Racing: Richard Baerlein, doyen with horse sense

Peter Corrigan pays tribute to a racing man whose loss will be deeply felt
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The Independent Online
WITHOUT being fortified with a tip or two from Richard Baerlein, Cheltenham will be a vastly more forbidding prospect for the innocent punter this week. The death of the 84-year-old doyen of racing journalists has taken from us an irreplaceable ally in the never-ending struggle to find the likeliest of the animals on offer.

Not that his selections always won, but he made such a thorough and convincing case on their behalf that you were invariably left with the consolation that they bloody well should have. This was his gift. A lifetime in the sport had provided a priceless knowledge of all its aspects, particularly breeding - of owners as well as of horses.

His own breeding was impeccable. His father, Edgar, was an excellent sportsman who played golf at Sunningdale, where his handicap was so low he had to give a shot to the professional. Richard himself played off five but racing was his chief passion, even when at Eton, and any pleasure he had at going on to Cambridge would have been due to the close proximity of Newmarket.

He began writing a racing column in Manchester's Daily Dispatch in 1937 but the Second World War - in which he served as an RAF squadron leader - held up his progress until 1947 when he joined the Evening Standard. He resigned 10 years later when they refused to let him be part of ITV's new racing coverage team, and went into horse management and breeding.

The Observer persuaded him to return to newspapers in 1963 and he became an established star of their pages, terrorising successive sports editors into giving him more space to pursue his impatient hectoring of the establishment, his baiting of the bookmakers and to give his appreciative readers advice on potential winners they could back at healthy ante-post prices.

He had the ability to identify a horse as a Derby candidate long before the horse knew it was a horse. He was urging his readers to back Shergar at 25-1 months before it won the 1981 Derby at 10-11. Baerlein was not one to make recommendations he would not follow himself and a few months later he and his wife, Laurette, moved into a new house on the south coast. The name hanging above the door was "Shergar".

That was not an isolated success. He won both the Sporting Life and Sporting Chronicle tipping tables in 1973 and was a winner of Lord Derby's Racing Journalist of the Year award.

When I rang to tell him I had been appointed sports editor of the Observer he cried: "Oh, no!" Since I had been the football correspondent he feared that control of his fate had passed into the hands of an infidel. Within a week he bounded into the office to take me for champagne and oysters at Bentleys and there followed 10 very enjoyable years of sparring over the space I could spare from a ration of sports pages a third of the size they are today.

He was not always patient with my ignorance of his way of life. That first Christmas he bade me farewell and when I enquired where he was going he snorted: "Don't you know that everyone goes to the West Indies in January?" I was even more impressed when his next column began: "While paddling with Lord Porchester . . ."

He had joined the Guardian to help set up its racing service in 1968 and he served both papers, and a few other journals besides, with an enthusiastic torrent of words. He would ring early in the week with a demand for an impossible acreage which would be negotiated down by the time he filed his column on Friday. He was not a painstaking writer. He would pick up the phone and bellow direct from his reservoir of racing knowledge into the ear of the copytaker, who would not be forgiven for pausing at names such as Phidippides. There would then follow a period of haggling about the final version. I once pointed out that I had found the best part of an article to be halfway down. "Bloody copytakers," he said. "They've got it in the wrong order."

He was well into his seventies at the time but his appetite for work, food and the endless journeys from meeting to meeting was enormous. Inevitably, I was badgered by the men in suits to discuss retirement with him. I put it off but eventually met him for a game of golf at Sunningdale. He admitted to being over 75 but was desperate to carry on working. Then he dropped like a stone on the eighth, his face as white as a sheet. I helped him to a bench and was about to go for help when he insisted I stay with him. His eyes were closed and his breath laboured. I was evaluating Sunningdale as a good place to die when he opened one eye and said: "This won't weigh against me will it?"

Neither did it. Successive sports editors continued to protect this great asset until illness forced him to stop writing in 1993. Richard Baerlein was the complete horse-racing man; one of the kings of the sport.