Racing: Baronet restless in chosen realm: In the build-up to one of the season's big handicaps, Sir Mark Prescott ponders on the decision he took to limit the size of his string

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The Independent Online
TOM HANKS wished he could go back to his childhood when he realised what it is to be Big. Sir Mark Prescott said he wanted to stay small when he had the choice and may regret it just as much.

In racing's Klondike years of the 1980s, the Newmarket trainer was much in demand, a man for whom an expanding string seemed a formality. But, when the offers from the top stratum came, he declined to take large batches of horses.

Prescott reasoned that the way forward was to upgrade the 50 or so thoroughbreds he already trained; he reasoned that, as he proved he could train an improving standard of horse, eventually the best would arrive at his yard. For once, he reasoned wrongly.

Next Wednesday, at York, the man who believes small is beautiful is represented, by a gentle irony, by the largest horse in Flat racing, Hasten To Add. The giant grey, well over 17 hands, is perhaps Prescott's best-known horse, but he is a handicapper and that is largely all the baronet gets to train.

The statistics, or rather the strike-rate, suggest that Mark Prescott is consistently the best man preparing horses in Britain. Yet while punters are happy to support his runners on northern forays, they are more likely to come up with the name of a Cecil or a Stoute as the land's best trainer.

Prescott's dilemma is that he misread the logic. By conjuring successes, and lots of them, out of moderate horses, he thought he would attract potential Classic runners. Instead, he attracted more moderate horses. (Though Prescott does perceive a gradual improvement).

'I miscalculated when the chance came to become a big trainer,' he said yesterday. 'I thought that if I could prove I could train more winners per horse than any other man in England, which we've done every single season for the last eight years, then people with really good horses would send them to me. But, to a degree, the number of winners has been self-defeating.

'I've been stereotyped with what I can win with and where, and I'm a bit like the jockey who gets a bad jumper around Plumpton. The jockey who isn't then asked to ride the trainer's runner in the Gold Cup but given a horse who has fallen six times on the trot.'

Prescott is too proud a man to even consider this episode as career mismanagement and prefers to bask in the undoubted respect of his peers. 'We all want everyone to like us, but if I had the choice between general acclaim and that of the people I work with I'd take the second,' he said.

Certainly, he also inspires admiration among his owners. 'He has an outstanding ability of defining a horse's ability right at the beginning and then exploiting it to the maximum,' one of them said. 'Looking at the programme book and exploiting the loopholes is the love of his life. He is the best trainer in Britain.'

Prescott is proud of his statistical record and proud of Heath House, his training complex near the centre of Newmarket and a yard with the fine touches of a retirement cottage. The paint is never very old and there are tidy tendrils of climbing plants everywhere. During tours, Prescott, Havana cigar dangling between his fingers, lovingly outlines the improvements, in much the same way as someone who does not really want to move house describes their property to prospective purchasers.

The trainer describes both his equine swimming pool (largely paid for by Quinlan Terry's 1988 Cambridgeshire victory) and covered ride as 'the finest in the world', without any semblance of mischievousness. (Indeed they might have to be to justify his pounds 230-a-week training fees). 'The fees are gigantic,' he says, borrowing a measure of Stella Artois's selling angle. 'And so are the vets' fees.'

The trainer's insistence on thoroughness was available yesterday with the sight of a stable lad vigorously burnishing an outside tap. At evening stables, the workforce volunteer little more than a sheepish 'sir', and appear unwilling to lock into the eyes of the guv'nor.

Fools, it soon becomes apparent, have a short shelflife at Heath House. 'He has a reputation for a short temper,' our owner says. And it is a reputation founded on truth. 'But I'm a pussycat compared to what I used to be,' Prescott insisted. 'The only advantage of old age is you don't lose your temper as quickly.'

The trainer is also a demon for liberals, with his penchant for field sports (he ran the coursing world championships, the Waterloo Cup, for 17 years) and his thoughts on retired horses and greyhounds. He thinks they should be shot.

'Unless it is guaranteed a good home it's the humane thing to do,' he said. 'I once saw a retired horse of mine leaning on a post in driving snow in a thoroughly depressed state. Is your grandmother coming for Christmas, I asked the owners. You might as well keep her in a tent out there and chuck her a can of beans now and again.'

This comment will not have drawn offence from the listeners, as Prescott knows how to measure his audience and dips into his store of anecdotes like a diner jukebox, seldom getting the selection wrong. It is not difficult to see why some owners stay with him for a long time. It is a little less easy to understand why others choose not to frequent him at all.

(Photograph omitted)

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