A release, that is all it was supposed to be — something to provide a diversion from the relentless intensity of the day job. Sir Alex Ferguson had always loved racing, something he picked up from his father, Alexander, but it had never gone any further than a weekend flutter.
He would pick four horses and put them in a Yankee, the bet that combines the selections in six doubles, four trebles and one accumulator.
But then there was a trip to the Cheltenham Festival, where he got talking to two long-time Irish associates, Dessie Scahill and John Mulhern. The idea was floated that he should take the plunge into racehorse ownership and, from that small acorn, a huge oak has grown.
It is 25 years since Ferguson’s first runner, a pocket rocket called Queensland Star, scuttled down Newmarket’s Rowley Mile to justify 5-4 favouritism in a five-furlong maiden. The two-year-old, trained by Jack Berry, provided a hook to which Ferguson has never let go.
On Saturday afternoon, he will be at Haydock to watch a considerably different kind of horse carry his colours in the Betfair Chase — Protektorat is a dour chaser, whose biggest attribute is stamina — but the enthusiasm will be exactly the same for him as it was on that April afternoon in 1998.
A trip to Cheltenham led to the idea that Sir Alex Ferguson should be a racehorse owner
He will be at Haydock on Saturday to watch Protektorat carry his colours in the Betfair Chase
‘It relaxes me,’ Ferguson once said. ‘I love racing. It’s just a tremendous day out, really wherever you choose to go. Instead of screaming for penalty kicks, I can scream at the jockeys instead! It’s a great release from the pressure of the job.
‘When you are in charge of a football club, it can leave you mentally exhausted, so to have that escape is a massive help.’
Those quotes featured in an interview which appeared in the Manchester Evening News in September 2002. A week earlier, Rock of Gibraltar had just won his seventh consecutive Group One race on the flat, the Prix Du Moulin at Longchamp, and this correspondent was granted what was initially supposed to be a very short meeting with Ferguson — 8am, prompt — at United’s Carrington training base.
‘You’ve got 20 minutes, OK?’ he said, looking at his watch as he walked out of his office — red sweatshirt, black tracksuit pants and trainers. It was 7.40am and, seemingly, there was to be no small talk.
Rock of Gibraltar would ultimately make headlines for different reasons, as Ferguson became involved in a legal battle with the owners of Coolmore over breeding rights. On this particular morning, however, there was no controversy, just one man telling remarkable stories.
Ferguson explained how he found out about a seismic change in Rock of Gibraltar’s career — he would be running in the English 2,000 Guineas, rather than the less prestigious French equivalent — when he had just arrived at Portman Road, Ipswich for a Premier League game. United won that 1-0, thanks to a Ruud van Nistelrooy penalty. Seven days later, ‘The Rock’ won at Newmarket.
But there was so much more than just one horse. Once Ferguson got into his rhythm, there was no stopping him. He listed the others that had run in his colours at that point — Candleriggs, Caledonian Colours, Zentsov Street, Juniper, Yankie Lord and there was special mention for Ninety Degrees. That two-year-old, trained by Berry’s son, Alan, only won once — on July 20, 1999, at Yarmouth. The date was ingrained because Ferguson was due at Buckingham Palace that day to receive his knighthood.
The wry smile that appeared as he told how he and his family watched it oblige on a TV in his London hotel room before the ceremony explained why it returned at odds of 6-4.
Ferguson ended up staying for 45 minutes but could easily have stayed longer. His passion raged and this is the thing about horseracing: it doesn’t matter how much time you have spent around it, its capacity for inviting those who love it to speculate about rich possibilities remains infinite.
How else can you explain why, at 81, Ferguson is now involved in the breeding industry? Why else would he have signed cheques totalling £650,000 at the sales — something he knew would have earned him the admonishment of his late wife, Lady Cathy — if he wasn’t a dreamer at heart?
Sir Alex Ferguson found out about a change in the Rock of Gibraltar’s career at a league match
The legendary former Manchester United manager now owns or co-owns 32 horses
Last week in Bahrain, Ferguson did one of those jigs you would associate with a last-minute United goal when Spirit Dancer — a product of his Upperwood Farm Stud in Hemel Hempstead — landed a £500,000 pot, defeating a high-class field. It meant so much, he called it the best moment of his life in racing. It was a remarkable statement.
In total, Ferguson owns or co-owns 32 horses now. Protektorat has the opportunity to carve another little niche on Saturday afternoon, when he attempts to become a multiple winner of the Betfair Chase like Kauto Star, Bristol De Mai, Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti — but there is more to it than winning.
Dan Skelton, Protektorat’s trainer, tells Mail Sport: ‘First and foremost, he’s a sportsman. He knows the difference between winning and losing. It is comforting when you are around people like that but, with him, he knows how to get better from it.
‘I ask him a multitude of questions and he’s only ever willing to answer them. He’s only ever willing to give me and Harry (Dan’s jockey brother) some time. He’s a phenomenally intelligent man who sees things the way that, perhaps, normal people wouldn’t see them.
‘He is a great man to have on your side because he just gets racing. I can’t stress that enough. Nobody was ever under more pressure than him in his job. Nobody could feel worse after a result than him, nobody could feel better after a result than him.
He’s been there, he’s done it all. It’s a great quality to have when you can dust yourself down and work out how to do it again or best get results. To my experience here — and when I worked for Paul (Nicholls) — he never questioned how or why it went that way. He just wants to get better.
‘He knows how hard it is to get a horse this good. Really, we are lucky to have him.’
And Ferguson, you can be sure, would tell you he is lucky to have racing.