Racing: Classics master is ready to retire

Dick Hern is to relinquish his training licence Greg Wood reports
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The Independent Online
With an economy of words so typical of the man - in his dealings with the media, at least - a single-paragraph statement to the Press Association yesterday announced that the 40-year training career of Major Dick Hern is approaching its conclusion. Having spent four decades collecting Classics at an average rate of more than one every two years, and preparing dozens of magnificent performers including Brigadier Gerard, Nashwan, Dunfermline, Troy and Dayjur, the Major has decided that when the season ends, his licence will finally be allowed to lapse.

Even if Hern, who is 76, fails to add another Group One victory to his record in the five months which remain, he will enter retirement as one of the most consistently successful trainers the British turf has seen. In all, he saddled the winners of 16 British Classics including three Derby winners in Henbit, Troy and Nashwan, and another 10 in Ireland and France, as well as five winners of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and four of the Eclipse.

Despite suffering three major misfortunes - a broken neck which confined him to a wheelchair in 1984, major heart surgery in 1988 and, perhaps most cruelly, eviction from his West Ilsley stables in 1991 - his run of victories in the best events spanned 33 years, from Hethersett's St Leger in 1962 to Harayir's 1,000 Guineas in 1995.

"I have been lucky enough to train some very good horses for some very good owners," Hern's statement said. "I have enjoyed every minute of it." The brief communication gave no clue as to any reason for the timing of Hern's announcement, nor the secret of his prolonged success, but on the latter point at least, enlightenment was available from Neil Graham, Hern's assistant for several years and the man who briefly inherited the West Ilsley licence while the Major recovered from his heart operation.

"He was always a very fair man," Graham said, "tough, but very fair. He was one of the last of the great all-round horsemen, he trained the three-day-event team in his day, and he really got his horses fit."

Hern's coolness towards the media often made him appear an aloof, forbidding character to both journalists and racegoers, but among friends and colleagues he was an altogether different proposition. "He wasn't as forbidding as he looked," Graham said. "That was to do with his professionalism and his seriousness at the racecourse, but when he was off-duty he was certainly a man who knew how to enjoy himself. He had a great sense of humour, he loved to tell jokes, and singing songs was his big thing."

Many of Hern's fellow trainers also had personal memories and tributes to offer yesterday. Peter Walwyn, who saddled Grundy to defeat Hern's Bustino in the 1975 King George, recalled that "he was the first to come and shake my hand. He is a great chap who has battled with adversity and done very well. He is a proper sportsman." John Dunlop said that Hern is "someone I admire greatly over almost anybody. He continued as a top- class trainer not just after his accident but through illness as well."

It was a fall while indulging his lifelong passion for hunting which confined Hern to a wheelchair 13 years ago, but the order to leave West Ilsley which followed five years later was just as devastating a blow. The yard was owned by The Queen, for whom Hern had trained the Classic winners Highclere and, in her Jubilee year, Dunfermline, but any disappointment or bitterness he may have felt about his replacement by Lord Huntingdon, godson of Lord Carnarvon, the Queen's racing manager, was very typically kept to himself.

"It was a huge blow," Graham says. "I think more than anything it was a knock to his confidence." Others retained their belief in his abilities, however, and Hern was soon installed in Lambourn, at a yard rebuilt from scratch on his behalf by Hamdan Al Maktoum. Though he took time to adjust, Hern rewarded the Sheikh's support with Group One victories by Dayjur, Harayir and Alhaarth, the champion juvenile of 1995.

It has been a quiet season so far for the Major, but Falak, a winner at Doncaster on Saturday, is an improving three-year-old and there are 20 juveniles in his care at Kingwood House. "It would be nice," Graham said, "if he could come up with a good two-year-old." Given the form of Hern's 40 seasons with a licence, few punters would care to bet against it.