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Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Ryan Price: unique character who scaled heights in both codes

John Randall on a trainer who was never far away from controversy

Ryan Price sporting his trademark trilby alongside stable jockey Josh Gifford
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First published on Thursday, August 16, 2012


Today is the centenary of the birth of Ryan Price, one of the greatest, most versatile and most colourful trainers that racing has ever seen.

'The Captain' was the champion trainer of jumpers five times between 1955 and 1967, and won a Grand National, a Cheltenham Gold Cup and three Champion Hurdles before also becoming a great Flat trainer, winning three Classics.

Yet, for all his success, this former war hero is perhaps remembered more for his forthright manner and the controversies over two of his Schweppes Gold Trophy victories.

Henry Ryan Price was born on August 16, 1912. His father, George, was a gentleman farmer and friend of the great trainer Fred Darling, and spent much of his time in the hunting field. One of the leading point-to-point riders of his time, he started his training career on a very small scale in Yorkshire in 1937, and had not long moved to Sussex when World War II broke out. He promptly enlisted.

Price joined the Commandos in 1943 and survived the carnage suffered by his unit on D-Day. He also had a spell as Monty's bodyguard and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he resumed training in Sussex and moved in 1951 to The Downs, Findon, the stables from which he conquered the jumping world.

In addition to his wife Dorothy, a major factor in his rise to the top was Fred Winter, who was a young claimer when first retained by Price in 1949 and became the greatest jump jockey of that era, riding for the stable for 15 years until his retirement. The trainer's long and harmonious partnership with Winter was repeated with the latter's successor as stable jockey, Josh Gifford.

Other factors in his success were the support of owner Gerry Judd and his purchase of French-breds such as Judd's Clair Soleil, whose Champion Hurdle win in 1955 clinched his first trainers' championship.

That was the first of three Champion Hurdle victories in seven years for Price and Winter, the others coming from Fare Time (1959) and Eborneezer (1961). He also won the last two runnings of the Triumph Hurdle at Hurst Park with Cantab and Beaver.

Price was primarily a trainer of hurdlers but won the Grand National in 1962 with Kilmore, a 12-year-old he had bought the previous year on behalf of three co-owners including film producers Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy, who were responsible for the first dozen 'Carry On' films. Kilmore relished the rain-sodden ground at Aintree, was sent to the front by Winter approaching the last, and triumphed by ten lengths from Wyndburgh.

The race that brought Price the most success and the most grief was the Schweppes Gold Trophy (now Betfair Hurdle), which he won in four of its first five years, twice in highly controversial circumstances. He won the first two runnings (1963, '64) of the rich handicap hurdle with Rosyth, but on the second occasion, at an inquiry into the horse's abnormal improvement, the stewards rejected Price's plausible explanations and took away his licence for the rest of the season.

Jockey Gifford was given a shorter suspension. Price's horses were therefore dispersed to other trainers and some of them never returned, including Anglo, who won the Grand National in 1966 when trained by Winter. The trainer won the Schweppes in 1966 with champion novice Le Vermontois, and yet again in 1967, when the ease of Hill House's victory was so insulting that boos from spectators started before he jumped the final flight and continued around the winner's enclosure.

Another ban for Price seemed inevitable, especially when Hill House's post-race sample tested positive. However, further tests showed that he had a naturally high level of the steroid cortisol in his body; in effect, he was a horse who doped himself.

His victory contributed to his trainer's fifth and final title in 1966-67, and his stablemate Honey End was second to Foinavon in the Grand National after being one of the many victims of the pile-up at the 23rd fence.

Ryan Price: champion trainer of jumpers five times between 1955 and 1967
What A Myth was more than three stone inferior to his contemporary Arkle but was still good enough to become the trainer's only Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, in 1969. Although Price was a great trainer he never had a great champion. The best horse of his career, Major Rose, was placed twice in the Champion Hurdle – when second to Persian War in 1970, and third to Bula and Persian War in 1971.

When beaten by those two great champions, Major Rose showed better form than Clair Soleil, Fare Time and Eborneezer ever did. Price had been winning big races on the Flat for years, notably the Cesarewitch three times including with Major Rose.

At the age of 57 he decided to concentrate on the Flat, and in 1970 sold The Downs to Gifford, who took over the string of jumpers there. He moved to nearby Soldiers Field, where he had the occasional jumper, including Major Rose and the first two in the 1973 Triumph Hurdle.

So successful was the switch that he became the only British trainer to achieve greatness on the Flat as well as over jumps. In that respect only Vincent O'Brien, Andre Fabre and Aidan O'Brien have been his superiors.

He was never champion trainer on the Flat, mainly because he relied heavily on cheap yearling purchases and not even he could turn them all into silk purses. However, he did come third to Dick Hern and Vincent O'Brien in the trainers' table in 1972.

His highest-rated Flat horse was Sandford Lad, the champion sprinter of 1973 by virtue of victories in the Nunthorpe Stakes and Prix de l'Abbaye.

His two British Classic winners, Ginevra (1972 Oaks ) and Bruni (1975 St Leger), both carried the colours of Charles St George, as did Giacometti, who became the only one of his horses to be placed in the Derby (third in 1974) and won the Champion Stakes.

St George's three stars cost less than 15,000gns in total as yearlings. The owner's insistence on having Lester Piggott ride Bruni as a four-year-old caused Tony Murray to quit as stable jockey.

Another of his prominent patrons, Essa Al Khalifa of the ruling family of Bahrain, owned M-Lo lshan, third in the 1978 St Leger and the trainer's only dual Group 1 winner-in the Irish St Leger and Grosser Preis von Baden.

The sheikh also owned Jellaby, who won the Queen Anne Stakes in 1977 and was clear in the 1978 Lockinge Stakes when he became the trainer's unluckiest loser by stumbling and unseating Brian Taylor, Murray's successor as stable jockey.

Price was a horseman of the old school and had his runners fit enough to win first time out, as Romeo Romani did in the 1979 Norfolk Stakes. He even ran a racecourse debutant in the Derby-Hanassi, who was unplaced in 1963.

Price retired at the end of the 1982 Flat season and died in 1986, on his 74th birthday.

John Oaksey summed him up as “Captain Ryan Price, ex-Commando, fearless horseman, dedicated animal lover, outspoken self-publicist and, let no-one doubt or question it, brilliant trainer of racehorses."


A maverick master of his trade who lit up the racing world

Ryan Price was a larger-than-life character of the type that does not exist in racing nowadays. Few great trainers are remembered more for their personality than their achievements, but Price was flamboyant and expressed himself in forceful language with repetitive and earthy adjectives. Even his habit of leading his runners from the paddock onto the racecourse marked him out from other trainers.

Controversy and sensation sometimes obscured his talent but in some ways he was his own worst enemy. With his trilby tilted at a jaunty angle and lighting a cigarette, or bellowing outrageous claims and exaggerated statements – "This is the best I've ever trained" was a favourite – he enlivened the racing scene but made enemies in high places.

He looked and sometimes behaved like a pirate, running what was perceived as a gambling stable and having scant respect for the authorities. They were therefore probably gunning for him long before they suspended him for not running Rosyth on his merits before the 1964 Schweppes when the only crime he had committed was to be too good at his job.

Ryan Price inspects Hill House after the horse had romped home in the 1967 Schweppes Gold Trophy, provoking a huge controversy
People remember the saga of Hill House's 1967 Schweppes win, which for six months was a constant source of news and speculation, and anxiety for Price, while forgetting that the trainer was eventually exonerated.

Inevitably, he had a blunt way of handling awkward owners.

When John VanderPloeg complained about the inflated size of his weekly bill, the trainer replied that it was because "You are more bloody trouble than any of the other owners".

He also had a direct method of dealing with a strike at his yard. The ring-leader explained the grievance, whereupon the trainer knocked him out with a punch to the jaw. End of strike.

Above all, Price loved his horses, and he showed his sentimental side by keeping many of them at home long after they had retired, including Kilmore, Major Rose and Persian Lancer, whose Cesarewitch victory in 1966 he claimed as his greatest training feat.

Persian Lancer had broken down and had not won for five years, but the veteran triumphed in the gruelling Newmarket handicap to pay tribute to one of the master horsemen of the 20th century.


The top ten horses he trained

Clair Soleil The only horse to win the Triumph Hurdle, the Champion Hurdle and the race that is now the World Hurdle, Clair Soleil was trained in France when landing the Triumph at Hurst Park in 1953, and was then transferred to Price. He took the Champion Hurdle in 1955 thanks to Fred Winter’s strength in a finish, and led all the way in the Spa (now World) Hurdle in 1959.

Fare Time Fell at the first flight in the 1958 Champion Hurdle but made amends the following year when he was left in the lead three out and stayed on to triumph by four lengths. Gerry Judd owned both him and Clair Soleil, whose Spa Hurdle victory came at the same meeting. He also won two renewals of the Oteley Hurdle, a Champion Hurdle trial at Sandown.

Eborneezer In 1961 this entire became the third Champion Hurdle winner for Price and Winter when left in front at the second-last and scoring by three lengths. He was second in the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil before being retired to stud. He had been useful on the Flat, winning the Queen’s Prize and being placed in the Ebor and Vaux Gold Tankard.

Beaver Won the last running of the Triumph Hurdle at Hurst Park under Josh Gifford in 1962; he was Price’s second-string but trounced stablemate Catapult by six lengths. Later that year he won the French equivalent, the Grande Course de Haies des Quatre Ans at Auteuil (ridden by Winter half an hour after his heroics on Mandarin), and the Mackeson Hurdle.

What A Myth In 1969, as a 12-year-old hunter chaser, he plodded to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup under Paul Kelleway. He had won the Rhymney Breweries’, Mildmay Memorial and Gainsborough Chases and the Whitbread in 1965-66, and the following season was third in the Hennessy, won the Mandarin Chase and was third in the Gold Cup. 

Major Rose The best Price trained and it took great champions to stop him winning the Champion Hurdle. Persian War beat him into second place in the 1968 Schweppes and the 1970 Champion, and in 1971 he came third to Bula and Persian War in the Champion. He won the Oteley Hurdle at Sandown twice, plus the Newbury Autumn Cup, Chester Cup and Cesarewitch.

Ginevra In 1972 she won the Oaks Trial at Lingfield and then the Oaks itself, in which she was sent to the front by Tony Murray a furlong out and scored by a length and a half from Regal Exception, a 100-1 shot who would probably have won if her trainer had declared her to run with blinkers. Ginevra never won again although she was third in the Yorkshire Oaks and the St Leger.

Sandford Lad A 1,800gns yearling, Sandford Lad became the champion sprinter of 1973 and was unbeaten in four races that year – a Doncaster handicap, the King George Stakes at Goodwood, the Nunthorpe Stakes (only a Group 2 event at the time) and Prix de l’Abbaye and never ran beyond 5f. He was owned by Charles and Robin Olley.

Giacometti A 5,000gns yearling, he won the Gimcrack Stakes and short-headed Snow Knight in the Champagne Stakes. In 1974 he was second to Nonoalco in the 2,000 Guineas, third to Snow Knight in the Derby, and second to Bustino in the St Leger, before winning the Champion Stakes. Like Ginevra, he was owned by Charles St George and Peter Richards.

Bruni Charles St George’s grey scored a runaway victory under Tony Murray in the 1975 St Leger, breezing home ten lengths clear. As a four-year-old he was second to Pawneese in the King George after starting slowly, and fifth in the Arc, while winning the Yorkshire Cup and Cumberland Lodge Stakes. He failed to score as a five-year-old.


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His highest-rated Flat horse was Sandford Lad, the champion sprinter of 1973 by virtue of victories in the Nunthorpe Stakes and Prix de l'Abbaye
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