Unmasking the convivial Major

RACING: A veteran of the awkward brigade is close to Classic glory once more.
Click to follow
In the mid-1950s, Michael Pope was training horses in Blewbury, Oxfordshire, and his assistant was an old friend from their days in the desert during the war. "If I wasn't racing and he took a horse to the races," Pope recalls, "then a couple of days later the press would ring me up and say, 'that assistant of yours, he's a surly bugger, isn't he?'."

The assistant was Dick Hern, who took out a licence of his own shortly afterwards and became one of the most successful, and most respected, British trainers this century. Yet there are many racecourse reporters today who would hear Pope's reminiscence and mutter "plus a change". The average racegoer or betting shop punter too must wonder what to make of Dick Hern.

Of course, there is enormous respect and admiration, both for his achievements, and for his courage in continuing to train high-class winners from a wheelchair following a hunting accident in 1984. Harayir, joint-favourite for the 1,000 Guineas on Sunday, would be his 16th British Classic winner, at the age of 74. But in an age when judgements are made on soundbites, Hern reacts so poorly to microphones and cameras that 99 per cent of racing followers must perceive him as an aloof figure. Some, perhaps, will have concluded that he really is a surly bugger.

Talk to people who have known Hern, though, both as friends and employees, and such a different image emerges that you wonder if it can be the same person. "He's not like that at all," Pope says. "I see a lot of him and he's the most genuine, amusing fellow you've ever met, not at all like the guy who sits outside the weighing room when he's had a winner, with a handful of journalists trying to get to him. It's not that he's being rude, it's just not his style to say something for the sake of it."

Willie Carson, who has shared many big winners with Hern, agrees. "He's a very jovial man, but at the races it's like being at the office. He doesn't want to be disturbed." So, too, says Neil Graham, formerly Hern's assistant. "He's a great raconteur and loves to sing songs and tell jokes after dinner. He's very much a people's person when you know him. He loves company." But few people do know him, beyond the narrow world of Lambourn or the very best racing circles, and the Major remains content to let his record and his horses speak for him.

It is racing's loss, for Hern the great after-dinner raconteur could offer stories and insights about Hern the great trainer to fill several volumes. He was involved with winners even before he returned from the war - "after the hostilities finished we picked up a lot of German horses and raced them out there," Pope remembers. "We both rode quite a lot of winners."

In 1957, after five years as Pope's assistant, Hern moved to Newmarket to train privately for Major Lionel Holliday, the sort of Yorkshireman who would have been described as "no-nonsense" by his fellow countymen, and "bloody-minded" by everyone else. The dismissal rate of Holliday's employees depended only on how swiftly he could find someone to replace them. Hern, however - perhaps thanks to a shared passion for fox-hunting - stayed and prospered. Hethersett, in the 1962 St Leger, was his first Classic winner.

The following season Hern commenced the tenure at West Ilsley Stables, then owned by Jakie Astor, which would secure his pre-eminence on the British turf. A list of the names, the horses which emerged from this one stable, demands awe and astonishment. This is just a selection: Brigadier Gerard, Troy, Henbit, Nashwan, Dayjur, Dunfermline, Bustino, Sun Princess, Highclere, Ela-Mana-Mou, Petoski.

While success followed success, away from the track Hern's passion for hunting was undiminished. "It was his life, he loved it and he was always very bold," Pope says. "When he broke his neck it was almost inevitable." Hern was riding with the Quorn on 7 December 1984, at the age of 63. After several months at Stoke Mandeville hospital, he returned to West Ilsley in April 1985. Three months later, Petoski became his fourth winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

Hern continued to train from his wheelchair, but misfortune had not finished with him. In 1988, he underwent heart surgery, and his licence was transferred to Graham. Thanks to Minster Son, the St Leger returned to West Ilsley again shortly afterwards. Hern's apparently failing health, however, was to be the catalyst for his controversial departure from his now famous yard.

The Queen, one of Hern's most long-standing patrons, had also been Hern's landlord for several years. In March 1989, on the advice of Lord Carnarvon, her racing manager, it was announced that Hern would be required to leave West Ilsley the following November. The decision seemed to combine ingratitude with a thoroughly un-British kick when a man was down. Within months it was clearly stupid too, as the supposedly ailing Hern dispatched Nashwan to win the 2,000 Guineas and Derby.

Hern, typically, maintained a dignified silence over his eviction. "He wouldn't have anything said against the Queen," Pope says, "and it could have been such a dirty story." Silence, though, did not signify passive acquiescence. "He didn't accept it at all," Carson says. "If he'd accepted it he wouldn't be training today. He had to fight his illness and if he hadn't had his horses to train he'd have just given up life. He was in a corner, he had to come out fighting, and he did."

After a two-year stay of eviction, Hern moved to Lambourn in 1990 to take over a yard rebuilt for him by the Maktoum family. Lean times followed. "When you're almost 70 you don't want to be uprooting and starting again," Carson says. "He's had to learn new gallops, new stables, and it all takes time."

But now, it seems, the learning may be over. Harayir, fit and fancied, will go to post for the 1,000 Guineas with a favourite's chance. Success would give her trainer his 52nd Group One winner in Britain, and his 67th overall. There could be no better testament to the enduring qualities of Dick Hern - gentleman and fighter.