Fifty Not Out For Sir Mark Prescott

Sir Mark Prescott at Heath House | Trevor Jones /


This year will go down as one of the strangest in living memory. If in January you'd announced to owners and trainers that there would be no racing for two and a half months, it would have been met with widespread incredulity. But that was the situation in which British racing found itself in mid-March and, though the timing was a little off, it wasn't too dissimilar to how things used to be for the predominantly Flat racing heartland of Newmarket before the advent of all-weather racing through the winter months.

One man who recalls the days with no racing between November and March is the town's longest-standing trainer, Sir Mark Prescott, who has just completed his 50th season with a licence. A stickler for good manners and formality with an extraordinary knowledge of racing's history, Prescott is not, however, stuck in the past. Throughout his career he has embraced the technological advances that have helped him in his daily endeavours. His Heath House Stables at the foot of Warren Hill is both a shrine to the sport which has enthralled him for most of his life while at the same time being fully equipped with modern-day accoutrements. So, along with the skin of multiple champion sire St Simon, who was trained at Heath House in the 1880s by Mathew Dawson, can be found an equine swimming pool and treadmill.

“I was the first person ever to scope a horse, with a very clever vet called Mike Burrell at the Animal Health Trust,” Prescott says. “We believed that respiratory disease was the cause for most of the loss of form in racing stables. We were groping, really, and we made lots of mistakes, but we did get ahead of the game.”

Getting ahead of the game, and certainly the handicapper, has long been Prescott's edge. But his respect for all that has gone before is evident even from arrival at the immaculately kept Heath House, where the names of the 13 trainers who have preceded him at the historic stables are commemorated by plaques on the wall at the entrance. The list began in 1832 and the most recent name on it is that of Jack Waugh, who bought the yard in 1948, along with Osborne House Stables directly opposite, and remained in situ until enabling Prescott to take on the licence, the premises and most of his owners in 1970. It was an era in which the owner-breeder still held sway.

“The greatest pleasure is training for an owner-breeder because they've constructed this animal, they have designed it,” Prescott declares.

“It's their brains that have created this and hopefully in many cases I've had a small input, in that I've trained the mother or the grandmother. Three or four of the horses out there, I've trained their great-grandmothers. And it's a privilege to have the family so long and to have the owner so long.”

He adds, “One of the great joys of my life, I remember, was Sir Edmund Loder who's now unfortunately selling Eyrefield Lodge. He's the fourth generation from Pretty Polly and when we had Perfect Plum for him, and she was the top-rated 2-year-old filly in France, she was 13 generations from Pretty Polly. I don't think anyone else was the slightest bit interested, and even Edmund, I don't think, found it as exciting as I did. But because I love history, I thought it was a privilege to have her.”

One horse whose longevity is every bit as admirable as Prescott's is Pivotal (GB), who spent two seasons at Heath House in 1995 and '96 for owner-breeders David and Patricia Thompson before embarking on his long tenure at their Cheveley Park Stud.

“Pivotal is a much better stallion than I ever thought he would be,” Prescott admits. “I suppose his great quality was that he was infinitely faster than his pedigree. The only time we tried him over six [furlongs] was the only time we had a disaster. And I have since watched and believe that all sorts of horses who've been infinitely more successful than one thought have been faster than their pedigrees. Not many have been successful at stud that were slower than their pedigree.”

He continues, “Pivotal was a very interesting horse because he was big and awkward and clumsy as a yearling. He was the first covering of his sire and he was the first foal of his mother. And neither ever did as good again.”

Prescott recalls his first sight, on a visit to Cheveley Park Stud, of the horse who would go on to win the Nunthorpe S. and to become an influential sire and broodmare sire.

“I can see the field now actually, and there standing in the corner was Pivotal: wet, and bedraggled, and heavy,” he says. “He fell off the box when he came here but the first time we worked him, he absolutely flew. And it was a complete shock; normally you've got an idea.”

Described by Cheveley Park Stud manager Chris Richardson as “a very instrumental part of the success that Mr and Mrs Thompson have enjoyed at the highest level”, Prescott has trained for the couple for 30 years, and those successes have included victory in the Prix de Diane with Confidential Lady (GB) (Singspiel {Ire}) and in the G1 Cheveley Park S. with Hooray (GB) (Invincible Spirit {Ire}).

Kirsten Rausing of Lanwades Stud is another who has enjoyed some of her best days with horses trained at Heath House.

“He and I haven't been together that long—it's barely 30 years,” she says with a smile. “But we have never had any blips since then. How it started was he bought [Nassau and Sun Chariot S. winner] Last Second from us as a yearling and when she was a 2-year-old I had a filly who was quite closely related to her and I asked if he would like to train her, and she won. Then the next filly he trained for me was Alborada.”

The dual Champion S. heroine and her fellow Group 1-winning full-sister Albanova (GB) (Alzao) are commemorated in bronze in the stableyard at Heath House where many of their relatives and offspring have subsequently been trained. If you look up while standing in the middle of that yard, you will find pointers to Prescott's other great passions in life via the weathervanes on assorted rooftops: a boxer on one, along with coursing dogs, a bull, and a fighting cock. His enthusiasm for field sports and sporting art has led to a collection of paintings and sculptures which would come close to rivalling that held in the Jockey Club Rooms, in which a painting of Prescott himself, as the long-time chairman of the Heath Committee, has been installed in recent years.

“I suppose if somebody said to me, 'Have you had a successful 50 years?', well I've lasted longer than most and I'm enormously proud to have a portrait in the Jockey Club, but I'm deeply ashamed I haven't trained an English Classic winner,” he muses.

“But I think the best thing has been the owners I've been lucky enough to know. They have horses for different reasons. Some of them want to bet, some of them can only enjoy a horse if they bred it, some of them could only enjoy it if it turns up at their home track on Geraldine's birthday. They've all got them for different reasons. And the fascination as a trainer is to try and get out of that horse what they want.”

Prescott continues, “Have I ever thought about giving up or not doing it? No. I have found it endlessly fascinating. I've had bad seasons and, I mean, we've trained 2,000 winners now. I never thought I'd get to 2,000 winners from 50 boxes. So we've had a lot of winners, but we've had bad times when the horses have been wrong, and I think I'm very lucky in that I've got lots of other interests and I do have the ability to shut down and think, 'I know what healthy horses are like, and these aren't right', and think about something else until that happens. I think if you didn't have that ability it would be very difficult. We've all seen successful trainers who have given up training simply because their horses were wrong for a couple of seasons and it has ended their career. Mainly the cure is to do nothing, but nothing is so often very hard to do. My old governor Sid Kernick, who was a brilliant horseman, said, 'Three parts of the art of riding, Mark, is doing nothing, and nothing is often very hard to do'. And it's the same when your horses are wrong; having the ability to do nothing.”

He adds, “And a very wise vet years ago said to me that a horse's ability to get over the virus is entirely dependent upon its trainer's temperament.”

As for Prescott's temperament, he admits with a wry smile to having mellowed in recent years, though he still delights in pointing out to visitors the high window from which he once dangled former stable jockey George Duffield by his ankles.

“But in those days I was seriously fiery,” he says. “I think the only compensation for getting older is you don't lose your temper.”

One thing that may still cause Prescott to furrow his brow in consternation is an owner having the temerity to telephone him. He has his patrons as well trained as his horses and, to be able to have a horse in one of the 50 boxes at Heath House is to accept that the trainer will ring every Sunday morning with an update. If a call is missed by the owner, the update will come the following week.

“It is a torture to do because the number of phone calls has increased. When I took over from Mr Waugh I rang every Sunday, but we only had eight owners for 50 horses, so it was a pleasure and easy. Now I ring 59 every Sunday, and fond as I am of them all, when you get to 51 and all the horses are coughing, it is a test to sound upbeat about it,” he says.

“But I ring every Sunday so therefore they find out at the same speed I do how this horse is going. So if their horse is not a very good mover, or if it gets very het up, they've heard early on. There's not this phone call after 10 weeks to say that this very nice animal that they were assured was easily the nicest horse in Tatts is now covered in ringworm, won't go near the stalls, kicked three lads, and chucks itself down.”

Prescott also takes pride in the younger trainers who have worked as pupil assistants at Heath House—a role he only allows them to keep for two years. “Thirteen of them train now, and not one of them is not good,” he says of a list which includes William Haggas, Simon Crisford, Pascal Bary and Christophe Ferland. “And some of them would have exceeded what I ever saw. I certainly wouldn't name them, but they've really, really done well. And it's given me enormous satisfaction. I really love seeing them train winners.”

Only one has remained in situ. A two-year tenure became two decades for William Butler, who has been primed to take over at Heath House when Prescott decides to retire.

“He does more and more and we'll probably get one of these joint licences. It's time he kicked on more, and he's well ready,” says Prescott of Butler. “The only thing is I'm not well ready to do less, and I like what I do. But I don't feel pressurised to pack up. And, fortunately, we've had a very good year. We're not in any way losing our pitch, and I'm sure that's in part to having somebody young for quite a long time.

He adds, “And it's been a pleasure to have somebody who is a real enthusiast. He gets very weighed down by the pressures of it, because he takes it all very seriously. That's wonderful for me because I can just tip it on him. So he carries all of that and he's got a great eye for the thing.”

A great deal has changed both in racing and in Newmarket since 1970. During Prescott's tenure as a trainer, the number of horses in the town has grown from 750 to more than 2,500, with the number of trainers more than doubling to 81. All-weather surfaces have been installed both at racecourses and on the Heath; starting stalls and watering systems have been introduced, along with heart monitors and treadmills. But the day-to-day routine of training racehorses remains largely unchanged in one of the most competitive environments in the racing world.

“Given that you've got 81 greengrocers in the same street, and if you're doing well, by definition the next fellow can't be training as many winners, but given that, I think it's quite extraordinary how well they get on as a whole,” Prescott says of his fellow Newmarket trainers.

“As chairman of the Heath Committee, which runs the gallops, I do occasionally have incoherent trainers ringing up, because they're so cross with Mr So-and-so, whatever he's done, but by and large, I think it's quite extraordinary. And I think the reason for that is the shared danger, and that even the biggest trainer feels insecure. Because it's a very fragile business, luck plays a tremendous part in it, and I think every trainer has a slight persecution complex.”

At the age of 72, Prescott shows no desire to stop training, or indeed to stop learning, including from his colleagues. Each year he chooses a trainer—or “victim” as he calls them—with whom to spend a morning and watch them at work.

He says, “I've never, ever not seen something there that I thought, 'why haven't I been doing that?'”

He also has not lost the thrill of winning, and he recalls a day when he was assistant to Jack Waugh when one of the stable's best fillies broke a leg on the gallops. Prescott had himself been dispatched to go racing with another horse, who won his race.

“I got back late and went in to see the guv'nor and I said, 'I'm so sorry, you've had such a bad day, sir'. He grabbed my arm and said, 'If ever you become a trainer, you will at last understand that no day with a winner is a bad day'.”

For Sir Mark Prescott, who has managed so deftly to keep one foot in the past while retaining a keen eye on the future, there have been many such days over the last 50 years. And there will be plenty more to come.



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