Racing: Classic memories of Mill Reef man

Geoff Lewis, who rode one of the post-war greats, is finally retiring as a trainer. Epsom may never be the same again.
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE pubs and eating houses where they argue about the merits of relative racehorses. Soon there will be tapas bars reverberating to the same controversies.

Geoff Lewis, the man who rode one of the great thoroughbreds which always crops up in racing conversation, Mill Reef, is retiring. Geoff the jockey, as he might be known in his native Brecknockshire, is going to Spain after 46 years in the game. It will be like part of the past being snapped from the body.

Lewis, and a few others, spoiled racing for those to come in the early 1970s. Those were the days when we thought horses like Nijinsky, Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef would come flapping their wings over the horizon every horsey season. It was not to be.

It was a vintage in which Lewis was dipped and forever remembered. He can take himself abroad but the memories will be left behind. "You've got your Ribots, Sea Birds and Nijinskys, horses which on one day of their racing lifetimes could have beaten the rest," he says. "And then you've also got the Brig [Brigadier Gerard] and our little horse.

"I've never been in an argument over those two horses and I always say leave the champions for their era. Don't knock one horse to make a comparison for yours."

If Geoff Lewis is an example himself it would be for the merits of self- improvement. One of 13 children, he tried one job for a man of his size - a bellboy at London's Waldorf Astoria - before finding another more lucrative. In three weeks' time Lewis will vacate the glorious Thirty Acre Barn training complex at Epsom, the obvious fruit of his labour. It actually numbers 89 acres. It is also a great part of his history.

Lewis remembers coming to this place as a teenager, when he was apprenticed to Ron Smyth. Staff Ingham, the celebrated preparer of juvenile horses, was the man in charge.

"He was the best two-year-old trainer," Lewis says. "They were so well educated. He used to treat them like soldiers. After their first canter he used to bring them back to the tree in the middle of the paddock up there. He would say "whoa" and insist they all turned in at the same time and face him."

Ingham used to ring Lewis and request a lift to the races. "He always called me boy," the Welshman says. "He called everyone boy. He wouldn't let you get to know him but he'd give the driver a drink at the end of the day. A Scotch and soda."

A further Ingham ceremony came with a confederate from across the road. "Jack Reardon [a fellow trainer] would come here every Sunday at 11.30 and they would share a bottle of Krug," Lewis says. "And then they would have an argument."

The fiery Lewis has had plenty himself during a race-riding career which stretched from 1953 to 1979. He remains the only jockey (and this cannot be disputed) to have won the big three at Epsom - the Derby, Oaks and Coronation Cup - in the same year. Mill Reef, Altesse Royale and Lupe from 1971 stand alongside him in the record books.

They used to say that Lewis had good hands, but it is not a sentiment which still holds true. The little man's little fingers are now crumpled by arthritis, a possible legacy of his trade. He is marked more though by his passion for Epsom.

"I was fortunate to be at Newmarket for eight years with Noel Murless and Bruce Hobbs and it's an awesome place when you see all those horses out there on the Heath," he says.

"But this is the place. We have the best facilities that anyone could get. The trouble is that some of these managers for the overseas owners seem to look at us at Epsom as lower peasants."

Lewis's later life as a trainer has also been punctuated by success, most notably Lake Coniston's victory in the 1995 July Cup. But the good times have dried up and soon Terry Mills will have no competition as he tries to become the first trainer on to the Downs each morning. London may be pounding nearby, but the Lewis beat will have stopped. "I've been contemplating stopping for two years," the trainer says. "You can't keep losing and keep going and I was losing a good bit of money."

Geoff Lewis, as he approaches 64, will now treat himself to an autumn at the yearling auctions, where he will purchase horses for old friends. "I love the sales," he says. "That's a priority with me. That and breaking in yearlings is what the job has been all about."

He will continue to find it hard to spend money. "I could go up to 50 grand," he says, "but these days that wouldn't buy Henry Cecil's hack."

And then there is the shining temple of Spain and the Costa del Sol racecourse at Mijas. Lewis rather likes the cut of its jib. "I still want to be here for the summer months, for the Derby, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and the Open," he says, "but in the winter months I'd like to be over there.

"People have taken horses to Dubai and Pisa for the winter months and I've put in an application for 20 boxes over there and I'd like to encourage people to take their horses to me. That would be beautiful. We'd do a good job on them."