Richard Guest: National winner who did it his way aims to taste glory again

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The weather looms large over Brancepeth Manor Farm, the yard in County Durham which the trainer Richard Guest leases from his old boss Norman Mason.

The weather looms large over Brancepeth Manor Farm, the yard in County Durham which the trainer Richard Guest leases from his old boss Norman Mason.

Perched high on a hill overlooking the Wear Valley, Brancepeth Manor Farm is frequently visited by four seasons in the course of a single day, at least according to Guest's assistant, Gemma.

"We had thick, freezing fog this morning," she says, as sunshine bathes the yard in something close to warmth, "and now this."

Gemma directs me to Guest's flat, where he too is preoccupied with the weather. While his girlfriend prepares him a roast lamb lunch in the adjoining kitchen, Guest sits in his living-room watching the five-day forecast.

No, "watching" is the wrong word. Cajoling the forecast, more like. There are three days to go before the Grand National, and Guest needs soft ground if his horses Red Striker and Tyneandthyneagain are to run in the race.

He is urging on Michael Fish as Michael Fish, if he is a racing man, has perhaps in the past urged on Richard Guest. "Go on ... that's it ... yes ... rain ... yes ... there's a nice black cloud over Aintree ... oh, I don't know ... it's going to go to the wire." But if the rain predicted by Michael Fish materialises, he says, then both horses will run.

It is not only the weather that has been changeable around Guest these past few days. He had intended to ride Red Striker himself at Aintree, but on Tuesday it was announced that the Jockey Club, influenced by the Racehorse Owners' Association, had decided to bar him from doing so. He thereby becomes the bewildered first victim of a new integrity rule destined to stop trainers from riding against their own horses. Bewildered, because in last year's National, with two of his own horses also in the field, he was permitted to ride Chives for Henrietta Knight.

Still, if the smell of roast lamb wafting in from the kitchen is anything to go by, there are compensations for not being allowed to ride; Guest, now in his 39th year, would have had to shed a few pounds. Moreover, he concedes that, though highly improbable, a situation might have arisen in which he could have been accused of orchestrating Formula One-style team tactics.

"But that was a billion-to-one chance, and the Jockey Club were very sympathetic. I think they wanted me to ride. They're very happy with my integrity, having taken a good look at me in the past. Unfortunately they're under pressure from people who are ... naïve."

This little dig at the racehorse owners is typical of Guest. He is a man of robust opinions, and refreshingly unafraid of airing them.

Of his bête noire John McCririck, for example, he says: "He has a position on television to shout his opinion from the highest rooftop, and he abuses that position.

"He's a jockey-hater. I think he's of the opinion that jockeys are a necessary evil, and he's not much kinder to trainers.

"He's a failed bookmaker, you see, and obviously it couldn't have been the fault of an intelligent man like him that he failed; there must have been skulduggery going on. It's the punter's mentality. If you get beat, it's everyone's fault bar the fact that you picked the wrong horse."

Much as I would like to hear more of these lacerating observations, it is the Grand National on which we must focus. Guest rode Red Marauder to victory in the somewhat farcical race of 2001 when only four runners finished. But it was no fluke. In his 1992 debut, on Romany King, he finished second behind Party Politics. There aren't many people with a better knowledge of the Aintree track; even before he climbed into the saddle for his first National, Guest knew just what he had to do to get round.

"My Uncle Joe rode in the race for 20 years, and I walked the track with [the jockey] Graham McCourt, who knew the place very well. I listened to them, and did everything they suggested. The only time I didn't stick to the pattern was the year after I won.

"Ferdie Murphy, who's a brilliant trainer by the way, was insistent that I ride the way he wanted. In the run down to the first, he wanted me to drop back on the outside and let the others get on with it. But that's the most congested time of the race, and the danger is that when you get there, even if you jump well, there might be two horses just in front of you giving you nowhere to land. Which is exactly what happened. So we fell. If we'd done it my way, I think we might have got over it."

It occurs to me that when the time comes for Guest to make life's ultimate dismount, he will be able to share an epitaph with Frank Sinatra: "To think I did all that, and may I say, not in a shy way/oh no, oh no not me, I did it my way."

But round Aintree, his way has proven pedigree. "The first fence is very important," he tells me, "although how to do it I keep for my people to know. After that you've got to pick your way round. A lot of glory-hunters, with no chance at all of winning, go off at a million miles an hour, and you see them running in afterwards to watch themselves on TV.

"So you must let those horses that aren't going to be there at the finish bash each other about. And once you're over the Chair and the waterjump, you find that they have fallen away.

"For me, that's when the race really starts. And there are little rules. At the Canal Turn you must go out to the right to come back left. And at Becher's Brook there's a much bigger drop on the inside, so even if you're on the inside a fence or two before, you must get out to the middle.

"If you're in a bunch you have to scream at the others to get over as well, but some don't listen, so you've got to be in a position where you can get over even if they don't.

"Then there's the Chair. The Chair is huge, and you've got to treat it with real respect. So you let the horse know 100 yards before, you kick him in the belly, get his revs up.

"Graham Bradley, a brilliant horseman, could never get over the Chair. I told him what you have to do and he couldn't believe it. Graham was all rhythm. But you've got to make the horse know what's coming. Red Marauder flew it in 2001, but you can't do that at every fence because it uses up energy."

Guest takes a rare pause, while I clock a photograph on the wall of him winning the 1989 Champion Hurdle on Beech Road. Fifteen years ago, it seems to me, the Grand National meeting was bigger than the Cheltenham Festival. And yet, I venture, that has changed. Cheltenham was always the Blue Riband occasion, but people paid more attention to the National. Now it's Cheltenham which gets the juices going even in moderate racing enthusiasts.

"Well," Guest says, "Cheltenham is championship racing, level-weights racing, and if you win you've beaten the best of the best. But the Grand National puts you on the world stage in a way that Cheltenham doesn't. It's not especially for the connoisseur. If your horse is carrying 10st 5lb, and the horse that comes second has 11st 12lb, then the second horse probably deserves more plaudits. But the man in the street doesn't know that.

"The skill in training a horse for the National is not only getting him there fit and well, but getting him there with the right handicap. You have to plan a strategy. You don't want to be winning a big chase until after 19 February when the weights come out for the National.

"That's why I feel sorry for Sue and Harvey [Smith]. Their horse Artic Jack had a real good chance but he won a big chase in February and blew his chances of winning the National there and then. It doesn't seem right.

"That's the game but the game is wrong. I've got huge sympathy for Harvey. As a show-jumper all he ever had to think about was winning.

"It's hard for him to take, and rightly so because he's a winner. I think we've got an antiquated, rubbish system, I really do. In time it will change and a different system will help the integrity of racing, too, because at the moment, if you're beaten often enough you have more chance of winning."

That paradox will not, of course, diminish Guest's delight should one of his horses win this afternoon.

Although he trained Red Marauder, it was in Norman Mason's name. He wants his own name in the history books. "As a trainer there's nothing like having your name alongside a Grand National winner," he says. "Much better than riding one, because so much more goes into it, the stress, the pain, the hard work."

Not to mention, in his case, three generations of expertise. His father was a jockey who rode both on the flat and over jumps, his uncle Joe we have heard about, and his mother was one of racing's first stable girls.

As for his paternal grandfather, he was a horse dealer whose job during the First World War was to requisition horses for the army.

"But he was also an unqualified vet, so if a farmer's livelihood was dependent on his horses, grandad used to give them a tracheotomy with his penknife. It didn't incapacitate the horse, and it meant the cavalry wouldn't take them."

Guest chuckles at the guile of the old man, who died before he was born. Not least of the reasons why he would never cheat the system is he says it would besmirch his family's long-established reputation. He still gets irate just thinking about the riding bans he served, for supposedly "schooling in public", i.e. giving his horses experience in races, with no intention of trying to win.

"Roger Buffham [then the Jockey Club's head of security] thought there was corruption under every stone. I felt he was having a go at me because he thought I was into more sinister things that he couldn't prove. Which was rubbish. I invited him basically to put up or shut up. As a friend of mine says, the truth stands a lot of inspection."

What is indubitably true is that the "schooling in public" charge was lent credence by Guest's unusually still, unhistrionic riding style.

It is a style, he acknowledges "which doesn't always endear you to the man in the bookmaker's, because he can't see you yee- hah-ing. Even within the sport there are people who think you can't be doing your best unless you're riding like a lunatic.

"But you look at footage of [John] Francome or Lester Piggott or Stevie Cauthen. They're always the last person to move. They'd rather do anything than start driving their horses. As Greville Starkey told me when I was 12 or 13, when you start pushing you're telling the jockeys around you that you're beat, and more importantly you're telling the horse he's beat. I took that quiet riding style to its absolute limit. It became almost a crusade."

In other words, he did it, and continues to do it, his way. But is his way also the winning way? I hope so. In Durham, on my way home, I stick a tenner each way on Red Striker and fiver each way on Tyneandthyneagain, which amounts to £30 on Michael Fish. Unfortunately, Red Striker was withdrawn yesterday morning. The going wasn't soft enough. So Michael Fish owes me 20 quid.

Richard Guest life and times

1965 Born 10 July in Andover, England.

1979 Begins his racing career riding out for Sir Michael Stone. Partners the world famous racehorse Shergar.

1989 Wins the Champion Hurdle on the 50-1 outsider Beech Road.

1992 Rides Romany King into second in the Grand National.

1995 Continues his Aintree success, partnering Into The Red to fifth place in the National.

1998 Throws his riding licence at the racing stewards at Perth after committing a third breach of the non-triers' rule on This Is My Life. Announces his retirement from racing.

1999 An offer from millionaire racehorse owner Norman Mason tempts him back into the saddle. Becomes assistant trainer and rider of Mason's horses.

2001 Guides Red Marauder through the Aintree mud to a famous Grand National victory. At 35, he is the oldest jockey involved in a race where only four horses struggle through the conditions to finish.

2003 Becomes a fully licenced trainer for Mason.

2004 His riding comeback is quashed by a new Jockey Club integrity rule which prevents trainers from riding against their own horses.