Spirit Lifts Ferguson's Triumphant Second Act 

Oisin Orr, Sir Alex Ferguson and Ged Mason celebrate in Riyadh | Racingfotos

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A passion that was held against him by some, 20 years ago, has given Sir Alex Ferguson a new universe of pleasure.

They say there are no second acts in the lives of the famous – but you would have disputed that after seeing the former Manchester United manager's Spirit Dancer (GB) win the Howden Neom Turf Cup in Riyadh on Saturday night.

Ferguson's greatest thrill as a manager was to spot and develop young talent. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and the Neville brothers were products of Ferguson's urge to 'breed' his own stars. The comparison was impossible to resist after Spirit Dancer – bred by Ferguson himself, from Frankel and Queen's Dream – came with a pulsating run under Oisin Orr to earn a £945,000 prize for him, Ged Mason and Peter Done, joint-owners of a seven-year-old who has become a star in the Middle East.

Spirit Dancer had already won the Bahrain International Trophy in November and will now be trained by Richard Fahey for a race at the Dubai World Cup meeting. All this is a far cry from the earthy British and Irish National Hunt tracks where Ferguson has watched several high-class jumpers leap and slog in his colours.

There is another context to Spirit Dancer's victory. We count the victories and the defeats of the greatest names in sport but see less clearly the agonies behind the theatre curtain.

In October last year, Ferguson lost his wife, Lady Cathy, at the age of 84. The two met in 1964. They had three children and 12 grandchildren. Both remained loyal to their roots in Glasgow. Behind the scenes Cathy was a rock and a dispenser of wisdom, often pithily. She was unchanged by the fame heaped on her family.

When I co-wrote his autobiography with Ferguson in 2013, we talked endlessly about his love for racing. He recalled a time when the intensity of managing United was starting to burn. In the book he said: “I was at the stage where Cathy was saying, 'You're going to kill yourself.' At home after work, I would be on the phone until 9 o'clock at night thinking about football every minute.”

He bought his first horse in 1996, after a lunch with the late John Mulhern, the Irish trainer, a man not lacking powers of persuasion. “The problem with you is that you'll want to buy every bloody horse,” Cathy told her husband.

We count the victories and the defeats of the greatest names in sport but see less clearly the agonies behind the theatre curtain.

That first one was called Queensland Star (Ire), named after a vessel his shipbuilding father had worked on the docksides of Govan. Those early forays led Ferguson into a successful spell of ownership in National Hunt racing, via a fallout with Coolmore (they're now on good terms) over breeding rights to Rock Of Gibraltar (Ire). A winner of seven consecutive Group 1 races, Rock Of Gibraltar had raced in Ferguson's silks.

The Coolmore dispute didn't diminish Ferguson's belief that racing could be a successful hunting ground for him as well as a fresh outlet in life after football management.

But no amount of fame or success can protect the elderly from the ravages of bereavement. Ferguson was 81 when Cathy passed away and faced a colossal adjustment to daily life. A widower after nearly six decades, Ferguson then said goodbye to his greatest ally at United, Sir Bobby Charlton, two weeks after Cathy's death.

The Riyadh celebration was more restrained than in Bahrain, where Mason lifted Ferguson so forcibly that he damaged one of his ribs. But to see 'Fergie' rejoicing trackside in Riyadh was to be reminded that racing can become not just a hobby but a way of life. To breed a top-class horse (after negotiating-down the cost of a nomination to Frankel) is another level of gratification – and one entirely comparable to Ferguson's youth policy at United, which revived the earlier thinking of Matt Busby.

Later, to compete with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, Ferguson was thrust into the world of mega-transfers and global names. But his first love was developing his own players, just as he acquired Queen's Dream as a broodmare and brought Spirit Dancer into existence.

Nobody could have expected him to disappear after he retired as United manager in 2013. His restless energy and joie de vivre were bound to find fresh expression. Yet nor could it have been safely predicted that he would end up winning a million-pound race with a homebred son of Frankel (GB), three weeks after his promising novice chaser, Hermes Allen (Fr), was killed in a fall at Sandown.

When the Rock Of Gibraltar row blew up, somebody stood up at a Manchester United AGM and demanded Ferguson's resignation. Others accused him of becoming “distracted.” A decade later he left Old Trafford with 13 Premier League titles, two Champions League titles and five FA Cups.

Not everyone can compete at his level, but there are few better advertisements for what racing can bring to a person's life than Ferguson's triumphant second act in sport. As ever, Cathy was right about the voraciousness he would bring to his new hobby.

 

 

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