Quite rightly, there have been thousands of words written this last 48 hours about Lester. Everyone has their favourite stories and every hack has crafted lines in which they can tell them. I only met him once with Peter O’Sullevan before Peter’s annual award lunch, which I used to run. There was nothing memorable about it for him, but it was more than a box tick for me.
For me, it was important, a moment that in its arrival makes you feel truly stupid and gauche. Jeffrey Bernard, (as you know on my shortlist of Greatest Living Englishmen) knew him, of course, and well enough to cadge the odd lift from him. Jeffrey wrote of how pleased he was at having made Lester laugh out loud, the result of a cadged lift, from Donny to Newmarket. The trip was in almost total silence, except when Lester said as Jeffrey alighted; “You really are an idiot aren’t you” with which Jeffrey simply agreed, having failed to ask Lester one profitable question, during the entire journey – either as a punter or a racing hack. Getting that response, Lester burst out laughing. On the surface that isn’t the most interesting story – but my point is that I’m almost certain I would be the same. When Jeffrey was in the car, or when I shook his hand – one of the hands that had steered to victory some of the best horses to have ever raced – I was simply left feeling inadequate and mute.
I had shaken the hand of a man whose reputation for miserliness; one who was said to have a mean-spirited carapace, which belied the fact that he was often among the first visitors at the bedside of an injured jockey or Lad and quietly helped out when needed – though never to be discussed or mentioned. I had shaken the hand of one of the world’s greatest jockeys, whose stable contract the incomparable Vincent O’Brien had failed to renew, due to Lester’s increasing bloody-minded independence, in 1980. The pain might have been forgotten but the wound was remembered in the 1984 Derby. Vincent ran El Gran Senor with Lester’s replacement, Pat Eddery, in the saddle, the odds-on favourite owned by Sangster and Magnier. El Gran Senor lost by a very tight head to Secreto – who was trained by Vincent’s son David and ridden by Christy Roche. Lester rode the second favourite Alphabatim that day, which came 5th. As he walked past the dejected quartet of Eddery, O’Brien, Sangster and Magnier, Lester simply mumbled “Missing me yet?” as he walked past. The quartet were allegedly so furious, that they launched an objection to the winner, on the grounds of “leaning in.”
I had shaken the hand of a man who hated losing so much that when out shooting one day at Wickhambrook with Harry Carr, Lester was standing between Jimmy Lindley and Joe Mercer. Lester’s luck that day had deserted him and no bird had come to any harm, but right at the end of the drive and just before the Keeper’s whistle, a large Cock Pheasant ran out of the last strip of cover – at which Lester immediately raised his gun. “Stop” shouted Harry, “No running birds”. “Well it won’t stand still” shouted Lester back as he blew it away, and scared the bejesus out of the beat.
The hand that had failed to write a cheque, at the first time of asking in 1987, for £4½m in unpaid tax, had been in mine. Actually, that’s not strictly true. He had tried to pay, but from one of five offshore accounts, the tax-man hadn’t known about! He did his bird, and was out in a year, having enriched the lives and betting accounts of many of the inmates. In October 1990, he renewed his jockey licence and within a fortnight had won one of the greatest races in the history of The Breeders Cup onboard Royal Academy – trained by Vincent O’Brien – in The Breeders Cup Mile at Belmont. Yes, I backed it and later I backed his last Classic winner, in 1992 Rodrigo de Triano in the 2000 Guineas.
I had shaken the hand of a man who had nearly been killed in accidents at Epsom, including a horrendous stalls accident, which almost cost him his ear. In 1992, he suffered horrific injuries when his mount, Mr Brooks, broke a leg during the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. In 1994, he was almost killed, when his saddle slipped at the end of a five-furlong sprint. How pleased his medical insurance underwriters must have been when he retired for a second, and final, time in September 1995.
Someone once said, you should never meet your heroes, but that is unutterable tosh. I met Lester and I met him in the company of the good and the great and he shone brighter than all of them. For a brief moment in time, with his hand in mine and a mumbled idiot’s greeting on my lips, I inhabited some small corner of his universe. He’s yours now God, but I pray you just remember that what you see isn’t necessarily what you’ll get, which is considerably more than you were expecting.
Talking of Derbys, over this next week various racing clubs, societies and organisations will be holding Derby Dinners, many of which will be holding Calcutta Sweepstakes. (If you click HERE, a new page will open us to give you a complete explanation). Still hugely popular in Australia and with various Golfing Societies, they were the old Victorian betting medium for a sporting crowd, where luck and skill all played their part. Because I shall be going to one, it might be an idea to get some thoughts together on what might happen in the Derby, this weekend.
Trainer: Aidan O’Brien. Best odds: 10-1. Won the 4-runner Chester Vase – but beating what and on soft ground? One of three possible AOB runners (8 Derby wins to date) and is a son of Galileo (5 Derby winners)
2 DESERT CROWN
Trainer: Sir Michael Stoute. Best odds: 7-4. Favourite. Won the Dante and is, in many professional opinions, the real thing. He is open to improvement, his pedigree suggests no issues with the distance, and his Dante performance was the best of all the major trial races. That is probably a fair price.
3 EL HABEEB
Trainer: Stan Moore. Best odds: 100-1 Well done Sir, you’re a very sporting Owner Breeder and your £75k supplement will be going to a good home. John Egan, 55, is set to ride.
Trainer: Roger Varian. Best odds: 25-1. 4th in the Guineas – I am staggered that he hasn’t been entered for the French Derby over 14f the next day, which would be right up his street. I am not convinced by the 2000 Gns form, especially with Native Trail making hard of it on Saturday at the Curragh.
5 GLORY DAZE
Trainer: Andrew Oliver. Best odds: 100-1. Look, he cost £3k, he hasn’t done anything wrong, there is some decent 12f form in his pedigree and he was 2nd in the Derby Trial at Leopardstown, to Stone Age. He isn’t in the same class, but you’ll be able to get 5 places possibly on Saturday.
6 GRAND ALLIANCE
Trainer: Charlie Fellowes. Best odds: 100-1. 2nd in the Blue Riband Trial at Epsom in April going down by ½l to Charlie Appleby’s NAHANNI. I have a sneaking suspicion that that race might well shape up into being a form guide for several horses. I don’t think either of the first two are merely good quality handicappers, they might well be Pattern class – it’s just a question of whether it is at this level.
7 HOO YA MAL
Trainer: Andrew Balding. Best odds: 200-1. No… I really cannot see any positives even for seventh place.
Trainer: Andrew Balding. Best odds: 66-1. He has actually got some collateral form (of a type) with NATIONS PRIDE, Native Trail and EYDON, but he blew up at the start of The Dante and had to be withdrawn. I just don’t see him beating anything he’s met before.
Trainer: Charlie Appleby. Best odds: 25-1. He’s a Frankel colt and his Blue Riband Trial victory at Epsom displayed a good attitude. I wouldn’t be utterly appalled if I drew him in the Sweep and if they all stand their ground and the bookies offer place concessions, I might have a pop at 4/5 places. I wouldn’t mind betting he’ll be seen over longer ere long.
10 NATIONS PRIDE
Trainer: Charlie Appleby. Best odds: 6-1. On the plus side, Charlie Appleby hasn’t put a foot wrong so far this year and Godolphin has seemed to have had a strong hand wherever they’ve run. He’s won each of his past four starts by an average of 4½l
11 PIZ BADILE
Trainer: Donnacha’Brien. Best odds: 10-1. The question is whether winning the Ballysax stakes back in early April is good enough form, Buckaroo (2nd then) was well beaten in Irish 2000 gns. Frankie seems enthused and the price – given that Frankie is the housewives choice – seems fair.
12 ROYAL PATRONAGE
Trainer: Mark & Charlie Johnston. Best odds: 33-1. Not sure he’ll get the trip, but if one holds out hope that he’ll improve to his 3¼l defeat by DESERT CROWN in the Dante, then the winner should also improve. He might even be just shy of G1 class. That said 33/1 isn’t ugly.
13 SONNY LISTON
Trainer: Charlie Hills. Best odds: 50-1. He tends to work himself up a bit and pulls like a train as he did in the Fielden. in that respect every day that goes by is hopefully a step nearer some maturity and a step away from the cutter. His breeding suggests 12f is fine, and his price is way too big even if one is holding out for Hope value. Tom Marquand gets the leg up and that gives me some extra hope value.
14 STAR OF INDIA
Trainer: Aidan O’Brien. Best odds: 20-1. I suppose the same sentiment for SONNY LISTON applies to STAR OF INDIA – it may well be that The Dee Stakes was nothing special in Derby form terms, but I wouldn’t want to give up on them just yet. However, the difference between the two is unsurprisingly in the price.
15 STONE AGE
Trainer: Aidan O’Brien. Best odds: 7-2. I don’t get this price at all. The horse had a poor 2yo career (albeit placed in G1 company) and has had two wins since admittedly by an aggregate 14l+. The assumption is that Ryan will ride him, and I think that he and AOB are the reason he isn’t 8/1. If I’m wrong I’m wrong – but I’d not be wanting to pay top dollar in a Calcutta Sweep to find out.
16 WALK OF STARS
Trainer: Charlie Appleby. Best odds: 16-1. Another kid temperamentally and hung right under pressure LTO when up against UNITED NATIONS at Lingfield in the Derby Trial. I think this horse has huge potential and the price is attractive. Were I Godolphin I might have saved my supplemental money and stuck with this one. We had some luck last year with Appleby selections based on their Lingfield runs last year.
17 WEST WIND BLOWS
Trainer: Simon & Ed Crisford. Best odds: 33-1. If only for the sake of young Jack Mitchell who grew up on the course and takes the ride, this one has some of my hopes. I don’t think he’s good enough to win – but I wouldn’t rule him out entirely. The price is right.
Trainer: Ralph Beckett. Best odds: 20-1.
He is an enormous son of Frankel and I wonder whether they might decide to run him in The Irish Derby. He’s not for me.
Pleased if I drew in The Sweep and would want to buy them back in:
- DESERT CROWN
- GRAND ALLIANCE*
- NAHANNI *
- SONNY LISTON
- WALK OF STARS*
Would happily bid for *.
I think DESERT CROWN could win, but for the purpose of this exercise, offers no immediate value.