'Stupid thing I did, fiddling about with the weights at a point-to-point'
David Ashforth's entertaining interview with trainer John Manners
First published on April 15, 2000
Down the twisty grey track, across the cattle grid, into a strange land. Higgledy-piggledy buildings, higgledy-piggledy people, where you expect the ducks and dogs and horses to speak. They probably speak when visitors have gone.
"Thought Hitler was going to invade, just over there," John Manners points. "Nothing to stop him. Father used to go over to the clock tower and stand guard with a shotgun."
Manners, with his Wiltshire burr, tousled grey hair, mad-cap hat, all his own teeth, doesn't take his coat off and sits in the museum kitchen, with the caged bird singing, wall-clock ticking, cat sleeping and walls looking like the Thames rose up them and forgot to clean them on the way back down. The walls are covered in pictures of Killeshin and Cavalero, who missed out on his chance of glory at Aintree, but runs in the Ladbroke Casinos Scottish Grand National at Ayr today.
"Suppose you're a bloody socialist," says Manners, with far too much life for anyone to believe he's 73. "Let's face it, we're a wonderful country. Tony Blair's only a f***ing Tory really, isn't he?"
If Manners ever writes a ******* dictionary, the biggest entry will be 'asterisk'.
Manners has discovered how to breathe without stopping talking. It's a wonderful discovery and he makes the most of it.
"Wonderful parents. Bought this bloody place after the war for f***-all. Father loved a gamble. A friend used to tell him, 'Lester will not be beaten', so he'd have pounds 200 on. If it won well, they did sometimes, didn't they? – whisky all round."
Then Manners leans forward on his kitchen chair, and says: "Duodenals. It was the excitement. Died at 69. If only he'd have gone and been a bit sensible, but silly old dad. Put me clean off backing horses."
Edward VIII, Dunkirk, Stalin. Opinions fly around the kitchen like shot from a blunderbuss. Manners probably has a cleaner in the morning to sweep them all up. There would be plenty of time for it-he doesn't get up until 10 o'clock. Feeds the horses at lunchtime, again at midnight.
There's wife Audrey in leather trousers, hoping the rest of the family will appear normal provided she does. Daughter Heidi looking lovely, cooking lunch.
"I rode a few winners, point-to-point," Manners machine-guns on. "Used to ride until the horse was tired out, then went arse over head. Permit 1950, first winner under rules Market Day. I'd train a winner, then have a row with a steward and we'd trot off to Portman Square. 'Manners, your permit to train will be taken away until further notice'."
In 1989, the stewards took it away for three years.
"Absolutely stupid thing I did," he recalls, "fiddling about with the weights at a point-to-point. The one good thing about it was that we went to Florida on holiday. Took my own eggs. Poured with rain, but it was hot water.
"I've got a full licence now. I'm amazed they gave it to me. The licensing committee said: 'Oh, you don't look as old as we thought you were'."
It's true, he doesn't. And he doesn't stop.
"The way we train is a joke. We hack them round our 400 acres and I gallop them on the neighbours' farms when they aren't looking, and occasionally I take them to Lambourn. It does the horses good to go for a ride in a lorry.
"Our staff get run away with regularly." One just has. No harm done. "No-one else but me rides Cavalero at home. Sunday before the National, I took him down to the river and he whipped round and I fell on my back. He galloped off and I lay on the ground and thought, 'This is it. I'm f***ed. That's the end of the National, and a bloody good show.' My boots were full of water and I had to walk back."
So did Cavalero.
"I love breeding things. Bred Cavalero ourselves, and his mother, Jolly Lass. An absolute cow-unrideable, couldn't get her on the racecourse. And Cavalero was an arse**** to start with.
"I'm a hunting man. Winning the Foxhunter was my dream. Have you seen the Cup? It's the most disgusting thing."
Manners shows me into the dining room. You need a dining room with a big door and a high ceiling if you're thinking of putting the Cheltenham Foxhunter Cup in it. The Cup's huge. Huge and silver. Manners taps it with his knuckles.
"Of course, it's 100 years old. Country was at its peak. They could afford it."
Disgusting, but he loves it. Proud as punch, really.
They almost withdrew Cavalero from the Cheltenham Festival when the ground dried up.
Manners didn't go. Audrey went, but closed her eyes and stood by a noisy dustcart with her fingers in her ears so she couldn't see and couldn't hear.
The only person who knew they had won was Alex Charles-Jones, the winning jockey.
"I tell him he's too bloody old," says Manners. "He should pack up. We've had top jockeys ringing to ride Cavalero, but I'm going to stick with Alex. He does ride well for a 40-year-old, and he paints nice pictures."
Remarkably, as well as the Cheltenham Foxhunter, Manners has won the Aintree version twice, with Killeshin and Cavalero, who had to be pulled up in last year's National when the saddle slipped and narrowly missed the cut for this year's version. Now he's seeking compensation in the Scottish equivalent.
Manners says: "I might go to Ayr myself, because I'm feeling a bit cock-a-hoop after Cheltenham and Cavalero must stand a great chance. There are a hell of a lot of buggers in it, but it doesn't look a very strong race."
Then we go out in the yard and Manners introduces me to Cavalero and Audrey introduces me to Killeshin.
No-one could visit them without feeling that life was suddenly a bit richer, and hoping that Cavalero wins the Scottish Grand National.
John Manners died on Monday, September 21, 2009
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