Award-winning columnist remembers trainer John Dunlop
Jonathan Powell remembers the wonderful legacy left by trainer John Dunlop
Few races of significance in Europe and further afield failed to attract the attention of the buccaneering trainer John Dunlop who died earlier this month at the age of 78.
In delivering almost 3,600 winners in a career stretching over 47 years he was a pioneer, most notably in sending his horses from Castle Stables in Arundel to pursue prizes on a number of continents.
It began in the 1970s with a successful annual raid each winter to Cagnes Sur Mer in the South of France under the eagle eye of his long time assistant Robert Baker and expanded to the point that his horses would travel thousands of miles to Italy, Ireland, Germany, France and beyond whenever the opportunity rose.
Baker, a fine point to point rider, won at Cagnes Sur Mere in February, 1974 on the one eyed Belper whose namesake Lord Belper lost an eye in a shooting accident on the grouse moors in Yorkshire.
The same year Dunlop saddled My Brief to win twice on the French coast. The runner up on both occasions was a German horse Star Appeal who, 18 months later, to general disbelief, won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris at odds in excess of 100-1.
Dunlop’s hardy trailblazer Highland Chieftain seemed to spend most of his time on the road to the point that when he was retired in 1990 he had raced in ten different countries.
I remember teasing his trainer that he had missed a trick by never entering a horse to contest the Palio de Sienna, which is the only race I know where the horse can win without a jockey on its back!
No matter that only locals are allowed to enter runners in the Palio, first staged round the square of the town in 1637. Being a kind, caring man who adored animals Dunlop didn’t approve of the rough tactics in an event that sees horses and their riders come to grief with startling regularity.
John Leeper Dunlop was long considered an institution in the world of racing. Born on July 10, 1939 at Tetbury, Gloucestershire, he was the son of a doctor, an avid racing fan who was a member at Chepstow and Cheltenham. He enjoyed an early introduction to the delights of racing by accompanying his father to Chepstow on occasions.
National service in the Royal Ulster Rifles in Germany found him learning about the sport by helping a friend to train a slow steeplechaser while stationed in Germany. It was a sideline that shaped his destiny.
Once he left the Army in 1961 Dunlop advertised for a job in racing. It was spotted by Neville Dent, then training a handful of jumps horses in the New Forest. Dent would later recall: “I saw John’s ad as the same cry of help I had made 20 years earlier.
“When he came to me he didn’t know a lot about horses but he was so keen, a confident young man, willing to learn and a hard worker who did just about everything in the yard from mucking out and looking after our stallion.
“John was very ambitious and it was soon obvious he was going right to the top”.
In 1963 Dunlop answered an advertisement in the Sporting Life for the role of secretary to Gordon Smyth, private trainer at Castle Stables, Arundel to the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk and their friends.
He talked his way into the job despite being unable to type and cheerfully admitted years later that he didn’t even know what PAYE stood for! Such was his impact that late in 1965 he took over the licence at the age of 26 when Smyth moved to Lewes to take over the reins from Towser Gosden during his illness.
The success of Tamino in the Palace House Stakes at Newmarket in April, 1966, was the first of a conveyor belt of winners delivered by the tall, urbane
Dunlop over the next 47 years until he retired at the end of 2012. Throughout his career he trained from a a collection of boxes and stables shoe-horned into a yard in the shadow of Arundel Castle.
He started with 50 horses, quickly made his mark at the highest level and at his peak was responsible for a team of 200 with some based in an overflow yard at nearby Findon, for so long the fiefdom of another great trainer Ryan Price.
After his association with Ron Hutchinson come to an end Dunlop preferred to use the best available jockeys rather than retain one rider. Uniquely for a trainer, however, he actively discouraged them from coming to Arundel to ride work for him in the mornings.
The last siting of a jockey on his gallops was said to be Brian Rouse, a late booking in 1980 for Quick As Lightning, who duly won the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket.
Dunlop forged a long and richly rewarding partnership with Willie Carson who rode more winners for him than any other trainer and spoke warmly of him after news of his death was announced.
“John was a great man to ride for, we had a brilliant partnership and travelled the world together,” he said.
The two men shared triumphs at the highest level in 1990 with Salsabil in the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks and Irish Derby and with Erhaab in the 1994 Derby.
Dunlop became champion trainer in 1995 and was awarded the OBE a year later. He was supported throughout his career by his wife Sue who was always at his side at the races.
Two of their sons Ed and Harry are racehorse trainers, too, and their eldest son Tim was set to follow the same path until his tragic death in a freak car accident in France in 1987.
A passenger in the rear seat of a car, he was pitched into the road with fatal consequences when the door flew open.
John Dunlop felt unable to go racing in the weeks which followed and the pain of his loss was acutely apparent when he did appear in public again.
Just about all of his winners were prepared on a seven furlong, uphill all-weather gallop so his horses only encountered grass when they were sent racing for the first time.
You could fill an entire page with a list of Dunlop’s big race successes. Among the best were Shirley Heights in the 1978 English and Irish Derbys, Ragstone in the 1974 Ascot Gold Cup, Shadayid in the 1991 1,000 Guineas and three St Leger victories with Moon Madness (1986), Silver Patriarch (1997) and Millenary (2000).
He also trained Habibti, a champion sprinter who was anything but a flying machine at home.
At the peak of his powers Dunlop had an enviable list of well-heeled owners including the Maktoum family. Hatta’s victory in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed in a minor maiden race at Brighton in 2007 proved to be the first of thousands in this country for the Maktoums.
I recall that the Sheikh travelled from London to Brighton by train that fateful day but in time his brother Sheikh Hamdan became the principal owner at Arundel with a conveyor belt of top class horses, many of them home breds like Salsabil and Erhaab.
He also trained a number of winners for Benny Anderson of Abba fame.
To spend a morning with Dunlop among his horses on his gallops beside the splendid old oak trees in Arundel Park was to appreciate a master quietly going about his work in idyllic surroundings.
Those days became even more precious for him after he survived a ruptured aorta early in 2002. In crippling pain he was rushed to nearby Chichester Hospital for emergency surgery inside 50 minutes.
I remember him telling me, “I was so lucky that a good surgeon was immediately available and knew what had to be done. Any delays or if I’d been on a motorway, or a plane then I would have been dead.”
Restlessly energetic Dunlop started each day with a swim in his unheated pool at 6am, understood that racing is all about dreams and realised them countless times for his owners.
Generous of spirit with a wry sense of humour, he sat on several charitable committees and was a tireless fund raiser for a variety of causes in racing, most notably Racing Welfare. In the early 1970’s he almost single-handedly organised a day of show jumping at Ascot that raised £250,000 towards a fund to save the Grand National at a time when the future of the race was in the balance.
I remember being deeply impressed that a leading Flat trainer should devote so much time and energy to a cause that was close to the hearts of all jumping fans.
Yet throughout his life Dunlop seemed able to concentrate on two, three and sometimes four challenging tasks at the same time without a sign of stress, though a cigarette was never far from his lips.
A countryman to his finger tips he also found time away from racing to enjoy exhibiting his cattle and horses at agricultural shows.
Continuity was the enduring theme of his reign at Arundel with the same staff and same owners part of a time-honoured routine in which the man in charge never seemed in a rush to run his horses.
Yet his final years at Arundel were unexpectedly challenging as a significant drop in horses and owners saw Dunlop forced to bow out in 2012 with his business going into voluntary liquidation.
After giving so much of his time to helping others it was not how he wanted it to end.
Erhaab and Willie Carson win the 1994 Derby for John Dunlop