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Racing: No-nonsense charm from Admiral's man

Trainer Gerard Butler (left) aims to continue denting reputations in the 2,000 Guineas. By Sue Montgomery
IT TAKES a brave man to pluck an unknown from the ranks to head up a brand-new venture in one of the riskiest sporting businesses there is. But so far, the appointment of Gerard Butler does not look like one that Erik Penser will regret.

The pair, the tall stockbroker from Stockholm and the intense young Irishman with the polyglot accent, are turning into reality a dream hatched high up on the downland above Blewbury in Oxfordshire. At Penser's state-of- the-art training establishment, built from scratch on a 1,500-acre estate 18 months ago, Butler has charge of a horse, Compton Admiral, who has twice dented lofty reputations in his short career and will be aiming to do so again in the 2,000 Guineas on Saturday.

Penser, 56, started his love affair with English racing 39 years ago as a teenager in London. He is now developing his passion with the long- sighted and level-headed business sense that has brought him the means to do so. His small stud at Compton Beauchamp, near Lambourn, has already produced a Group One winner in Beauchamp King and the first batch of 10 yearlings bought to help populate the new yard contained Compton Admiral.

And although questions of the "who he?" variety were asked abroad when it was announced that Butler, 32, was to take the reins at Churn Stables, there is no disputing his provenance. Before he was head-hunted from Beauchamp King's trainer, John Dunlop, he had served his time with D Wayne Lukas and Rodney Rash in the States, at Coolmore Stud in his native Ireland, and with Colin Hayes in Australia. He is reputedly one of the few assistants that Dunlop, as good a judge of a man as a horse, was genuinely sorry to lose.

There could hardly be a greater contrast in environment than Lukas's trackside American training barns and the leafy, tranquil acres of the historic Arundel Castle grounds where Dunlop practises his skills. There is a commonality, though - excellence. "With men like them," said Butler, "you learn to do things right. You learn to pay attention to detail, you learn the work ethic. When you work with Wayne Lukas, if you can last a day you can probably last a year. It is a very intensive, very pressurised environment, 365 days a year. He demands a lot and when success comes you drink to it with hot chocolate and you're back in the barn the next day.

"Most businessmen would need 14 days to get through as much as John Dunlop does in a week. And if he had been in charge of the Titanic we'd be looking at her today down in Southampton water."

Horses have always been part of Butler's life, brought up as he was on the Curragh. He includes his father, Tony, on his list of mentors. "We had to work for our oats at home as well," he said, "and if it wasn't for my dad behind me, I'd probably be kicking stones down in Kildare right now." But perhaps unusually - for most kids want to be David Beckham, not Alex Ferguson - training was his objective from an early age. He'd hang about racecourses watching the men in the trilbies, not the jockey caps.

His tunnel vision has brought him 38 horses and top-grade facilities. The focus of attention in the barn is a perky little bay colt with a bright white star between his eyes and a thoroughly professional attitude. And his success to date - and by implication, that of his trainer - has not been such a surprise to those closest to him as to outsiders. "Yes, it is something to have an above-average horse so early in this venture, but that is actually what we've been planning for," he said.

"We try to do everything as best we can and give the cream, when it comes, the opportunity to rise to the top. That is what an operation like Godolphin, which should be a marker for everyone, does. You can't guarantee getting the top athletes but you should be able to guarantee preparing them correctly if you do."

Should the Admiral shine at Newmarket on Saturday the pressure on Butler will intensify on the run-up to the next target, the Derby. But that's fine by him. "It's what I've been working for all those years," he said, "and I know I'm very lucky to have been given the opportunity to be in this position. It is a tough job but I'll do my best to keep ahead of the posse."

Butler mixes his metaphors with the same transatlantic charm as his accent. "If you can't step up to the plate when you're called then you shouldn't be in the game," he said, "And we've got those goalposts in our sights."