Racing: Twist in the tail as Pipe is forced to retreat from the jumping fray

When Martin Pipe first took out a permit to train a couple of horses for his father, Dave, his ignorance was staggering. One day he mentioned that the horses were getting too fresh because it had been raining for three days. His father seemed puzzled, so Pipe indignantly told him that if he knew anything about horses, he would know that they could not be exer- cised in the rain. Dave, a bookmaker, thunderously corrected this misapprehension.

Little wonder if, as a second barren season drew to an end in May 1975, Pipe snr declared that he would lay Hit Parade for every penny he could in a selling hurdle up the road at Taunton. "Mark my words," Dave said. "Martin will never train a winner." But Hit Parade's jockey, Len Lungo, had begun to teach Pipe some basic lessons in the diet and preparation of racehorses. The horse remained a clumsy jumper, so Lungo walked the course and discreetly loosened the second panel of hurdles in each flight. A well-backed favourite, Hit Parade made all, keeping just wide of the rails, and coasted home.

That one small step for Pipe ultimately proved a giant leap for anyone engaged in the art of training jumpers. Indeed, by the time he abruptly concluded his pioneering career on Saturday, Pipe had made it seem more science than art. Even those he made jealous or resentful, in winning 4,180 races and 15 training championships, have long since paid him the sincerest form of flattery - working their horses up short, steep gallops, blood testing them, weighing them, joining his revolution.

And, looking back, this towering edifice could only ever have been built upon shallow foundations. Only the breadth of Pipe's naïveté qualified him to ask so many questions. He picked up Victorian manuals of horsemanship at jumble sales, and pocketfuls of feed visiting other yards. If he made everyone else take a fresh look at stale practices, then it was only because Pipe himself could not tell root from branch.

It took a radical, an outsider, to coppice the tree. And the wariness felt by a tweedy establishment for the bookmaker's son is more than matched by his own mistrust. In a way, that first, breakthrough contained the seeds of his alienation. In fairness, it was Lungo's cunning that cleared the horse's path. But such opportunism would soon become Pipe's own trademark.

There are many trainers who love to plan a coup, but usually it will borrow the bold colours of their personality. Pipe, conversely, is a painfully awkward communicator. Sometimes he seems secretive by choice. Even in his exultant moments, he finds sanctuary in the same perfunctory words, fidgeting with his racecard. "Nice horse," he recites in that high, nervy voice. "Lovely ride from A P McCoy. Ran well at Haydock last time and deserved to win today. Very pleased for his owner." Even when he is trying particularly hard, you could get more out of a barnacle.

Those with whom he is comfortable speak warmly of Pipe's humour and generosity. But his inability to engage more broadly has brought a price. For a long time it made him vulnerable to sinister fables about alchemy in his private laboratory, or the attrition of his methods. In reality, the only scandal was traced to the meretricious imaginations that yielded such rumours. Tony McCoy will tell you how much Pipe has achieved for the welfare of the horse in training, how making them fitter preserves them from tired errors and helps them recover from exertion.

This kind of shameful persecution was hardly calculated to bring him out of his shell. Yet perhaps the most damaging perception, in the long term, has been created by Pipe himself. Over recent seasons, potential investors could have been forgiven for fearing that a moat had been dug around Pond House Stables.

Whereas Paul Nicholls, the young rival emerging on the other side of Somerset, has drawn an increasing breadth of patronage, Pipe has relied increasingly on one man, David Johnson. His horses sometimes emerge from obscurity to land big gambles, and the inadvertent result is that a siege mentality is perceived in the stable. Though Pipe's final season was also undermined by a virus, the overall graph lines are in decline. Having maintained a strike-rate of over 20 per cent for a decade, Pipe sank to 16.5 per cent for two seasons before just 14.5 per cent for the season that ended on Saturday. Having saddled over 200 winners eight times, his final tally was 111.

The stable needs fresh blood and that, more than any of the aches and pains he feels at 60, could well have prompted his decision to hand over to his son, David. True, in his younger days he smashed himself up pretty thoroughly with horses and cars, and he recently underwent surgery on a wrist.

For such a restless man, his life is full of hobble and hurt. But there are still better reasons for introducing a fresh face now.

Johnson says he will still have 80 horses in the yard. One way or another, however, David Pipe will have to be his own man. He has a pleasant smile and easy manner, and has served an ample apprenticeship. And no matter how cosmetic their exchange of roles, his father knows that the time has come to fight fire with fire.

For Nicholls could not present a more exaggerated contrast to Pipe if he tried - as he probably does. He emphasises that he does not train for people who want betting coups. He is smooth and co-operative with a microphone. In terms of substance, he might not have much more to say than Pipe, and he is certainly no less ambitious, no less restive. But the differences in style have certainly contributed to the shift in fortunes that saw Nicholls finally claim the championship on the day Pipe announced his retirement.

Some detected a final twist of the knife in the timing. After all, the two men have not disguised their antipathy very well. Equally Nicholls has always been frank in confessing his debt to Pipe, having noticed how fit his horses were in his riding days. But if Nicholls absorbed one crucial lesson, perhaps he has now taught Pipe something in return.

Aintree triumph to a Cheltenham fatality: The highs and lows of Pipe's career

* LITTLE ACORN

The first of 4,180 winners was Hit Parade at Taunton on May 9, 1975. Eight days later, Pipe had his one and only winner as a jockey, at a point-to-point in Devon.

* BREAKTHROUGH

In his first six seasons, Pipe saddled just 31 winners. Then Baron Blakeney at 66-1 became the first of 32 Cheltenham Festival winners in the 1981 Triumph Hurdle.

* CHAMPION HURDLERS

Make A Stand (1997) typified the front-running tactics used on many Pipe horses, making fitness tell -

but quirky Granville Again (1993) had to be produced late.

* TARNISHED GOLD Carvill's Hill in 1992 was Pipe's best Cheltenham Gold Cup chance, only for his jumping to be exposed by aggressive tactics on Golden Freeze. Novice Gloria Victis would have gone close but for falling fatally eight years later.

* FLAT AND FIZZ

Pipe's 253 Flat winners included six at Royal Ascot, but his methods applied best to the stamina test of jumping - Miinnehoma (left) winning the ultimate slog in the 1994 National.

* MONOPOLY

Only David Nicholson (1993-94) interrupted a sequence of 15 training championships until Paul Nicholls this year - though Nicholls was foiled only on the final day of the 2004-2005 season.

* DOUBLE TOP

Henry Cecil's 180 Flat winners in 1987 made him nearest to 200 in a season. Pipe has since passed that total eight times in all, with a record 243 in 1999-2000.

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