In The Zone – Sir Alex Ferguson

In The Zone – Sir Alex Ferguson

Exclusive with Sir Alex Ferguson: My wife would have gone mad if she knew how much I’ve spent on horses, winning Bahrain trophy is best ever feeling in racing, Bobby Charlton was my main supporter, I’m optimistic for Manchester United 
Experienced freelance journalist Mark Souster caught up exclusively with Sir Alex Ferguson last week courtesy of following his victory in the Bahrain International Trophy after Spirit Dancer proved triumphant in the $1million Group 2 race.  
The legendary manager delved into his love of horses, how his late wife would have reacted to his recent purchases and how he is optimistic for Manchester United’s future.

On Racing

When did your interest in horses start? 

AF: “It all began when I was a child and my father loved horses.  That’s the root of it. He would study Timeform and place his bets. 

“I backed a few horses when I was younger and went to the races at Ayr and Hamilton. Then I gave it a miss until I went to Aberdeen. At Manchester United there was a period when I was working too hard. My wife would have gone mad. 

“Some staff suggested I get something else to do. There was a break in the season around March time, which is the month when Cathy and I were married. So I said, ‘Do you fancy going to the races?’ 

“She asked me where that idea had come from. I told her she was always on to me to do something else. We went to Cheltenham where we met Dessie Scahill and John Mulhern and they became good friends. We were driving into London on the way back and I said, ‘Do you fancy buying a horse?’ 
“I then bought my first horse with Jack Berry.” 

How many horses have you got now? 

AF: “I have 32 in all. I have six with Highclere. Most are National Hunt and a lot are with Paul Nicholls, plus some with Dan Skelton. 

“I have got a few on the flat, one with Richard Hughes and two with Andrew Balding. He’s very good. One is called Hampden Park, who won by 10 lengths at Ascot first time out in October. He’s injured now and won’t run until the spring.” 

Paul Nicholls trains some of Sir Alex's 32 horses

What was the appeal of racing? 

AF: “It was a release valve to start with. Then it became more serious! It is a passion now. I have made quite a big investment in National Hunt.” 

How often do you buy horses? 

AF: “Last week we bought two. One from Ireland, a pointer, and one from France. John Hales is the man who has all the contacts. We depend on John. And we’ve bought some very good horses on his recommendation. 

“They don’t come cheap now. We paid £450,000 for the French horse and £200,000 for the Irish horse. That’s £650,000 and I had to write quite a large cheque.  One of my sons said, ‘What are you doing?’ 

“My late wife would have gone mad at me if she was alive if she knew the amount of money involved!! I must say at the time when I started it was a big release for me.” 

Can you compare building a squad with building a racing yard? 

AF: “Yes. You have times when the team is great, when the yard is great. Paul Nicholls talks about that when you have your ups and downs. Sports goes in cycles. He had his glory years with Denman, Kauto Star and Big Buck’s. I think his yard will soon be back in the big time. 

“Building a team was my main strength when I became a manager.  It is about leadership. I did it three times. Managers of clubs like Manchester United keep their job through what their team does on the field. Most managers concentrate purely on the first team. I didn’t do that.  I built the club through youth. And Bobby Charlton was my main supporter throughout that time. He was the heartbeat of the club. Absolutely brilliant. His passing was so sad. He was brilliant with me.

Winning the big race in Bahrain? 

AF: “I didn’t think we had a great draw. It depended though on how he got out of the gate.  He was 25-1. The outsider. Godolphin had five horses. That’s greed!! 

“He is a homebred. I have had my stud in Hemel Hempstead for six years. He was my first foal by Frankel out of a mare I bought called Queen’s Dream.  I am especially proud because he was my first foal. 

“It was a new adventure for me to get into breeding to be honest. I bought the mare from Andreas Wohler in Germany. She's at Hemel Hempstead, it's a good family. The first foal was a Frankel and that's why we were in Bahrain. We've had other horses who have done well but this one has been fantastic. 

“A friend of mine got me the cover from Frankel. I decided to put him with Richard Fahey in Malton. It is easier for me to get to see him there in Yorkshire.” 

Why Richard Fahey? 

AF: “I watched the Yorkshire trainers. I had a horse with Mark Johnston who was very good. I thought I’d give Richard Fahey a try. I went to his yard and was impressed. And he has done so well with the horse. He has been very patient because the horse has had a couple of niggling injuries at the start. As a two-year-old he only ran once. As a three-year-old he had a couple of problems at the end of the season so we put him away. Each year he has got better and better. 

Fahey trained Spirit Dancer to victory in Bahrain

Do you ever give instructions? 

AF: “I never give instructions. I never interfere with a trainer. I would never let anybody interfere when I was a manager so why should I interfere with people who know better in racing.” 

You’ve had time to reflect on your victory. How does it compare? 

AF: “That is the best no doubt, the best ever moment in racing for me. 100 yards out he looked like he was going to win but I didn’t want to count my chickens. I was just praying and he carried me over the line. The last thing I said to the jockey (Oisin Orr) was , ‘Remember he is a Frankel.’” 

“And he showed all the heart of a Frankel. 

“Richard said to me that the trophy for the race looked like the FA Cup, which he said I was used to picking up.” 

Have you been to Bahrain before? 

AF: “It was my second time there. In 1986 we were invited by the Crown Prince who is now the King. We played a select team. It has changed a lot since! The potential here is enormous.” 

How big can racing get there?  

AF: “You can see that in five years Bahrain will be matching Dubai in terms of the racing. I really think so. They have plenty of land for a start to build things and the money they have gives them the chance to do things. 

“I’ve loved the hospitality there. I signed a lot of things and had my picture taken but it only takes a second. You shouldn’t ignore people, particularly kids. You have to show patience for this kind of thing which I think I always have done.” 

Admiration for Gordon Brown

On Life After Football 

What else interests you outside football? 

AF: “When I started getting involved in the horses, I started to read again. Then Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, gave me 35 tapes about the American Civil War. I’ve always been an admirer of Gordon.  
“I played them in the car when I was travelling around.  

“American history generally really is so fascinating.” 

What in particular do you like? 

 AF: “I was fascinated by JFK when he was president. People may not recognise the era he lived in because he had to deal with the Cold War, Vietnam, racism, Medicare, the rail strikes and Cuba. It was an amazing challenge for a young president.” 

Do you like the Wild West? 

AF: “Yes I do. I have been watching Yellowstone, the story of a ranching family in Montana. It’s wonderful. And the actress Kelly Reilly who plays Kevin Costner’s daughter. She’s incredible. She’s English but her American accent is terrific. But she was a horror of a character in the series!” 

How do you stay so fit and active?

AF: “I was training reasonably up until about nine months ago. I have an exercise bike in the house. I did my weights. I am in good shape but I’m not sure I’ll stay that way for too long!”

How much involvement do you have in Manchester United these days? 

AF: “I am still a director of the club. I know Jim [Ratcliffe] well. We shall have to see what he does. But I am optimistic.” 


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