The first interaction I had with the man who has become the best ambassador for horseracing was in my formative years as an odds compiler.
I worked for Ladbrokes and if Manchester United were playing away in Europe, one of my most important tasks was to fax that day’s runners and riders to Sir Alex Ferguson. No matter where he was, he wanted to keep up to date with all the action.
Believe me, this man knows racing inside out and the reason I call him the sport’s biggest asset is that he is able to draw people in from other spheres and make them interested in events, whether they are on the flat or over jumps, or taking place here or abroad.
Put it this way, on a day of intriguing action up and down the country, the horse he co-owns will draw everyone. Protektorat is bidding to retain his title in the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park and Sir Alex will be full of excitement about the prospect of winning on Merseyside again. Oh, how he used to love doing that…
I was always nervous when I dealt with him in football. The memory of being banned from Old Trafford after we had criticised David de Gea on Monday Night Football is still fresh and it was an intimidating experience interviewing him after a game.
Sir Alex Ferguson has always had a love for horse racing and wanted to stay up to date with events going on
The ex-Man United boss is a different man around racing than he was in the dugout in football
But put him around horses and you see a completely different man. Whenever he sees Sir Anthony McCoy on track, he makes a beeline for him and always takes the mickey out of him about how Arsenal are doing in comparison to his beloved United.
Anthony, I’m sure, will be armed and ready today for the barbs that come his way, given that Arsenal are in ascendency, but I doubt he’ll be able to have the last word.
Sir Alex, who will have his good friend Ged Mason alongside, has never let that be the case.
His enthusiasm for winning is as fierce as it was in his days as a manager and I have no doubt that his influence has rubbed off on Dan Skelton, who trains Protektorat, and Paul Nicholls, who saddles Bravemansgame in opposition.
Nicholls trains a large number of the string Ferguson co-owns with Mason, and John and Lisa Hales; they have an alliance that dates back 20 years — when Skelton was assistant to Nicholls — and certainly tapped into those methods.
Ferguson’s horse, Protektorat, is bidding to retain his title in the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park
Ferguson’s big strength was knowing how to build on success — selling David Beckham, buying Cristiano Ronaldo after winning the 2003 Premier League title, for instance — and Nicholls does that, too.
He put a new gallop in at his Ditcheat base this summer, which he raves about, having been crowned champion for the 14th time. He hopes it will lead him to a 15th title.
The subplot to the Betfair Chase is intriguing. Aside from Bravemansgame, who will give Daryl Jacob the chance of landing a huge prize in the twilight of his riding career, and Protektorat, Grand National winner Corach Rambler has a first foray in Grade One company. I also wouldn’t be in a hurry to underestimate Royale Pagaille, who adores soft conditions at Haydock Park and will certainly let his three rivals know they have been in a race. Venetia Williams, his trainer, could not be in better form.
You only need two horses to make a race and, while some will think a four-runner field is disappointing, it simply isn’t the case. This is one of those contests in which you could choose three horses and still not pick the winner.
The 81-year-old showed pure passion in Bahrain last week when his best flat horse, Spirit Dancer, landed a huge prize
Plenty will be hoping, though, the winner is led back in by Ferguson. I watched him in raptures last week in Bahrain when his best flat horse, Spirit Dancer, landed a huge prize and was thrilled to see him that way, given everything he has been through recently after losing his wife, Lady Cathy.
Racing triggers spontaneous, unbridled emotion and I felt his smile could be infectious. After the Queen’s death in September 2022, Frankie Dettori was the figure everyone looked to as the one who could widen the sport’s appeal, but the Italian’s move to America takes him out of the limelight.
Ferguson, on the other hand, has arguably never been more visible. Throughout the summer or in the depths of winter, you’ll see him enjoying everything that racing has to offer. And that enthusiasm, I’m sure, will bring plenty of people with him.
Ed Chamberlin is an ambassador for Sky Bet