The first time Tony Blair met Vladimir Putin, I went on the plane to St Petersburg with him as Political Editor of the BBC. On the return flight I asked him, as we sat down for an interview: “What was it like, doing business with Putin? He isn’t exactly your typical democratic politician moving up the ranks from city councillor. He’s a KGB spook.”
“Well, it did have one advantage,” replied Blair, a man not generally inclined to humour. “It was the only one of my overseas trips that didn’t get leaked in advance...”
Alastair Campbell, Blair’s Press Secretary, had given an embargoed briefing to the newspaper journalists on board about a new Government initiative combating drug use. So that the BBC would have a broadcast quote from the Prime Minister on the drug story after it had broken, after my Putin questions I threw in another about the new anti-drug plans. The Prime Minister’s eyes rolled and he responded with an anodyne sentence or two – coherent, but useless in broadcasting terms. Interview over; but when Blair left me so that he could dissect the Putin meeting with his advisers, Campbell strolled up. “That was a crap answer he gave you about drugs,” he said. “Do you want me to get him to do it again?”
Naturally I said yes, though hardly imagining that the Prime Ministerial debrief with foreign affairs experts would be interrupted. But it was. Blair returned, the camera rolled again and he delivered a perfectly-schooled reply on the drugs initiative. Ten years before, even five, the retake would never have happened – but, then again, that was before the Age of the Spin Doctors.
Fortunately, racing folk don’t have spin doctors, and indeed there have been some politicians who didn’t need them. As I settled down for an interview one day with Kenneth Clarke, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, he asked me: “Is it live, Robin, or a pre-record?” When I confirmed it was the latter, Ken’s response was: “Pity. I always prefer live. It’s that extra frisson you get from the feeling that in merely half a sentence you can destroy your whole career.”
In politics most interviews are combats. Ministers or their shadows want to score points and win good headlines; meanwhile journalists need to challenge them over policy failures or party divisions. In contrast, most live racing interviews are in both good spirits and the winner’s enclosure, just after plans have come to fruition, dreams have been realised, spirits are high and tears of joy are being shed. I once asked:
“Any plans now, Mr Haggas?” only to be told: “Yes, to get out of the car park before the traffic builds up!” Things can go over the top, though. One day at Lingfield Park, a female owner was rather overdoing the congratulations to the successful jockey, prompting an official to cough nervously and explain: “Kissing is fine, Madam. But unfortunately Lingfield doesn’t have a licence for sex.”
Two things always amaze me about jockeys. First, their physical bravery, epitomised by one-time jumps champion Jack Dowdeswell, who had broken most of the bones in his body. He told of a morning in hospital after a hip replacement. The surgeon said: “Let’s see if you can manage a step or two, Mr Dowdeswell.” “A step or two?” came the reply. “I woke up in the night needing a pee and I had to walk all round the hospital to find the loo!”
Politicians are the people who tell lies to journalists and then believe what’s written in the following day’s newspapers
Even more remarkable is their stride-by-stride recall of outstanding rides. I will always treasure being talked through Dawn Run’s Gold Cup by Jonjo O’Neill: “We were going some lick. She missed the fence after the ditch going up the hill – she walked through that one… We were flying down the hill and I could hear them coming behind us. I thought we’d gone a right gallop and couldn’t believe they were so close. At the third-last, they were jumping up my backside and I thought, ‘Jesus, if we don’t ping the second-last we’re going to get beat.’ She did ping the second-last but they went past me as if I’d stopped. I left her alone for a few strides, then just between the second-last and the last I could feel her filling up, and I thought ‘we ain’t done yet’. I just kept going across the track on her now, and the more on her own she was, the better she was. She came up the hill like a tyrant.” Trainers, too, can do emotion. I was there beside Terry Mills when his Where Or When comprehensively beat Hawk Wing in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, Terry’s first Group One victory: “I can die a happy man now,” he told me – and he meant it.
In politics Margaret Thatcher always meant it. At a Commonwealth conference in Kuala Lumpur one year when the other 48 nations present wanted South Africa expelled over apartheid, she opposed the idea. I was unwise enough to ask her at a press conference: “With the odds so much against you, don’t you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘I could just possibly be wrong’?” She gave me one of those glares that could turn a man to stone at thirty paces and snorted: “If it’s 48 against one then I’m just sorry for the 48.” She did of course play up to her image. In South Korea once at a tree-planting ceremony for a new university, she sent seventeen spadefuls of earth whanging into the hole then thumped the spade into the ground with a cry of: “There’s a bit of British productivity for you.” I happened to be close by as we left the site and saw her wagging a finger in the bemused Vice-Chancellor’s face and admonishing him: “Now don’t you forget to water it!”
You certainly get more variety interviewing racing folk on their own patch. Visiting trainers is not all clipped hedges, purring security gates and decorative dovecotes, though. One day it might be Henry Cecil holding court on the Limekilns in a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, monogrammed blue suede riding boots with tassels and a blue velvet riding hat. However, the next day you might be crammed into a dirty 4x4 with a brace of lady owners as a grumpy horse-handler clears his misted-up windscreen with a discarded pair of boxer shorts.
I have interviewed trainers while leaning over five-barred gates, in the middle of circling strings on mornings too cold to grip a pen and in steaming kitchens redolent with the odour of wet Labrador. Only once did I feel in real peril, and that was when being driven by Marcus Tregoning, who kept pace alongside his string on the gallops – in reverse the whole way. That said, slaloming up through squirting mud with Nicky Henderson on the way to the top of the Seven Barrows gallops might have brought the life insurance policy to mind, too.
One interview I shan’t forget was with Classic-winning trainer Ben Hanbury – in his dressing room. Always as well turned-out as his horses, he emerged pink from the shower and wearing very little as we talked about stars like Midway Lady, while he selected smart canary yellow socks, a lilac shirt, an impeccably-pressed navy blue suit and a carefully-chosen handkerchief for his breast pocket. To satisfy the curiosity of lady readers, I found it appropriate to reveal that his boxer shorts were in blue and white stripes, too.
Politicians are the people who tell lies to journalists and then believe what’s written in the following day’s newspapers. Most are fantasisers. In contrast, trainers tend to be realists, like David Bridgwater. When I visited his Wyck Hill Farm near Stow-on-the-Wold, he told me: “This used to be a dirty old farm. Now it’s a dirty old farm with gallops. They’re only four furlongs but it’s an effing long way when you fall off at the bottom and have to chase the bastards home.”
Similarly, here’s Jamie Osborne reflecting on his early days: “We bought this Royal Applause yearling, a filly, for 20,000 guineas. Chris Deuters took her on and she won more than £50,000 before being sold for £100,000. I thought to myself, ‘what a good little bit of business.’ She then went to America, won two Group Ones and collected $3 million. When I had finished deciding which tree to hang myself from, I learned the lesson and started thinking about sending them to California myself. Now the business has succeeded because of the international trade.”
I liked Paul Webber’s comparison of his job at Cropredy Lawn to that of a schoolmaster: “The owners are the parents and the horses are the pupils,” he said. “Some of them you have to sit at the front and keep an eye on. The cleverest ones can sit in the rear. My job is to keep moving them all back a row.” And then there was Charlie Mann. When I asked him on a stable visit what he looked for in a horse, he was succinct: “Same as you look for in a bird, really,” he replied. “It’s important you like it the first time you see it. I look for something athletic, something that catches your eye as it swings by…”
In the political world, few have time for such anecdotage, although Denis Healey was an exception. When we asked him in the pub after a by-election speech how many languages he spoke, he rattled off (I think) French, German and Italian. He added that having once been the Labour Party’s International Secretary, in Finnish, Czech, Serbo-Croat and a few other tongues: “I basically know two phrases: ‘Darling, you and I could make the most wonderful music together,’ and ‘Gentlemen, I bring you greetings from the UK Labour Party and I wish you a successful Congress.’ The only problem,” he concluded, “was when you mix up the two of them!”
Few trainers are without a good tale or two to tell. One from Dean Ivory, the businessman-turned-trainer whose father Ken also trained and owned horses, sticks in my mind. A Yorkshireman who had horses with Ken was in hospital and told his son: “Back Ivory’s horse at York today.” Finding two in the race, one trained by Ken, another by Dean, the son backed both and put them together in a forecast. It paid £976 to £1. The old man died happy, the bet paid for the funeral expenses and at the wake they played the tape of the finish of the race.
Then there was Sylvester Kirk’s story of the day when, as Richard Hannon Senior’s assistant, he dropped off his boss at Windsor for lunch with the Queen. On the way out in his stable-spattered vehicle, Sylvester (who retains the rich Donegal/Tyrone tones of his Northern Ireland childhood) took a wrong turning. In a trice his vehicle was surrounded by granite-hewed SAS types pointing at him with guns which certainly weren’t loaded for pheasant. “For a moment,” he admitted, “I thought I might get shot just for opening my mouth!”
Political interviews were often conducted over lunch and I would be seeking to loosen my guest’s tongue with a decent bottle. The classiest reply I ever had from one refusing another glass was from Lord Hailsham: “This afternoon, dear boy, the House of Lords is sitting in its judicial capacity – and while I may be drunk as a Lord, I must be sober as a judge”. Mostly only retired trainers and jockeys have the time to do it that way. Of the four best racing lunches I have had in my life, three were with Clive and Maureen Brittain. Clive was always a fearless horseman and his stories, like how he sweetened up Radetzky to win a Queen Anne (after the horse returned from a spell at stud as a corned-up potential thug) by backing him for a mile and a half across Newmarket, were a biographer’s gold dust.
The other top four qualifier was with trainer John Hills and retired jockey Jimmy Lindley when I was writing the biography of John’s father Barry. John recalled how Lester Piggott came down to Lambourn at Robert Sangster’s request to ride his brilliant but temperamental filly Durtal on the gallops before the 1977 Oaks. Lester, eager as ever to ensure that he was on the right horse in the Classic, totally ignored his instructions (in much the same way as he was infamous for doing at Ballydoyle) and to Barry’s ire revved her up furiously. John recalled: “The shouting, the noise and the howling on the gallops were incredible.” To make matters worse, on the back shelf of Barry’s car as John drove Piggott back from the gallops was a big box of Havana cigars. “Any in there?” asked the jockey, who then coolly helped himself to a handful. Durtal had her revenge, though, bolting at Epsom and nearly killing Lester in the process.
Lindley then told us about a dinner with the late Jim Joel, for which he and a fellow jockey arrived early. They were let in through the kitchen, where they saw the wine being decanted in advance of the evening’s dinner. Having carefully noted the year of the exquisite claret, Jimmy was asked over the meal by their host to guess what they were drinking. Drawing out the process, he declared: “Definitely the Chateau Pichon Longueville. Probably not the ’38 – that had a little more tannin… I’d say either the ’36 or the ’34. Yes, the ’34.” As the two jockeys got into a car to be driven home their host told them he’d instructed the butler: “Since Mr Lindley is such an expert, you’d better put a case of that claret we had tonight in the boot.”
His tale reminded me of a guilty secret of my own. At a summit in Thailand one year, some of us media folk were all sweltering in the sticky heat of an ante room waiting for John Major to emerge from a meeting with the Chinese premier. At one stage a white-jacketed waiter appeared, with a silver salver bearing a single ice-cold lager in a frosted glass. “Beer for Mr Mayor,” he called, looking around. “Beer for Mr Mayor…”
“That’s me!” I said, and happily swept his salver clear.
Later that night the assembled premiers were all presented with Thai silk caftans, which they wore self-consciously to dinner. Germany’s Helmut Kohl looked like Pavarotti in a tent and John Major, realising how silly they looked, refused to do any TV interviews. I kept pressing his aides, who agreed to ask him once more if I came out to the house where the PM was staying – but I would have to pool the interview with ITV and Sky.
I got lucky. John Major finally said ‘yes’. In the meantime, he had received news from home of an IRA letter sinking the latest peace efforts. It was something like two o’clock in the morning, local time, and yet he came out blazing: never had anyone seen him so biting and passionate on camera. I had a scoop, and when I went back to the TV centre all my rivals had gone off to bed so for hours there was no-one to pool it with.
I never did admit to John Major, a decent man and a far better PM than he is given credit for, what had happened to his missing beer.