Monday Interview: At home with Martin Pipe
The racing trainer has a reputation for being difficult. Ian Stafford did not think so
Monday 14 April 1997
His reputation suggested that he would not be too impressed with my tardiness. After all, did he not stage his own race at Taunton recently entitled "The Martin Pipe Am I Really That Difficult Hurdle?" The serenity of a spring afternoon in Somerset is suddenly shattered by the sound of a horn pipping and, seemingly from nowhere, Britain's leading National Hunt trainer swoops from behind the stables on board a rickety old bike.
"Hello, hello," he says, at the speed of his bike. I apologise profusely, crack a self-deprecating joke, and receive a friendly slap on my back. This is not quite what was expected.
There then followed a frantic guided tour around the stables, Pipe in front on his bike, and myself behind, briefcase in hand, running to keep up with him. "There's the playpens for the horses, and here's the treadmill," he says, before continuing his impersonation of Chris Boardman. "This is the swimming pool, there's the indoor running track, and this is my father." Mr Pipe Snr appears from around a corner, waves a friendly hand, and might have started a conversation had his son not raced off again.
The only lengthy pause is when we reach the laboratory, Pipe's pride and joy. This, he insists, is one of the major reasons why his horses win so often. "The technology takes much of the guesswork out of my training," he says. "I deal with hard facts. This equipment tells me exactly how my horses are." Before rushing off, he introduces me to the lab technician, who shows me that their scanner reveals not only the insides of any horse, but also their ailment.
Then it's off and away again, back to his office, a quick introduction to his son, his staff, and his golden retriever, before dashing to his house, via his own helicopter, and a tray of tea and biscuits delivered by his mother, who moans at him for taking three sugars in his cup. He doesn't like to keep still then? "No, always on the move."
Does he ever take a break? "I went on holiday for five days in Portugal after Cheltenham." "Fortunately I found that I had SIS [the satellite racing channel] in my apartment, so I could follow all the racing from there. I had all my racing books, of course, and a portable telephone, so I was able to speak to all my jockeys before and after they raced."
Did he wander on the beach at all? "Oh no, not me. This body never sees the sun."
Pipe, if you haven't guessed yet, is obsessed about racing, and obsessed about winning. Every year from 1985 onwards he has trained more winners than any of the field. "Winning is a drug for me," he says. "I've always been competitive, in everything I do. My appetite for winning is insatiable, and I'm never fully satisfied. That's why I carry on, year after year.
"I remember when I started out, in 1975. I had one winner that year. It took me 10 years to reach 50 winners, and then my father told me that 50 was too big a number of winners, and that I'd never repeat the feat again. So that made me determined to get more winners the following season."
Of course, he did. In fact Pipe holds the record for winners in a season, a staggering 230, and expressed mild disappointment at his measly 170 winners to date this season. His main ambition in racing is to win every race on a card. He recently took five out of six at Taunton. "We came second in one race," he said, shaking his head with regret. Oh, come on, it wasn't a bad day, was it? "I want to win everything," he replies. "I don't enter my horses to come second."
So what is his secret? Every trainer I have ever met works furiously hard, so what does Pipe do that is so radically different and more successful than the others?
"Well, my success is down to hard work and dedication, but also because I put a great deal of thought into my training. My technology helps me to get the very best out of my horses, and it's always better to maximise an average horse's ability, than to fail to get the best out of a very good horse. I'm sure other trainers work as hard as I do, but a lot is down to each individual's interpretation. Look at blood tests. Two people can take them and get two different results. We must be getting it right."
His winning horse in this year's Champion Hurdle, Make A Stand, is a good enough example of all this. Pipe bought him for pounds 8,000, after seeing him in a Flat race at Leicester. "He was nice and cheap, but he looked like an athlete. I thought I'd make a good hurdler out of him. I entered him for Cheltenham but didn't tell the owner until a fortnight later because I was frightened of his reaction. It might have looked like a silly entry. But by the race itself I fancied my chances."
Had Make A Stand not been placed, Pipe would have taken the blame. "It's no good settling for the excuse I hear some trainers use that the horse blew up, or it wasn't fit, or there wasn't a fast enough pace. I try and evaluate the situation and cut out the possible excuses, so that the horse does not enter a race unless he's fit enough to win it. If a horse then fails to win, or even be placed, then we ask what we've done wrong, because it would be down to us."
Pipe's father was a Taunton bookmaker, and he followed into the business. He reckons this foundation has helped him tremendously in his subsequent success as a trainer. "You have to be very opinionated as a bookmaker and, if you get your opinions wrong, then you go skint. I've learned to pick winners in racing from this background. When I took over from my father, I used to run all the betting shops in Taunton. It made me understand racing, and the probability of horses winning. I was always very good at mathematics, and I use this in my training. It also makes me recognise the truth in a horse. I never see my geese as swans."
This background, his success, and his own operation in Wellington, away from the cosy Lambourn set, has made him a bit of an outsider. He may be respected, but in a business where a living depends on winning, the admiration for him is a little grudging in some quarters.
"I suppose I am a bit of an outsider," he agrees. "When I started out I knew nothing about racing. Most people were jockeys, or were born into the sport, but not me. I always wanted to ride horses as a kid but was never allowed to because my father thought it was too dangerous. In the end I tried it, won a race but broke a leg and came to the conclusion that I wasn't very good. My father retired, bought a farm house, we started training point-to-pointers, and it just sort of evolved."
With the success has come the flak. Pipe has not enjoyed the best relationship with the media and, after television's "The Cook Report" criticised his rigorous training methods and turnover of horses four years ago, some mud, he accepts, has stuck. "The racing world stood behind me, but perhaps some of the owners have kept away from me as a result of that programme. It was very sad and very horrible that they should be so devious as to do a programme like it, and I suppose that mud sticks."
For once the perky expression grows darker. The flak obviously hurts. "I don't know why I've had so much. Maybe it's because I keep on winning, and people knock success, don't they? It's been upsetting, and very negative. It's not been good for the industry, and not good for anyone.
"For example, I've heard I train mediocre horses to win small races. Well, for a start, I beat other trainers who enter horses in the same races, don't I? I've won every major race except for the Gold Cup, and even there I've had a second, a third and a fourth. I had four winners at Cheltenham this year as well. So that view is a load of rubbish.
"I don't think I'm that difficult, I really don't. My job is to satisfy the owners first and foremost, and it's frustrating when people write silly things about you and there's no comeback. I've never been a jealous person. I just get on with my own life."
The Grand National may be over now, and the rest of the season might seem an anti-climax to some of the trainers, but Pipe has much still to play for. "There's plenty more races to come, and I'd like to win as many races as possible. I'm also looking ahead to next year right now. I want to buy another Make A Stand. If I'm not leading trainer next year, I wouldn't have done my job properly."
He leads me to my car, and as our conversation officially ends he suddenly takes out a stopwatch from his pocket. "That's 47 minutes and 35 seconds," he announces.
You've actually been timing this interview? I ask.
"Oh yes, I like to time everything I do. Conversations with people, my horses on the gallops, jobs I need to do in the office."
What, everything? "That's right," he replies, laughing. "It was only 30 seconds last night. No, only joking."
And with that he shoots off on his bicycle, scattering ducks and hurtling back to work.
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