One Man a prince in Richards' realm
RACING: The trainer of the favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup talks to Richard Edmondson
Saturday 09 March 1996
"Nine out of 10 horses will come in and roll in their box, but this one never does," Richards said. "But if you put him out in the field that's the first thing he does." But neither is it for his leisure technique that the eight-year-old is most famous.
On the contrary, it is in the heat of racing's most testing furnace that the highest celebrity awaits One Man. If he wins the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Thursday, and the bookmakers consider the sash is already around his neck, One Man is likely to join the few superheroes that cross into the public domain, the likes of Arkle, Red Rum and Desert Orchid.
He will also complete one of the greatest training careers in National Hunt history. Gordon Richards, who will be 66 this year, is closing in on 2,000 winners after 30 years with a licence, and he has just about every major chasing rosette going. There is one hole in the tapestry though and it is awaiting the garland of the Gold Cup.
Greystoke may be little more than a village, but it has significance beyond its place in the atlas. This was originally the hub of an ancient barony, which included all Cumberland between Inglewood, Penrith and Keswick, before One Man once again made it a seat of power. It is a place few visit.
If you come from southern- softies direction towards Greystoke, the appreciation grows that you are entering a different land. Up over the top of Shap, deer-warning signs start to appear at the side of the road, and, in the fields, the greenery gives way to increasing patches of snow around the blasted sheep.
When I arrived, Richards had just finished a morning's work and was emerging from his off-road vehicle with a barrel of gas in his hand. The trainer was dressed in near Bavarian manner, with knee-length socks over his trousers. His grey hair was flat on his head, like a second skin. "Come in," Richards said. "We'll have an egg."
One of the great things about being a trainer is that you always seem to get a spanking kitchen thrown in. Richards's is typical. He too seems to have benefited from the Jockey Club's job lot of Agas and Welsh dressers, which are spread around a huge area. Classical music plays in the background.
There are pictures of the Boss and his horses, and little doubt who is top dog. While my cup, and that of Gordon's wife, Joanie, have space for one egg, the Boss is different. He eats his brace from a structure that looks like a cowboy-movie cactus.
Richards has liked One Man for longer than he has had him. He did the trainer's equivalent of a building-site wolf whistle when he was first shown the horse when he was in the care of his great friend W A (Arthur) Stephenson. Stephenson is no longer with us, but talk to Richards and you understand that One Man is running for two trainers on Thursday. "We always used to admire one another's horses," Richards said. "If he saw a novice of mine he liked he'd say 'ooh, you've been shopping well there, young fella'."
The Boss and W A may never have been in calculations for Gladiators, but they have always been thought of as hugely intimidating men. When they drank together at a bar, they were left alone; Richards, the diminutive chap from Somerset and W A, the man so ruddy and full of face that it would have been absurd for him not to have his Wellingtons turned down.
Richards is easy to lampoon with his West Country sighs, repeated phrases and shrugging of shoulders, but no man is brave enough to do it in his presence.
Considering both he and W A were so feared, they had a strangely juvenile interplay. They gave each other sweets and ice-creams (later blamed for Stephenson's kidneys failing and one of Richards's being liberated).
"I remember saying to him [Stephenson] that the horse had big feet," Richards said. "He told me he had a big heart as well. 'He's playing around at the moment,' Arthur said. 'Just wait until you see him go over the black ones [fences]'."
Armed with this recommendation, Richards determined to buy One Man at the dispersal sale held after Stephenson's death. Customers from around the nation arrived at the Crawleas auction, and not all were impressed by the surroundings (some horses down south are not far off having hairdryers and mini-bars installed in their boxes).
"Crawleas is not like all those fancy places in Newmarket. It's just an ordinary farm turned into boxes," Richards said. "Trainers came up from the south and it really opened their eyes. They asked me, how did he train all those winners from here?"
The question that vexed Richards, though, was how much One Man was to cost him. The gavel came down at 68,000 guineas, after which Stephenson's widow approached the trainer. "Nancy said to me: 'Gordon I'm so pleased you got that horse. Arthur will be delighted'."
As soon as One Man was sent up over the Greystoke "line", a series of diverse and increasingly complicated obstacles, it became clear he was going to be a great friend of the stable. "I didn't know he'd be going to the top, but I knew he'd win a lot of races," Richards said. "It was when he started coming over those fences. I can see a horse, you know, and I knew he was it from the first."
Richards has ridden One Man in much of his work and reckons he performs this function as well as anyone. When asked for the secret of his greatness, Richards has never been one to redden and seek sanctuary in the corner of the room. He will stay right there, lock his blue eyes into yours, and tell you why he is so bloody good.
The trainer does, however, give some credit to the horse. "He has a lovely way of moving," he said. "He looks a big horse, but he isn't you know. He's just so strong (and when he uses this adjective Richards pronounces it like a lion might).
"He's beautiful to sit on, like a little ball of fire. I've got a bad back but I'm happier sitting on him that I am on this chair.
"When you canter on him he's a dream. And that spring in him, he comes over those fences like a bird." Whenever Richards describes One Man's jumping there comes with it an almost involuntary spasm, a sort of diving action with his hands.
The hands of One Man's opponents have been in the air for much of the grey's career, none more so than on his latest outing in the King George VI Chase at Sandown, where he looked as weary as someone who had been transported in a sedan chair when he hit the front.
The gelding is now the top-rated steeplechaser in the land, although the harshest of critics will point out he has yet to show his majesty at Cheltenham. Two years ago he blundered away his chances when hot favourite for the Sun Alliance Chase at the Festival. "He did the splits at the top of the hill that day and after that Doughts [Neale Doughty] was never very happy with him," the trainer said. "But he was sitting second so he couldn't have pulled up or there would have been murder on."
Richards swiftly dismisses any notion that his horse may not perform at Prestbury Park. "If he didn't like Cheltenham and I thought it would do him some harm I promise you I wouldn't be taking this horse," he said. "I'm not going to hurt or disappoint him."
In fact, One Man has had few bad days in his life, based as he is in the splendour of Lakeland. But now the work up to Summergrounds, the 1,200ft peak above Greystoke and a view the grey knows only too well, is over. All that remains is to see if he can climb into the greatest company of them all on Thursday afternoon.
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