Racing: Ferguson finds peace in racing's parallel world

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The Independent Online
WHEN SIR Alex Ferguson went to see the Queen last week to collect his knighthood, football was probably not the only topic of conversation. You can be fairly sure that racehorses also featured in their discussion.

The Queen has won Classics in her many years on the turf, but it is Ferguson who has the recent track record. Since Queensland Star, his first colt, won on his debut at Newmarket last year, the Manchester United manager has owned or part-owned six horses. All have won except for Zentsov Street, who was second at Leopardstown last weekend. And he is meant to be the best of the lot. The Queen might be due one, but it is Ferguson who has enjoyed the annus mirabilis.

Ferguson can be a man of surprises. For example, he likes to play the piano in his Wilmslow home in Cheshire. Can this be the same person who nervously chews gum on the bench? Can it be the same person who checks his watch so regularly it is as if it was found in the sawdust of a shilling bran tub? Apparently so.

Racing, along with piano playing, is Ferguson's other great release. The Steinway fights for attention with the Racing Channel in his house. You can see its effect in Ferguson's body language and demeanour at the track. He walks around the racecourse with shoulders back and a lightness to his tread. And he has not stopped smiling yet.

Yet Ferguson himself does not think of the horses as his great emancipation - because he does not accept that managing the world's most celebrated football club weighs on him as much as might appear. "No matter what station in life you're in you find pressure," he says. "And it's all about trying to find a way to take away the thought of pressure. Some people open a gas bill with only a few days to pay and that's pressure.

"I'm obviously conscious of the big football matches, but I try not to let it get to me too badly. I've got the experience now to handle that. But it's still good to get a break away from it all.

"I meet a different type of person when I'm racing, someone who is specifically interested in that sport. Someone might say `well done last week' or ask for an autograph and that's not a problem. But they're really there because they love racing. Like me."

Racing runs in the Ferguson family. "Dad was a hopeless punter," Ferguson says. "My mother would send me to the kitchen table to find out what he was backing. He would tell me two certainties and when I told my mother they would be the ones she avoided."

In those unlicensed days wee Alex used to take his Dad's stake to the flat upstairs occupied by Jimmy Sheehan, a rogue bookie who also had another job. He was the local MP. "It was an interesting situation," Ferguson concedes. "He would have people all over the place down the streets and they would bring the bets to him. He would honour them or pocket the money. That was the environment, the habitat, I was in. It was natural for people from that area to have a bet."

As a player (he was the euphemistic "rumbustious" centre-forward), Ferguson would have a punt himself when he and his teammates were invited to Ayr and Hamilton. But it was at the Cheltenham Festival two years ago, on Mr Mulligan's Gold Cup day, that his interest was truly awoken.

Ferguson enjoyed both the difference and the similarity between the turf and football. He enjoyed the relative anonymity he had on the racecourse, but also the whiff of partisanship common to both sports. "There are great similarities between racing and the passionate outdoor sport I've been involved with all my life," he says. "You can see the enthusiasm from the punters, owners and trainers when they get a result at Cheltenham. It's fantastic.

"When Benny The Dip won the [1997] Derby I was in the parade ring before the race and you could feel that tension building up. You knew something big was coming.

"Football's like that. When the coach is going to a ground you can always tell by the atmosphere on the bus how big the game is. Going to a normal game there is a lot of cackle on the bus but when it's a big one you can hear a pin drop. And in the parade ring at Epsom that day it was so quiet. All the owners were milling round and you could see the tension getting to them. There was a trepidation or apprehension about how their horse was going to do. There were big stakes there. That's akin to football. Those are all the feelings you get in our game."

Ferguson also enjoys mixing with the leading trainers: the men, like him, who supervise and the men, like him, who win. "I don't interfere," he says. "That's a respect to people who know their job. Trainers, like managers, make mistakes but, none the less, you don't encroach on their domain because if I was in their position I would make 10 times the mistakes they do. They know the job so I let them get on with it.

"I've been over to Ballydoyle and to Newmarket to see Ed Dunlop, Michael Stoute, John Gosden and Henry Cecil. It's great to see those athletes working on the Heath and it's fantastic to see the commitment of the stable lads and training staff. It's exactly the same as football. The team spirit is as important as anything else.

"And the horse is a wonderful animal. I look at some of those class animals with Aidan O'Brien and Henry Cecil and they are hard to believe. I just think `bloody hell'."

It is with O'Brien, the Irish training wunderkind, and his confederates, that Ferguson has made the closest association. As those involved at Ballydoyle also include John Magnier, Michael Tabor and JP McManus, the men reportedly behind a recent offer for Martin Edwards's 14 per cent stake at Manchester United, it is all a rather cosy set-up.

Ferguson was introduced to the taciturn O'Brien by Mike Dillon, the shining face of Ladbrokes' public-relations department and the manager's advisor in the sport of kings. "Considering they are such different people, Alex has a great rapport with Aidan," Dillon says.

"When Second Empire tore muscles in his back last year Aidan spoke to Alex's physio at United for advice. But I don't think it has got as far as Aidan ringing Alex and telling him Phil Neville should play at right- back instead of left-back." Those who saw United's starting line-up in the European Cup final against Bayern Munich in May may wonder.

Yet even though there are some fancy names among his accomplices Ferguson is nowhere near competing at the same level as he does in his day job. That, though, is no trouble to him. "I'm used to it," he says. "I started at East Stirling when they only had eight players and I had to get another five in three weeks before the start of the season.

"And if I'm going to get to the top part of racing I'm going to have to learn as I go along like I've done in football, and I understand about the money side. What I've got at the moment is ample. I'm satisfied with what I've done and I know I've been very lucky. I've got a wife who reminds me what might happen if it goes wrong."

Things, though, do not seem to go wrong for Sir Alex Ferguson. He is enormously pleased by his great good fortune, though you do sometimes wonder whether he has to blank out much of what goes on around him to assuage his conscience. Ferguson, the visible part of United's huge corporate machine, is now involved in a sport in which it is easier to find a 33- 1 winner than a socialist. It is not what he would have predicted for himself as a boy in working-class Glasgow. He is not a man who injures easily, but you could inflict serious wounds by suggesting he has shed the principles forged in his upbringing. And he remains rather bemused by his knighthood.

"I'm very proud but it's hard to rationalise it," he says. "I hope it's a recognition for my quarter of a century as a manager.

"OK, winning the European Cup was the icing on the cake and that probably sealed it, but behind that I've worked hard for 25 years and I hope people see I deserve it for that reason. I get some stick from the people of Govan you know, from your ain, your close friends. But it hasn't changed their concept of me. They look upon me as the same person and they expect me to be the same person. I won't let them down."