Coming up for 22 years ago, a web site called thefreelibrary.com came up with the idea of publishing what it suggested were the ten strangest names for people in racing or in a few cases historically had been involved in the UK and Irish horse racing industries, writes Tony Stafford.
Of the ten until the time I wrote last week’s article, six were still alive. Now there’s just four, with numbers one and four – both of whom I knew, the latter very well and someone I considered a friend, incongruously no more.
Numbers five, six and eight have all departed: in order Grand National-winning jockey Dave Dick (what’s strange about that, freelibrary?) in 2001; Fred Darling, champion trainer of seven Derby winners, in 1953; and Aubrey Brabazon, multiple Cheltenham Festival winner for Vincent O’Brien in the early post-War years (1996). Number seven, Dancing Brave’s original partner Greville Starkey, rider of 2,200 winners, died in 2010.
One I trust who has plenty of time to go, checking in at number three is the long-term but now no longer BBC Radio racing correspondent Cornelius Lysaght (pronounced Lycett), who is still in his 50’s. My daughter bought me his very nice coffee table book about the great racecourses of the world a couple of Christmases ago.
Otherwise the rest of them were born a year or four either side of my arrival in the aftermath of World War 2. Tristram Ricketts was a senior official who served two stints at the Levy Board split by a shorter spell under Peter Savill at the BHB, forerunner to the BHA. I met him often in the days when I was still firmly ensconced in Fleet Street and later Canary Wharf.
He was born a few months after me in 1946 and came into racing having been spotted as someone of merit by Sir Desmond Plummer during that worthy’s time as Tory leader of the Greater London Council. I see Sir Desmond’s name every time I enter, as I did on Saturday afternoon, through the newer Southbound Blackwell Tunnel – he officially opened it 54 years ago today (Monday).
Sir Desmond turned from politics to racing administration and for a while theoretically held the purse strings at the Levy Board, while Tristram travelled smoothly in his slipstream, making far more of a career of it than his mentor. Maybe Plummer’s slightly pompous manner, contrasting with Tristram’s friendly, business-like attitude left an impression I’ve never been able to shake.
Son of Sir Robert Cornwallis Ricketts, 7th Baronet, Tristram became Sir Tristram upon inheriting the baronetcy in 2005 but sadly died only two years later. His mother Anne was the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer of the first peacetime Cabinet. He had also been in the all-party War Cabinet, but now benefited after Churchill’s landslide defeat just a short time after he had virtually single-handedly stood up to Hitler in face of so many colleagues’ wanting him to sue for a “negotiated end” to the conflict with Nazi Germany.
All through my school days a couple of the more venerable masters at my Central London grammar were wont to call me Cripps, so I’ve always had this vision of that grey, slim, serious man with the round spectacles in my subconscious.
Years later when my son played various sports against Eton College, that school’s tennis (real and lawn) and rackets coach Norwood Cripps and I revived a connection we had on the cricket field in the early 1960’s. He was on the ground staff with MCC Young Professionals at Lord’s and the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs team used to play them every year on the main pitch. He played the first two years of my three.
In our later meetings he confessed that when he was at school, he was always called “Stafford” by his teachers. A one-time English junior snooker champion when aged 13, he was gifted at all sports and regularly won the national professional rackets championship – that’s the game with the hard little round ball that hits the wall at 90 mph. He was still active at that level only a few years ago! Norwood used to love to come to Ascot – living at Datchet was quite handy. He was Charlie Brooks’ tennis coach among no doubt many other people in racing.
So now we come to two members of that quirky club who are still going strong. At nine we have Len Lungo, who ended his training career in Scotland more than a decade ago but continues to own the stables now occupied with distinction by Iain Jardine. Lungo won two Cheltenham Festival races and a Northumberland Plate having spent his formative time, like Gordon Elliott, with Martin Pipe.
At number ten, born like Lungo in 1950, is the recently retired John Oxx, the most gracious man I’ve ever met on a racecourse. Notable for his flawless handling of the great Sea The Stars, he should probably be someone for whom I hold a long-standing grudge.
One Thursday morning I was watching a crucial gallop at Brian Meehan’s yard at Manton where two of his possible Classic horses for 2009 were to show their paces. Crowded House, winner of the Racing Post Trophy the previous October was winter favourite for the Derby and he was joined by his fellow three-year-old Delegator and two older horses in the work. These were decent handicapper Nasri and Ray Tooth’s Exclamation, a disappointing three-year-old but winner of a massive pot in a juvenile sales race at Newmarket in 2007.
Crowded House was tailed off in the gallop while Delegator showed tremendous speed to outclass Exclamation who in turn was clear of Nasri. I got straight on the phone and backed Delegator at 33-1 for the 2,000 Guineas but exactly in the manner of French Hollow and Camelot a few years later, having looked sure to win, he was picked off by Mick Kinane and Sea The Stars.
I knew I didn’t misinterpret the gallop but as Sea The Stars went on to win the Derby, Eclipse, Juddmonte, Irish Champion and Arc in an unbeaten season, all the time with John Oxx only gently suggesting it had anything to do with him, I was left cursing my luck.
So now we come to numbers one and four. Last Wednesday after a long illness Rufus Voorspuy died. He stopped training early this century having been particularly successful at the Sussex jumps tracks near where he trained, but he ended his days in Scotland.
He was a great friend of Peter Hudson, one-time estate manager at Manton in Barry Hills’ time there before running a private stable in Lambourn for Sheikh Mohamed Al Sabah from Kuwait, now occupied by Willie Muir. I mentioned the frustrated Barney Curley-like Yankee that Hudson arranged in 1989 when after three winners, the biggest cert of all got beat in a fillies’ maiden at a Leicester Saturday evening meeting.
“Bad luck, she’ll win at Ascot”, her jockey opined after her sixth place barely two weeks before the big day. She did, by six lengths; followed up back there the following month in the Princess Margaret and then won the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes in August.
I cannot claim to have been a pal of Rufus Voorspuy’s but number four and a massive kick in the teeth for me on Friday was to hear that Broderick Munro-Wilson, by a few months my senior, had died. I couldn’t believe it. Here was the man who always checked whether I’d be going to the military race days at Sandown where in his riding days he had enjoyed considerable success.
The main thrust of his calls would always be preceded by a string of invective and expletives aimed at my allegiance to the football team from the red half of North London – although he always called them “South London …..s!). His apparently illogical and unforgiving attitude stemming entirely from Arsenal’s Woolwich roots even though it was more than one hundred years ago that they moved across the river. Such it is with many Tottenham diehard supporters.
Brod was in the post-race champagne celebration at Kempton in 2007 after Punjabi’s win and it was there, having first been invited along by Derek Hatter, who I hear is still (pushing 90) fighting fit – he was seen having a coffee outside an establishment in Mill Hill Street the other day – that I met Raymond Tooth. Also there was Brod and knowing the lawyer was looking for a racing manager, put my name forward. Thanks Brod (and Derek)!
Always fit-looking in the extreme, I’d seen Munro-Wilson not long before last year’s initial lock-down and he appeared as he always did, at least ten years younger than his actual age.
Brod had a theory about riding Sandown. While everyone looked and laughed at the stiff-backed military posture, which he also employed on the polo field – all the reports of his demise referred to his association in that sphere with Prince Charles – he said: “When you jump the Pond three out, take a pull. Everyone goes like sh.. off a shovel, but if you hold on, you’ve more chance of getting up the hill.” It really did work. He was a gifted horseman, training his own polo ponies in between everything else in his hectic world.
That was true, among others, of his riding of The Drunken Duck over the years at Sandown and you want to see that style, you can find on the Racing Post site attached to his obituary a film of his marvellous win in the 1982 Cheltenham Foxhunters’.
A skilled if a somewhat corner-cutting money-maker in the City, he helped many small businesses on their way, notably getting Laura Ashley funded being his biggest achievement. Later in life he became a star of television shows often with a “society” or etiquette dinner party slant. The obits usually referred to his being in the SAS, but that was as a Territorial. His extreme fitness in the saddle owed much to that side of his life.
There were two memories of our connection I would like to mention. My then wife and I were invited to his 40th birthday in Hampstead where the A-list gathering was entertained by Showaddywaddy – look them up if you haven’t heard of them.
The Drunken Duck’s Cheltenham triumph came in 1982 and later that year he asked me if I could find him a horse to go into training with Michael Dickinson. We found a gelding for ten grand (or was it 12?) called Talon and on Boxing Day 1982 he became possibly the least memorable of Dickinson’s record 12 winners in a single day, although it was a big thrill for Brod and me. The following March came Michael’s Famous Five of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
As I said, I cannot believe Brod is gone. Once memorably he was called a “cad” in a court case, but the grin never strayed very far from that impish face. Like Derek Thompson you could never knock him down. Rufus and Brod, in the same list 22 years ago and both gone within two days last week. It’s uncanny.