to be resented by none. He is building himself a 50,000 square foot mansion in Co Limerick, with a portico of four columns, a 200-seat cinema, gym and underground car park - but he has always remained true to himself, his companions and his roots.

"Money changes your life, I've no doubt about that," he said. "As somebody said: 'It keeps the children close to home.' That said, I hope it hasn't changed me too much. A lot of my friends are old friends. I've been very fortunate in my life, my family, my health. It could have been the turn of a card here or there, and I wouldn't be here today. I realise that. I know that.

"Good things can happen by accident. People think it's a stroke of genius and it's an accident, you just happen to be in the right place at the right time. I'm sure a lot of successful people would say the same. You wouldn't want to kid yourself it was good judgement when it was simply good fortune."

McManus' magic moments

* Istabraq is the great champion lighting up J P McManus's record as a racehorse owner. One of only five horses to have won three Champion Hurdles (1998 to 2000), he was victorious for four successive years at the Cheltenham Festival, having also secured a novice hurdle in 1997 and would probably have continued the sequence had not the 2001 meeting been called off due to foot-and-mouth disease.

* Mister Donovan holds a special place in McManus's affections as his first Cheltenham Festival winner, in the 1982 Sun Alliance Hurdle. The fact that the victory secured his owner £250,000 in a single bet also lends a rosy glow to the race video.

* Danny Connors narrowly pulled off another big gamble in the McManus colours in the 1991 Coral Golden Hurdle under a brilliant ride from Mark Dwyer. The win was also a significant joint venture with the trainer that day, Jonjo O'Neill, who now runs McManus's Jackdaws Castle stable near Cheltenham.

* In 2001 McManus purchased two top French horses, Baracouda and First Gold, for an undisclosed sum. Both horses continued to race at the top level, with Baracouda winning many of the most prestigious hurdle races, including the Stayers' Hurdle in 2002 and 2003.

* Reveillez and Kadoun secured McManus a huge pay day at this year's Cheltenham Festival and brought early pain to his bookmaker, Freddie Williams, who was later mugged for what money he had left. McManus had placed a bet of £600,000 to £100,000 on Reveillez with Williams, and £5,000 each-way on Kadoun at 50-1, winning £312,500.

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