Racing: Likely lads nearing their half century

Clive Brittain, who trained Pebbles, and his head lad Michael Leaman still need each other, now they are 64.
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The Independent Online
TWO MEN, two lives, one passion. On Monday in London Clive Brittain and his good friend Michael Leaman celebrated nearly half a century together in racing. One is famous as the trainer of equine celebrities like Pebbles and User Friendly, the other famous only within the bounds of the stable yard that housed them.

But Brittain is only too conscious of the debt that he and his ilk owe to Leaman and other behind-the-scenes professionals. Behind every successful front-man there is a dedicated team, and Brittain led the applause as one of the linch-pins of his Carlburg squad picked up the award for Stable Lad of the Year at the Horserace Writers Association annual luncheon.

Stable lad is rather an anachronism of a term that can refer to both the callowest, most ham-fisted youth that ever laid hold of a bridle and the experienced, trustworthy men without whom no racing stable would exist. Leaman is Brittain's head lad in charge of feeding, and that old adage about an army marching on its stomach is redoubled in spades where racehorses are concerned. No athlete can perform well on the wrong rations, particularly the finicky thoroughbred version.

Brittain and Leaman, both now 64, joined Noel Murless at Beckhampton in Wiltshire within a few months of each other as raw school-leavers. Brittain's story, how he worked his way up the ranks, set himself up on the proceeds of his betting and went on to train the winners of five English Classics, has oft been told.

Leaman's tale has more of a twist in it. Dawlish-born, he was already aware of horses before the film Rainbow Jacket prompted the idea of a glorious career as a jockey. His first ride came when, as a tiny tot, he scrambled up on to the broad back of one of the shire horses on the farm where his grandfather worked. His second was less comfortable, on a donkey on a schoolfriend's farm. "We'd get on it in the field bareback and it would run to the gate," he said, "but I never lasted that far. I'd never really thought of riding properly, but then that film put it in my mind. I was small, after all, and weighed about five stone."

Enquiries at the local labour exchange led to a month's trial at Beckhampton. The little Devon lad was immediately told off for frightening the horses as he clattered round the cobbled yard in his hob-nails, but his feeling for horses and his diligence were immediately apparent and he easily earned the proper horseman's jodhpur boots given to those who signed indentures.

Leaman did eventually don bright jockey silks, just the once. But he had soon realised that his destiny might not, after all, be on the track in what is perceived as the glamour part of the sport. "I simply love looking after horses," he said, "dressing them over, getting to know them, seeing them shine with health. I didn't know I did until I went into racing, but think I must get it from my grandfather. He was never happier than when he was showing those shires, or getting them ready to show."

Leaman and Brittain both moved with Murless to Newmarket but then their paths diverged. Rather to Murless's annoyance, for he lost a man who had become a valued work-rider, National Service interrupted Leaman's career when he was 20, just after he had had his first ride in public, unplaced on Meerschaum in an apprentice contest at the 1954 Craven meeting.

The break was ostensibly for only a couple of years but actually for 16, for when Leaman came out of the army, having learned to cook and to box, his family circumstances meant he had to stay in the West Country.

But it says much for the regard in which Murless held him that, during the few weeks he returned to headquarters to install his young brother Tony - now one of Geoff Wragg's senior men - at Warren Place he slotted back into his former role and was given the responsibility of partnering one of the yard's best two-year-olds, Crepello, the following year's Derby winner, on the Heath. Leaman did not enjoy his time out of racing, particularly the 11 years he spent in a Weston-super-Mare shoe factory. "Anyone who thinks racing is a hard life," he said, "should have tried working for Clarks in the making department in the heat, noise and smell of glue."

And when Brittain started training, he came back to horses. He names the St Leger winner Julio Mariner as the best he has looked after, and Supreme Leader as the bravest.

There is a hint of what might have been as he reflects on the career as a jockey that was cut short by the intricacies of fate. He was - and is - a good reinsman and still rides work but has found lasting satisfaction in his contribution elsewhere. He is first in the yard of a morning - at 3.30am during the season - and the first to spot any sign of potential trouble in the form of an uneaten oat.

His day generally ends later than it might, for he still does one horse, just to keep his hand in. "I like to have a horse to look after," he said "My horse. And I find that I do spend time strapping him, in the old way, just as I was taught. It's second nature somehow."

Brittain's tribute to his old comrade sums it all up. "He is the most reliable man I have ever met," the trainer said, "and I am proud to be called his friend."