Racing: Gatwick points Channon down Derby's runway to immortality

Former striker saddles an Epsom outsider part owned by Sir Alex Ferguson.
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There were overcast skies over Mick Channon's main gallops at West Ilsley yesterday and the Didcot power station did not help, belching matching grey clouds into the atmosphere.

There were overcast skies over Mick Channon's main gallops at West Ilsley yesterday and the Didcot power station did not help, belching matching grey clouds into the atmosphere.

Yet there is glee in the heart one of Britain's most successful horse trainers, the man responsible for Britain's heartiest batch of thoroughbreds, the man who sent out more domestic winners than anyone last season.

Channon, on Saturday, sends out the supplemented Gatwick for the Derby, sends out the best of his nationwide record brood of 140 horses into action. It is an interesting addition to the field as it continues the public feud between Sir Alex Ferguson, who owns one twelfth of the Gatwick syndicate, and John Magnier, due to be represented by one of the ante-post favourites, Yeats.

Ferguson, unlike Magnier, is not a lifelong racing man, but he does understand a challenge, and he is happy that his handicapper is sent into war against the cream of the substantial Irish crop. "He [Ferguson] has been threatening to come down here a few times and I'm sure he will do," Channon said yesterday. "I speak to him on the phone and I know he loves his horses. He's very enthusiastic. He was the first one to suggest we have a go."

Channon spoke from the roof of Berkshire, from the turf which used to resound to the hooves of Dick Hern's Derby horses, the likes of Troy, Henbit and Nashwan. They still remember the Nashwan gallop round these parts, when stable staff streamed down the hill, like villagers escaping a volcano, to get a bet on after a particularly exciting piece of work.

The present trainer has been up since five and the first dribbles of Classic horses. The former footballer is a typical, colourful self. His language could kill a maiden aunt at five paces, and, without editing, this article could have blown away an asterisk record.

At the top of the gallop, West Ilsley's leading apprentice, Sam Hitchott, has broken a rein and Channon is unconvinced by the method of re-attachment. "Have you never heard of a reef knot, you clot," he says. "Am I the only furry fellow that was in the boy scouts?"

Back home, the premises may have changed because the builders are in. But Channon has not modified in the environs of an office Portakabin. He wears a brown, corduroy flat hat on a head that is light grey where there is hair and outdoors pink where there is not.

The years may have had an affect on his appearance, but not the opinions. Channon does not like Epsom as a championship course. The promotional motto for the Blue Riband on Saturday is: "Flat? It ain't." The trainer's is rather less beaming.

"It used to be racing's day, then they threw it away," he said rhythmically. "Epsom have frittered the Derby up. They got the wrong frittering day and it would surprise me if they fritter the whole thing up.

"It used to be a special day, when there was no football, cricket or anything else on. It was an unofficial holiday with politicians there and you didn't mind if you bumped into your boss because he wasn't supposed to be there as well and probably had a bird with him.

"We run our best race on the worst track. I'd run it anywhere else apart from Epsom. Who wants to run over roads, uphill and downhill and see horses hurt and injured at the end of it all?"

It may be worrying for some of us to learn that Mick Channon will be 56 in November. His thoughts on horses may be troublesome for others. If he had been the arthritic figure he now poses in horsekind, the abattoir door would certainly have been slid open some time ago.

"Horses are the tools of our trade," he says. "I enjoy them, they're great fun, but I'm not what some people would call a horse lover as such. I respect them, but you can't afford to fall in love with them. If they're moderate I've got to let them go to someone else."

What marries between Channon's careers is the buzz he gets from both sports. He has won the FA Cup final and now has a shout at racing's equivalent. "As a footballer I only had myself to worry about, here the only thing I have to worry about is everything. The horses, the owners and the staff," he says. "But it's a great way of life because no two days are alike. You have massive highs and plenty more lows. For me, it's a drug. This is my fix.

"This is a crazy game. When it goes right you feel like King Kong, but we're going into a different league now with Gatwick. There is a massive gap to Group One, even from Group Two. I can't imagine being 80 and sitting on the sofa wondering whether I should have had this runner in the Derby. I'd rather run and get well stuffed than thinking later I should have had a go."