Dark hope after the hysteria

Terry Neill Interview: The owner pitched by tragedy into a national debate casts a nervous glance towards Aintree
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The Independent Online

If a week is a long time in racing, two strides was a journey to eternity for GloriaVictis. On Thursday, a week to the day after the ill-fated Gold Cup, the debate about the death of Gloria Victis was officially laid to rest in the racing press. "Correspondence on this subject is now closed," read the footnote at the bottom of the Racing Post's letters page. Not a day too soon, thought Terry Neill, whose own reluctant contribution had been published two days before.

As the owner of Gloria Victis, the person ultimately responsible for the horse's welfare and destruction, Neill was one of the few whose voice had a right to be heard above the predictable shrieks. But anyone searching for remorse or reflection had to look away. Neill is not one for dwelling on the past, nor is he frightened of facing the consequences of his own decisions.

Gloria Victis, he said, ran in the Gold Cup because he had earned the right to do so with his spring-heeled performance at Kempton, and the fact that the horse was still in contention coming to the second last in the Cheltenham showpiece, despite jumping almost every fence to the right, confirmed the view reached in consultation with Martin Pipe and Tony McCoy a week before the Festival. It is an honest, robust opinion unshaken by the hysteria of the past week, its validity queried only by the phalanx of the blessed who have the precious benefit of hindsight.

Neill wishes the same people could use their gifts to tell him whether to run his Dark Stranger, winner of the Mildmay of Flete, the one bright spot in his bleak Festival, or the big front-running Art Prince in the Grand National in a fortnight. He is understandably nervous about both prospects.

Neill is a brisk man with a brusque manner, a Liverpudlian born and bred, former resident of Anfield's Kop, now the fourth largest shareholder in Liverpool FC, the club he watched as a boy. His story, how he left Bowaters to set up his own packaging business, exploited the new trend for own-branding by supermarkets and then sold out when the turnover had reached £15m and the responsibilities of looking after a staff of 150 outweighed the thrill, is a classic tale of Thatcher's Britain.

Neill's fortune allowed him to pursue an interest in horses which had stretched no further than the odd punt with his father on a Saturday afternoon in the days of black-and- white television and a day or two at the races for after-office-hoursrelaxation.

When he was invited to visit Andy Turnell's stables, he did so only on the strict understanding that no purchase would be made. A morning later he bought a horse with a big white blaze, and his induction into the economic madhouse of the racehorse owner was complete. Little did he know then that his new- found pastime would pitch him briefly into the sort of public realm occupied for so many years by the owners of Desert Orchid, anexalted, exhausting, little world in which you become merely the curator of a horse owned by the nation.

"I never really thought whether racing would be a business proposition," says Neill. "I had no idea about the finances of the whole thing. That first horse I had was a beautiful horse, cost £12,000, but never did anything. When it got sick some people in Maidstone looked after it for me, and one day they said they had a horse called WilliamAnthony which they could no longer afford to keep. I bought it for £5,000, sent it to Martin Pipe because I noticed he seemed to be doing rather well, and it won three hurdle races in a row, at 33-1 first time out at Folkestone. So that's when I got hooked."

The VAT man came recently, asking for the profit-and-loss book. Neill laughs: "I said, 'Don't be silly, if I kept a profit-and-loss account, I'd pack up tomorrow'. There's a chance you might win some money, but it's the dream of trying to get a good horse, like we nearly did."

The initial contact with a French-bred horse called Gloria Victis about eight months ago was typically incoherent. The horse which Neill went to France to buy failed the vet; a week later, he was offered another, Gloria Victis. Only slowly does Neill recall the events of that Gold Cup day, the undue nervousness of the morning, the endless waiting in the owners' and trainers' pavilion before the race, the well-intentioned good wishes and then the race itself, watched by Neill from the owners' stand and by Pipe from his usual spot in front of the television.

"I saw the fall and then I saw Tony [McCoy] get hold of him and it didn't strike me there was anything wrong. I just went to the unsaddling area and waited. But nothing happened until Carol [Pipe's wife] came running up and said, 'You've got to come down, it looks bad'. By the time I'd got down there, the horse had been taken away in the ambulance. Martin said they were going to try to save him, but the message came through that he had been put down.

"We went to the weighing room then to see Tony. He was really upset, he took 10 minutes to come out and see us. That's how bad he was. At that moment, it makes you realise how young they are. You tend to think when you're talking to them, 'That's Tony McCoy, the champion jockey, an experienced person'. But when something like that happens you realise they're only kids. We asked Graham Bradley to see if he could get to see Tony because he was in a hell of a state.

"From there, I just tried to keep calm. We had the previous French owners over and they were crying; and the little French girl who looked after Gloria Victis. She'd had her hair specially done for the day. It was just totally unexpected, you could dream of him falling but not that anything like that could happen."

The recriminations have been the worst aspect of it, he says. Nothing levelled at him personally, except on the letters page, but a few threatening letters for Martin Pipe along with some messages of support, notably from Mark Pitman, a fellow trainer. Mrs Pipe has taken her husband on holiday to Majorca torecover, and Neill smiles at the thought of his workaholic trainer vainly pretending to enjoy himself.

"He rang me once to say he was going to Istanbul for the weekend. I said to him, 'Martin, you won't enjoy Istanbul, it's not your sort of place'. When he came back, he said, 'You're right, I didn't enjoy it'. Even if you go out for a meal, you know it's not his scene. He's not a socialiser, his scene is working."

After the Gold Cup, Neill stayed at the course to watch a horse owned by the footballers Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman run in the last, but the pleasure had gone, along with the joy of celebrating his first Festival winner barely a day before. A pragmatic man, as befits a scientist, Neill still recalls the sheer delight of watching Gloria Victis on his final gallop before the Festival, kept separate from the others, clearly the star of the show. He is still puzzled by the nature of the fall, the fact that Gloria Victis, whose athletic jumping at Kempton had sent a collective tingle down racing's spine, barely left the ground at the second last. "I messed up my video," says Neill, "so I haven't seen the race again, but I have a feeling that something happened before the fence." A view shared by McCoy.

The danger now is that racing has finished with Gloria Victis, that the name will be reduced to nothing more than a footnote in Gold Cup history. Correspondence on this subject is closed. It is not quite that easy. Owners need courage to move on. Like horses, their confidence can go. Victory for those red-and-white colours and Dark Stranger on Grand National day would provide welcome relief for Terry Neill and an ineradicable epitaph for the best horse he will ever own.