Clive Brittain takes you round his Newmarket yard, past the huge, creased hedges, the lawns benefiting from sprinklers and the fuchsia-crammed hanging baskets outside each box. The freshness, the new blooms, are an obvious metaphor for the life of a trainer who may cap five decades in his sport by winning the 224th Derby at Epsom this Saturday.
It would be some comeback for Brittain, as his 70th birthday rushes up in the calendar. For, until this spring, the career of the former stable lad appeared to be in ever-tightening paralysis. The horses were not functioning, and neither was one of Brittain's hips. A serpent had also slipped into the gardens at the trainer's Carlburg stables.
"I was stupid," Brittain says. "I would never dream of taking painkillers or drugs, but invariably I'd be dragging myself in from the yard and, instead of having my usual glass of wine, it would be a bottle and a large scotch before I went to bed. That way you get muddled and don't do your job as you should be. The horses were in no way neglected, but I wasn't as sharp as I should have been. I was missing things. And all that coincided with a run of moderate horses. I've always been prepared to face up to my mistakes. I'm a great believer that you learn from mistakes. Like not making them twice. I don't drink any more."
In February, Brittain received a new hip. It made him feel and look a lot better, nothing like the shambling figure who had been trying to keep up appearances at the end of the previous year.
"I knew I wasn't a good advertisement for myself," the trainer says. "It didn't help that I'd walk into the sales looking as if I was going to die. That didn't inspire the owners to come to me. I was going to the sales and sticking my head in the lion's mouth by buying horses that I hoped to sell on. Just to keep the numbers up."
It was a process which is usually the lay-by on the road to disaster. In the end, all that was left for Brittain was instinct. And it has always been his inclination to tough it out, from the time he was brought up with 12 brothers and sisters to entertain no prospect more glamorous than the local bacon factory in Wiltshire.
If there was meat to be processed, though, young Brittain determined he would work with the live variety, and he joined Sir Noel Murless, first locally at Beckhampton and then when the master trainer moved to Warren Place in Newmarket. He has never left town since.
Carlburg is the monument to what can still be achieved from the shop floor. "Work has never been a punishment, for me," he says as he surveys his horses picking at grass. "It's a pleasure. Anything is possible with hard work. And luck."
Nearby, two old warriors lean dozily over a paddock rail. Come On The Blues and Chatham Island have earned their right to a leisurely retirement. Their presence is an aide-memoire to perhaps Brittain's greatest day as Come On The Blues was formerly the escort of Pebbles, the flying filly who could not operate without the grizzled gelding as a travelling companion.
This arrangement led the old horse to America's Breeders' Cup in 1985, when the New Yorkers were entranced by Pebbles' daily ration of a pint of Guinness. They were similarly bewitched by her performance in the Turf at Aqueduct. It was a beacon to Brittain's talents and, it is possible to say, a lot of water has flowed over the bridge since then.
Clive Edward Brittain needs the Derby to complete the full set of domestic Classics. He has been mightily close before, in 1989, when Terimon had just the twinkling Nashwan in front of him. That result was a parable for Brittain's career as Terimon bolted around Epsom that day as a 500-1 shot. He was not a universally popular selection, though he proved a great friend to the cutter at Brittain's London tailor, who moved out to open his own sandwich kiosk on the back of the result.
Big-priced horses in big races are something of a Brittain speciality. Some snigger and regard him as a Canute or Icarus of the turf, but the trainer thinks this interpretation of himself as a hopeless optimist far from a laughing matter.
"I'm putting 50-odd years of experience into these horses," he says. "A lot of my owners haven't lived for 50 years. I run horses in races I think they are good enough to win or get placed in. And we do win a hell of a lot of place money. It doesn't worry me what people say or think. I don't hurt horses. I look my horses in the eye and not one has ever turned its back on me. I've spent a lot of time with horses, so when I take them to the races I know what they're likely to do. If I hadn't made what they call fancy entries a few big races would have gone by."
Dutch Gold, the Carlburg standard bearer at Epsom, was not entered at all in the Blue Riband. The colt will be supplemented today at a cost of £90,000. "And that's not to make the others richer," Brittain says. "He's always been a horse I've liked, even though Frankie Dettori once told me he was hopeless, that he gave him nothing. I told Frankie he was wrong. It's more been a question of educating the horse's mind than anything."
It has been 22 years since a winner of the Chester Vase has gone on to success at the Surrey Downs, but Brittain would be placing himself in grand company as that victor was the imperious Shergar.
We know, though, that Dutch Gold is an honest horse, one who has already shown his class. We know the same about his trainer. To see Brittain, who has handled such talents as Jupiter Island, Sayyedati, and User Friendly, back and pitching at the top of the trainers' table has been a great joy of this young Flat season.
The man himself will, as usual, be the first person up in Newmarket this week, rising while the nests are still full at 3.30am. He still loves what life has provided for him and does not envisage the lights going out for some time yet.
"There is certainly no chequered flag in sight," he says. "Nobody ever shoots themselves in racing because there is always tomorrow. You walk down the yard and there is always a horse that might be the next one. I've still got races to win. The Melbourne Cup, the Kentucky Derby and, of course, the Derby itself. I want that one. It's the top of the milk."Reuse content