Racing: Fred Winter, a hero of the turf, dies aged 77

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Terms like great and hero are much devalued nowadays by being applied to so many nonentities and underachievers in popular and sporting culture. Which is a shame, because Fred Winter, who died yesterday at the age of 77, was truly a great man and a hero, in deeds, in words, in attitudes, in demeanour, in life.

Terms like great and hero are much devalued nowadays by being applied to so many nonentities and underachievers in popular and sporting culture. Which is a shame, because Fred Winter, who died yesterday at the age of 77, was truly a great man and a hero, in deeds, in words, in attitudes, in demeanour, in life.

He was a great, and arguably the greatest, jump jockey. He then became a great, and very nearly the greatest, trainer of steeplechasers and hurdlers, one of the few to make an indelible mark in both spheres. His exploits, and one in particular, were heroic in fact and in their ability to inspire others. Yet his natural modesty and kindness remained with him all his life.

The facts are that in his career in the saddle, from 1947-64, he was champion jockey four times, and won all the big races, including Grand Nationals on Sundew and Kilmore, Cheltenham Gold Cups on Saffron Tartan and Mandarin, Champion Hurdles on Clair Soleil, Fare Time and Eborneezer and King George VI Chases on Halloween and Saffron Tartan. As a trainer, he took eight titles between 1971 and 1985 and the Grand National in each of his first two seasons, with Jay Trump and Anglo. He also won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Midnight Court, Champion Hurdles with Bula, Lanzarote and Celtic Shot, and a Champion Chase with Crisp. But his best was Pendil, the dual King George VI Chase winner.

Other jump jockeys have won more championships and accumulated more career victories, but Winter set the benchmark by which all are still measured, Tony McCoy not excepted. He was physically extraordinarily strong and had an indomitable will to win, but he was also a horseman of the highest order. All those qualities were never seen to greater effect than on the Fulke Walwyn-trained Mandarin in the 1962 Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris at Auteuil, an epic ride if ever there was one.

The Grand Steeple course is a twisting four-mile figure-of-eight. The ground that day was heavy; Winter was weakened by wasting to do 9st 10lb on Beaver in the big hurdle race later in the day and Mandarin, talented but wayward and fragile-legged, wooden-headedly tugged himself into the lead from the start. At the third of 24 obstacles the rubber bit broke in the 11-year-old's mouth and Winter was left with neither brakes nor steering.

Incredibly, horse and rider carried on, the courage of one complementing the balance and strength of the other. A mistake and a swerve at the water cost Mandarin ground but at the second last, the bullfinch, he burst through into the lead once more and held on, all out, to win by a short-head from Lumino. Winter, though exhausted, found the steel to win on Beaver in the very next race.

With a CBE, Winter was the first jumps jockey to be rewarded for services to racing in the honours list and by setting the highest standards of integrity he enhanced the reputation of his branch of the sport. The tale is told of how, instructed in the paddock by an owner in the stable of Ryan Price, his retaining trainer, not to win, he looked at that owner hard through narrowed eyes and told him he had better back his horse, because it would win. And it did.

That he was destined for success as a trainer was soon evident but it was typical of him that as his Uplands stables expanded he upgraded the accommodation for staff before that of horses. Very few who worked for him left willingly.

There were disappointments to bear - the deaths of Lanzarote and Bula through falls; the narrow defeats of Pendil in the Gold Cup and Crisp in the National - but Winter took such reverses with grace. "He was the same in victory and defeat, and that takes a great man," Richard Pitman, his first stable jockey, said yesterday. "And regardless of racing, he would have been a great man at something else. To have worked for your hero is a marvellous thing, because we normally admire such people only from afar."

Winter retired from training in 1988 after suffering a stroke, and his wife, Diana, has been his devoted carer ever since. John Francome, seven-times champion jockey, was attached to the stable for all his 15-year career. "He was really loyal and inspired loyalty," he said. "He was just an amazing guy, what you would call a really good man."

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