David Crane

Against all odds

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Clive Brittain: The Smiling Pioneer

Robin Oakley

Racing Post, pp. 259, £

For more than 40 years now Clive Brittain has enjoyed a unique position in British racing. There are plenty of other trainers who could match his record in top races, but has there ever been anyone in the history of the sport who has tilted at so many unlikely windmills and so consistently hit them? Vedvyas at 33/1 for his first-ever winner, Julio Mariner at 28s for his first classic, Rajeem at 50s for the 2006 Falmouth and, most ludicrous of all, that old slow-boat of Lady Beaverbrook’s, Terimon, who slouched along at the back of Nashwan’s Derby before plugging on into a distant second at the absurd starting price of 500/1.

There has always been a danger with Brittain that his reputation as the Don Quixote of British racing would obscure his talents and so it is good to be reminded of the immense achievements that lie behind the fancy-price winners. After a period of 23 years as stable lad to Sir Noel Murless, Brittain trained his first winner in 1972, and for the next three decades his Carlburg stables sent out a stream of Classic and Group One winners from Averof and the bonkers Radetsky to the gloriously uncontrollable Mystiko, User Friendly, Sayyedati and — as good a filly on her day as any — the great Pebbles.

No one who saw Pebbles — certainly no one who failed to take the early 7/1 on offer — will ever forget her win in the 1985 Champion Stakes and no one could come away from Oakley’s book without a clear sense of the crucial part Brittain played in the success of all his champions.

This is a generous and affectionate biography and all the better for it. It was hard not to feel with Oakley’s book on Barry Hills that he was writing against the grain of a difficult character, but with the endlessly chatty Brittain he can safely leave him and his legion of loyal friends to tell the story for him.

And what a story it is. A childhood breaking in Welsh ponies in an England that was closer to Thomas Hardy’s than any an eight-year-old would now recognise; an apprenticeship in the brutish culture of 1950s racing; the great years with Murless; the successes as a buoyant and innovative trainer — the first British trainer to win a Breeder’s Cup race, the first to take a Japan Cup, the first to place a horse in the Kentucky Derby — and the skills in handling ‘difficult’ owners that, over the years, have stood him in as good a stead as have his intuitive gifts with difficult horses.  

With his signature victory gigs and irrepressible optimism Clive Brittain is no more to everyone’s taste than is Frankie Dettori, but it would be a hard reader who could finish this book and not agree with the verdict of one of Brittain’s most influential owners: ‘Very good man, very good trainer. Happy every day.’