Having tracked down robber Ronnie Biggs, I pulled off another mission impossible.
Punters, like mothers giving birth, tend to remember only the excitement and success of the event, consigning the ever-present pain and anguish to the back burner of their consciousness. For this reason I shan’t regale you with the many disasters of my punting career but, instead, shall concentrate on a few of the rare and unusual successes that came my way over the past 55 years. If proof were needed of my punting failures, none was more public than the telegram read out by the best man at my 1968 wedding, which stated: “Congratulations, Colin, you’ve finally backed a winner” – signed William Hill, Joe Coral and Cyril Stein.
Let me transport you back to the winter of 1990/91, when Allied forces were gathering in north-eastern Saudi Arabia, bent on reclaiming Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Mrs Thatcher had just been knifed in the back by her Tory colleagues so John Major inherited the Kuwait dilemma, which he was tackling as a junior ally of President George Bush.
By this stage I had become the Daily Mail’s racing correspondent (in succession to Jim Stanford). The news desk had put out a memo asking if anyone knew any Saudis who could provide details of their reaction to the presence of Western troops. Foolishly, I claimed acquaintance with Prince Fahd Salman, a member of the Royal Family and the deputy governor of the province where the Allied troops were mustering. I had met Prince Fahd – tall, elegant and amiable – through my friendship with Paul Cole, with whom I enjoyed regular games of tennis. Prince Fahd had around 40 horses in training with Paul and had bought Whatcombe, the magnificent Oxfordshire training establishment, to help elevate his trainer to the upper echelons of his profession. Nervously I dialled the number, and to my astonishment Prince Fahd answered it himself. He quickly parried questions about the imminent invasion, only to ask how Generous was getting on.
For those of you too young to remember, Generous was the flashy chestnut who had been second in the 1990 Coventry Stakes and went on to win the Dewhurst Stakes that October at odds of 50/1 in Prince Fahd’s dark green colours. He was relatively unconsidered in the antepost Derby betting for 1991, as horses who were placed in the Coventry Stakes tended to be sprinters and/or little more than precocious two-year-olds.
Having spoken earlier to Paul, I was able to reassure the Prince that Generous still had four legs and a tail but was yet to do any serious work – it was mid-January, after all. “But how is he, Colin? You must know I am so excited I can hardly sleep at night. Paul is certain he will stay the Derby distance.” I demurred and uttered a few platitudes in the knowledge that all owners live the dream through their horses. But when I saw he was 33/1 for the Epsom classic, I took the precaution of having a few quid on.
As the day of the invasion neared, my calls to Prince Fahd became more frequent and even less informative from a military standpoint. But his enthusiasm for Generous was increasing by the hour, so much so that I was being asked how his canters went and who was riding him. I checked with the bookies, who were still 25/1, so I had a little more on. Prince Fahd and I were going to live the dream together or go skint in the attempt.
Happily for Prince Fahd and the Allies, the retaking of Kuwait was quick and expedient. The troops were able to advance into Kuwait and thence to Iraq, leaving Prince Fahd to concentrate on domestic matters. The University of California (Berkeley) graduate was a director of a space technology firm in Riyadh on top of his political work. Unlike most Saudis, including his uncle Prince Khaled Abdullah, he did not enjoy a huge income from oil revenues. A Derby win by Generous would not only be a great sporting achievement, it would also help cement the Prince’s place in British racing history and fund his expanding racing empire, which included the Newgate studs in Dorset and Lexington.
Generous’s odds had shortened to 20/1 with the news he was being prepared for the 2000 Guineas. “How is he, Colin?” was the constant refrain. Knowing he was talking regularly to Paul and to his racing manager Anthony Penfold, what could I say that would add to his knowledge of the horse’s wellbeing?
Guineas day and Generous was quite well fancied for the Newmarket classic, which always was and probably always will be the best form guide to the Derby. Despite the best efforts of trainer and jockey Richard Quinn, Generous could manage only fourth place, nine lengths behind Clive Brittain’s 13/2 winner Mystiko. Prince Fahd was little consoled when I offered him that old canard, “Fourth in the Guineas wins the Derby”.
Indeed, the Prince was so distraught that he surprised the racing world by replacing Quinn as Generous’s jockey with the young and ambitious Alan Munro, who was only a few months out of his apprenticeship. Generous was now 14/1 for Epsom, and I became more convinced that he was a Derby horse guaranteed to stay, having seen him somewhat outpaced at Newmarket before staying on well in the final furlong. Quinn was equally convinced he would stay the Derby trip, although he was never to find out himself.
What few had known – with the obvious exception of the trainer and jockey – was that Generous had suffered a minor bruising to his foot and Paul Cole had not been able to give him the perfect preparation for the Guineas. He had been a gallop short but had come out of the race very well. His main work rider, Tommy Jennings, reported that he had really come to himself in the final days of May. His biggest fan in the press room was starting to locate his confidence, and a further investment at 14/1 was made after Generous had dominated a private gallop at Newbury racecourse, beating some Group-winning stablemates in facile fashion.
A three-ship of F/A-18 Hornets, Royal Australian Air Force, fly in a training mission during Red Flag 12-3 March 9, 2012, over the Nevada Test and Training Range. Members of the RAAF participate in the Red Flag exercise every other year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
Still, Generous had failed to catch the public’s imagination as a potential winner of the blue riband of racing. Maybe it was his unfashionable chestnut coat or his jockey’s lack of experience, but on the morning of 5 June 1991 he could still be backed at 12/1 in some places, eventually settling at a starting price of 9/1. The good news was that the Cole horses were all in sparkling form as he marched inexorably towards the trainers’ championship of that year.
In fairness to Munro, who suffered a backlash of public hostility as he took over from the popular Quinn, he had won his first four races as Prince Fahd’s retained jockey. A four-day riding ban which ended the day before the Derby meant he had plenty of time to do his homework, enlisting the advice of Lester Piggott’s father Keith. And he studied videos of all Lester’s Derby wins. He had ridden Generous only twice in work but was happy enough that the colt was without vices.
The race itself could not have been more straightforward for Generous, who followed the fast gallop set by 2000 Guineas hero Mystiko on springy good to firm going that Cole’s colt preferred. When Mystiko’s suspect stamina evaporated around Tattenham Corner, Munro seized the moment and dashed Generous to the front, where he galloped straight and true, winning by five lengths from Marju, with Star of Gdansk a further seven lengths back. To the amazement of my sports editor I had given the one, two, three in correct order, not that I had risked a bean on the trifecta. I was more than happy with the Generous nest egg that would eventually fund my daughter Tara’s wedding.
Prince Fahd commissioned Philip Blacker to sculpt a statue of Generous behind the Epsom grandstand; its twin is at Whatcombe. Generous went on to do me another favour when easily beating Suave Dancer, the impressive winner of the French Derby, in a thrilling Irish Derby at the Curragh. I had been at trainer John Hammond’s Chantilly yard the week before to do a preview piece when he bet me £200 that his colt would beat Generous. He would get his revenge eventually when a below-par Generous flopped in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe in the autumn of 1991.
Sadly Prince Fahd, such a generous and fun person to be around, died at the age of 46 from heart failure in the summer of 2001. It was a blow not only to his family and friends but also to the Master of Whatcombe, who lost a leading patron. By then Paul had purchased Whatcombe from the Prince, but losing a man who had owned Classic winners in England, Ireland, Italy and Germany was a bitter pill to swallow.
Colin Mackenzie is a former foreign and racing correspondent for the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Racing Post.