Racing: Sangster revels in renaissance: A tycoon of the turf tells Paul Hayward of gambits and gambles that have re-established him among racing's major powers

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The Independent Online
IT WAS 'a gambler's last throw' that saved him, but the memory of a bet not taken that he treasures most.

York races, 18 August. Robert Sangster's Rodrigo De Triano is about to contest the International Stakes and the big bookmakers are swaying uneasily on their orange-boxes as British racing's best-known family advance for combat. Yet Sangster stops on the edge of the forest, a dispassionate patriarch apparently eschewing a lifelong addiction to the money-struggle.

'My son, Ben, and Peter Chapple-Hyam (the horse's trainer and Sangster's stepson-in-law) had the biggest bets of their lives, but I didn't have a penny on,' Sangster says. 'I saw my wife (Sue) going up and down the line: Hills, Ladbrokes, Coral . . . but I just stood on the lawn. I didn't need to have a bet.' Rodrigo De Triano won at 8-1.

You could write the history of racing over the last 20 years using the story of Sangster. The next 20 are the province of his tribe, both equine and human. He calls Rodrigo De Triano's victory the most satisfying in his racing life. It was one for the family, one for the ancient bond with Piggott, and one for Manton, where the Sangster legend was nearly buried beneath Wiltshire earth.

And some legend it is. The Derby winners, the deals, the power struggles . . . the parties. Strange, when you think of Sangster's reputation for audacity in business and hedonism away from it, to find him the epitome of mellow fatherhood, surveying his progeny amid the soft furnishings of a Knightsbridge hotel suite.

In less than two years of training at Sangster's vast estate of Manton (how nearly it became racing's Canary Wharf), Chapple-Hyam is mixing it with the best of his trade. In the spring he grabbed three Classics with Rodrigo De Triano and Dr Devious, who took the Derby, and at Ascot later this month Rodrigo will confront Europe's best milers in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

A Hollywood synopsis of the Sangster epic would run like this. The 1970s: ambitious deal-maker who inherited Vernon's pools redefines international bloodstock trade by creaming off best yearlings at autumn sales and winning top European races, thus creating stallions which are syndicated for vastly inflated sums. Sangster achieves the unthinkable. Spends fortunes at sales but earns more than the initial outlay from subsequent exploits of purchases.

Paradise found. Sangster's racing operation more profitable than his Vernon's pools. But rivals emerge. Arab petro-dollars flood markets, Sangster retreats to set up Manton, and Michael Dickinson (seemingly brilliant jumps' trainer), as base for a fightback. Dickinson fails. Manton up for sale, but no takers. Sangster written off.

Cut to what we are seeing now. At first it looks astounding: Sangster on the heels of the Arabs in the owners' table and in prime position in all the breeders' leagues, which are really what matter most to him. And redemption, you might think, has arrived from an act of nepotism in installing Chapple-Hyam at Manton after Barry Hills moved out. Chapple-Hyam, who described Sangster's Eden as 'a ghost town' after he had finished explaining to the world - many times over, in the early months - precisely who he was.

Sangster recalls the Dickinson experiment as the lowest point in a journey that seemed to be leading to abdication from the league of great racing powers. People said repeatedly that he would give up, so did he consider it? 'No, never,' he says. 'I was always selling. I sold about 200 horses a year, and although I didn't own them I was breeding a lot of good horses.

'It was more sensationalism than fact, but I do admit we reached the lowest of the low when we had four winners at Manton (Dickinson's first, and last, season in charge). Certainly one was worried. I'd never sacked anyone in my life. I'd never moved a horse (taken it away) in my life.'

It was Dickinson's dismissal that was to lead, via the Barry Hills years, to that 'gambler's last throw', when Sangster adopted the philosophy that 'if you're at a roulette table and you're down to your last stack, you put the lot on No 33'. Sangster is defensive about the sacking, but only, you feel certain, because it required an act of merciless realism at odds with his genial nature.

Of course, Dickinson's slow start also brought Sangster's judgement into question, and given the publicity the whole affair received when it ended with Dickinson heading off to America, it is Sangster's curse to be confronted with the issue for ever more. Yet, he says: 'If I was presented with someone who had trained the first five home in the Gold Cup again I would still make the same decision (to appoint Dickinson).

'I always said that Michael was probably five years ahead of his time. I think he lacked experience. He wouldn't normally have a drink. People said we didn't get on because he wouldn't take a drink, and because he wasn't hospitable, but in fact he couldn't have been better that way.'

Here, you sense, Sangster is still uncertain about the reasons for Dickinson's poor record. 'When you build something up so enormously, you get let down further,' he says. Then, in a particularly weighty moment, Sangster mutters: 'There was just something missing.'

Not any more. For Sangster, now, a trip to Manton does not mean inquests or long conferences with estate agents but the company of family members still in their twenties and yet to suffer the 'burn-out' that Sangster thinks inevitable when a trainer reaches 50. 'Racing's a young man's game,' he says several times, and when, in the next room, Sue Sangster takes an invitation to a golfing day out, her husband, who is 56, conducts a painful debate with himself.

'You've got to be at the track. It's like any job,' he says. 'I've been given an invitation to play golf at Sunningdale and then go to the Wentworth Matchplay in the afternoon. But I said I've got to be at Doncaster to attend the sales. The day I'd rather go to Sunningdale is the day I ought to pass everything over to my son Ben (assistant to Chapple-Hyam). I'd give myself another four or five years.'

Of what exactly? Of pleasures and privileges that most of us dare not even imagine. Sangster's life, of course, has been public property because of the glamour inherent in owning and breeding racehorses for a living, plus his eventful three marriages and his friendships with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Joan Collins and Albert Finney. His liaison with Jerry Hall made him a household name.

TO some extent, then, Sangster is the lucky so-and-so everybody would like to be. An unlikely advertisment for the quiet night-in, and a man who acknowledges his good fortune with grace and humility. 'Can I take my jacket off?' is an almost touching thing to be asked by a tycoon in his own hotel room.

Sangster is good at this game. He knows the theme he would like to emerge most strongly - that of Manton's revival - and he would be in a World XI of businessmen adept at deflecting criticism. For instance, he makes an interesting revelation about the row that ensued when shareholders in the Hanson group discovered their company had been losing money in a horse-sharing partnership with Sangster.

'The slagging he (Sir Gordon White) got was very unjust,' Sangster says, as you sit to attention, wondering how he will possibly save his old friend from the ignominy. But he manages it. 'If the Hanson shareholders had waited one more year they'd have got Rodrigo De Triano, Dr Devious and Musicale (a talented filly). Just one extra year.'

A far easier task for Sangster is defending his decision to appoint Chapple-Hyam. 'What grates on me a bit is that people said he got the job because he married my step-daughter. That couldn't be further from the truth. In fact it might have been a minus point. It was a gamble, but he's proved unbelievably confident and capable. It hasn't gone to his head at all.'

The grand alliance with Vincent O'Brien, the Irish trainer who picked out most of Sangster's champions when they were leggy straplings, and who may be the best his profession has produced, has weakened now that the emphasis is back on Manton.

'After York, Vincent sent me a fax which I treasured,' Sangster says. 'I'd love to see him come back with a good horse, but I think he should put Charles (his son) in now. He'd attract younger owners. But I think Vincent will die in his boots. He's one of those old soldiers. And good luck to him. I'd be the first into the winners' enclosure to congratulate him if he won the Derby.'

What motivates Sangster, he says, are visions of the superhorse. 'A Ribot, or, dare I say it, a Shergar. If I spend the next 30 years dreaming it'll be that in the next crop there'll be a superhorse.'

You would think he would be satisfied with El Gran Senor ('my best racehorse'), Alleged, The Minstrel, Golden Fleece and his countless other magnificent discoveries, but there is always the cycle, the search, that tells him that time is passing, and fast.

In his only melancholic moment, Sangster says: 'That is the biggest problem I see. It's that you're wishing your years away. You're always planning for next year. Suddenly the Flat has gone and you're looking at the two-year-olds. If you're on a production line making nuts and bolts, life must be very slow, but in the racing game you're always looking one year, two years ahead, and the time flies by you.'

Nice, all the same, to have time's chariot driver wearing your silks again.

(Photograph omitted)