On a foggy November day in 1965 the young son of a Barbadian police chief was one of six contestants tried out in the commentary box at Newbury to find a new BBC television racing correspondent. Peter O’Sullevan had put in a good word for Michael Stoute but on his first sight of jump racing that day he finished runner-up to Julian Wilson, the only one of the applicants who had travelled first class from Paddington. Sir Michael, as he is today (the knighthood awarded for services to Barbados tourism), would have made a fine commentator with his rich voice, knowing smile and appealing chuckle, but it has been to racing’s immense benefit that he then went off instead to Pat Rohan to start training racehorses instead of talking about them.
There has been no more exhilarating sight this season than the prolonged two-furlong duel between the Stoute-trained pair Poet’s Word and Crystal Ocean at the finish of the Qipco-sponsored King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on Saturday. It may not have been Bustino vs Grundy in 1975 but it was close enough to stir memories of that epic. The two riders, William Buick on Crystal Ocean and James Doyle on Poet’s Word, are good friends out of the saddle but fiercely tenacious competitors in it. They offer the kind of open, friendly rivalry and media approachability which is more traditionally a feature of jump racing.
Both were served well by brave horses which ran straight and true as they came home nine lengths clear of the others and both earned some rest days from the stewards for their use of the whip. With typical honesty James Doyle, who did not get Poet’s Word in front until the last 70 yards, revealed that his race plan had gone awry. His mount was slowly away and the field went off fast: ‘The last thing I wanted to do was to slip him a bit of rein coming down the hill.’ He had to sit and suffer. ‘But once I popped him the question he responded really well. He helped me out and was a real star. He is such a genuine warrior.’ It was, he admitted, one of those races which look good when you win but could have had him slated if he hadn’t. After the ice cool ride from the back which had won him the Irish Oaks the previous weekend he added, ‘Luckily when you are on a bit of a roll things seem to fall right.’
To the pleasure of almost everybody in racing things seem to have been falling right again this season for Sir Michael, especially at Ascot, where in 2013 he trained Estimate to win the Gold Cup for the Queen. Last year he went through Royal Ascot without a winner. This year when Poet’s Word won the Prince of Wales Stakes at that meeting he passed the late Sir Henry Cecil’s record of 75 Royal Ascot wins and went on to score two more.
The balance of power in racing has shifted to owners in Ireland and the Middle East and he does not have quite the livestock on the premises which he once did. The last of his ten Flat race championships was gained in 2009 and he had not won the King George since 2010. No one, though, should doubt his relish still for big race winners and his patient ability to wait long enough with decent horses to turn them into really good ones like the four-year-old Crystal Ocean and the five-year-old Poet’s Word. What he will never do is to shout about it. I have box files stuffed with the musings of trainers who have achieved a tenth of what he has done but full-length interviews with Sir Michael, a five-time Derby winner, are as rare as Donald Trump apologies. Yet just look at his record in the King George alone. He won it with the incomparable Shergar back in 1981. In 1983 he took it with Sheikh Mohammed’s Opera House and in 2002 with Golan. In 2009 he not only won it with Conduit but supplied the second and third before following up the next year with Harbinger.
Ironically, for a man who nearly launched himself on a media career, he truly shuns the limelight. When I visited him once with a CNN camera crew he literally hid behind his horses. Typically when the press sought him out on Saturday we had to chase him round to the runner-up’s berth where he had gone to check over Crystal Ocean. Immediately he sought to deflect the glory onto his Freemason Lodge team although there was a typical Stoute twinkle as he declared: ‘I thought Doyle could have done a little bit better and got a dead heat! They’re two such admirable horses, delightful to train.’
He says he will never be a champion trainer again. ‘We don’t have the numbers. But at least we’re making a few runs. I’ll keep going.’ Few doubted that, but it was still the best news of the week.