Not for the first time, but for the last, Martin Pipe yesterday stole his greatest rival's thunder. On the last day of the season, the occasion when Paul Nicholls became champion jumps trainer for the first time, the legend whose crown he finally took - the title-holder an unprecedented 15 times - announced his retirement. Red Echo, at Newton Abbot on Friday, was the last of Pipe's 4,182 winners; the next time a horse runs from his Pond House stables, the name of his son, David, will be on the licence.
Pipe, 61 next month, cited ill-health, well-documented over the past few years, as the prime factor behind his decision. "The whole thing has been great and I've really enjoyed it, but the time has come to hand the reins on to a younger, more energetic person," he said yesterday.
The rise and rise of Pipe's West Country empire began 31 years ago, when he sent out his first winner, Hit Parade, at Taunton. His first championship came in 1989 and from there his hegemony was broken only twice, by David Nicholson. He has been one of his profession's true greats; simply, he revolutionised training methods with his obsession with the fitness and health of his charges and his attention to detail in placing and education.
Even he could not make slow horses into fast ones, but what he did do was to push their discomfort zone further away. "He showed the old men how to do it, and taught the young men how," said Tony McCoy, Pipe's stable jockey until two years ago. McCoy, who sealed his own 11th championship yesterday, benefited from the Pipe winner machine like Peter Scudamore and Richard Dunwoody before him and added: "I can think of no greater tribute than that everyone copied what he did. I've learned so much from working with him. Racing will be the worse off without him."
Despite remaining in his Somerset fastness yesterday, Pipe, son of a bookmaker, still cast a giant shadow over proceedings, as Nicholls was not ashamed to admit. "I was riding for David Barons when he started," said the new champion, now 1-5 to retain his title through the season that starts at Ludlow today, "and I thought, crikey, this bloke knows the time of day. He has been a pathfinder for us all."
Pipe's retirement has been on the cards as a sooner, rather than later, scenario, and is not a shock, but its immediacy was a surprise, even to his closest associates. David Johnson, his chief patron for more than a decade, did not know until early yesterday.
It will be business as usual after the new dawn in Nicholashayne for Johnson, who lost his owners' title to JP McManus yesterday. "I'll be sending a few of the lesser lights to the sale," he said, "but I'll still have 80-ish in training. And will Martin still do the plotting? Of course. Will he still do the handicapping? Of course. Will he tell David what to do? Probably. Will David listen? Perhaps not always!"
Pipe never won a Cheltenham Gold Cup, a King George or a Queen Mother Champion Chase, but he has most other major races on his CV - notably Champion Hurdles with Granville Again and Make A Stand and a Grand National with Miinnehoma - and raised the statistical bar with metronome regularity. He named Make A Stand's day of days at Cheltenham as one of his best. "Like me," he said, "he worked his way up from humble beginnings, and enjoyed his job. I'd like to be remembered for training horses who tried their best. I got a great thrill from getting horses to enjoy their racing."
This season's highlights have been Our Vic's wins at Cheltenham, and Celestial Gold at Aintree. But the new order was underlined here yesterday in the day's feature, the Betfred Gold Cup. With Therealbandit in fifth the closest of Pipe's trio, the £91,232 earned by the 10-1 winner Lacdoudal was enough to leapfrog his trainer, Philip Hobbs, over Pipe and into second place in the trainers' table.
The Pipe File: The 31 years of unbridled glory
Born: May 29, 1945.
Family: Married to Carol, son David now takes over. Late father David was a bookmaker.
Honours: Awarded CBE in 2000.
First winner: Hit Parade, 1975.
Champion trainer: 15 times. Every season from 1988/89 to 1992/93, and from 1995/96 to 2004/05.
Total winners: 4,182.
Grand National: Miinnehoma (1994).
Champion Hurdle: Granville Again (1993), Make A Stand (1997).
Also: Pipe is one of only two trainers to have won the Grand National, Welsh National (five times), Scottish Grand National and Irish Grand National.