Coming to America, Concorde style

John Hills (1960-2014) on discovering Keeneland, 1977

Horsemen's Lives

In life, some experiences are never forgotten. They can be that way for many reasons: love, learning, pain, enlightenment, shock, anger, outrage. Alternatively, and only if you have been incredibly lucky, they are the stuff of pure fantasy.

Imagine this. You are 16, just finishing your O-Levels at a boys’ boarding school in Oxford. This is an era when the liner the Queen Elizabeth II is still spanking new and Red Rum has just won his third Grand National. You have just weaned yourself onto Player’s Number Six because your best mate, who comes from Henley-in-Arden and is an avid Aston Villa supporter and Jasper Carrott fan, reckons they are the best. Platform soles (‘stacks’) are definitely in, and if your flared trousers don’t cover the ends of your shoes you are a prat, par excellence.

It’s only three years since the oil crisis, the Three Day Week, the miners’ strike and Harold Wilson’s row with Ted Heath over private yachts. There had been power cuts and your school had banned you from listening to Radio Luxembourg under your pillow after eight o’clock at night.

It’s a time when you are only allowed to watch three TV programmes a week, Blue Peter, Top of the Pops and an esoteric detective show called Barlow which your headmaster Ken Barnes adores. A banana and an orange, presents from your mother, lie fermenting in your tuck box and an enormous thug called Hobley eats your bacon at breakfast every morning.

Back then, the order of the day is Earth Wind & Fire, Deep Purple and Supertramp, and in that order. Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath are played daily, and every Led Zeppelin and Barclay James Harvest album ever made lie in a wad of vinyl which is a badge and validates your creditability in the jungle and with its inhabitants, who masquerade as your mates. Keeping up with the tempo is, had been and always will be essential.

Suddenly your father asks, “Would you like to go to the Keeneland July sales in Kentucky?

“We’ll be travelling with Robert Sangster and his son Guy, who is exactly your age. You two can look after each other.

“Oh, and by the way, we’ll be flying on Concorde.”

Wow. In 1977, Concorde has only been flying to Dulles since May and the lawyers are still fighting to get her into JFK. The words ‘spoilt’, ‘for’ and ‘life’ immediately spring to mind.

The passengers on the British Airways 747 that took off for Dulles 15 minutes before us are nearly, but not quite yet, half way here

Well, as an aircraft fanatic and follower of all things related, the experience can only be described as mind-blowing. As you enter the Concorde lounge, it’s very stylish, with large ‘C’ logos, Krug and caviar everywhere, only for all of this opulence to be overshadowed by the long, sleek nose of what, in that Trident-filled-skies era, looks more like a spacecraft than a plane. There she stands, brilliant, white, long, curved; and ready. Waiting to take us, at the speed of a bullet, twelve miles above the earth, over the Atlantic, all in just over three hours.

It’s surprisingly small inside but it’s neat and well-designed. As you board the first thing you notice are the windows, which are tiny, more like spy holes. You settle in and the anticipation builds. In modern aircraft today it is hard to discern the difference in noise between the constant air conditioning unit and the engines starting. Not so on Concorde: once the first Rolls-Royce Olympus turns, a shrill whistle begins and rises rapidly to a crescendo as the other three follow. The impression is power, latent and waiting for instruction. A burst of this power and you are moving. You taxi out and, like all the rest, you wait your turn. Finally, as you line up, you are expecting something special. But the thing is, nothing could ever have prepared you for the roar as all four engines reach full power and the acceleration is as much shocking as it is thrilling.

At 60,000 feet, the sky is dark blue and it is possible, out of those ridiculously small windows, to see the curvature of Earth. You are travelling at 1,350 miles per hour but the leap from subsonic to supersonic is impossible to discern. Only the Mach meter, which now reads 2.0, tells the tale. The only other souls in the world flying at this speed and height are in spacesuits and helmets. There’s time for lunch. We are drinking Château Palmer and someone is smoking a Montecristo.

All too soon we are dropping down, cruising along the Eastern seaboard and dipping back into the real world. We touch down in Dulles and, as we taxi in, the Captain welcomes us to the United States and thanks us for flying with British Airways. His final comment before we come to a halt goes something like this.

“As you step off the aircraft today, I’ll leave you with one last thought. The passengers on the British Airways 747 that took off for Dulles 15 minutes before us are nearly, but not quite yet, half way here.”

Whatever happened to the future?

So, we landed in Washington DC, on Concorde, on time. To be greeted by a new phenomenon, the mobile jetway. You think you’re on the ground, and, yes, technically you are. You think you’re in America, but in fact you are actually yet to arrive. Instead, you are now being driven around an airport in what amounts to a mobile waiting lounge. Cool.

It takes you to America and those incredibly welcoming immigration staff. Recent films like Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, and half a dozen other sinister ones like Get Carter, run through your teenage mind. Apart from school authority and childish rivalry, this is the first experience of real unfriendliness and interrogation you have ever encountered. The default setting is that you must be a settler, an alien, until proven otherwise. The United States is a wonderful country and I admire it greatly but, and I didn’t know it then, not all of us have an irresistible urge to live there for the rest of our lives!

Anyway, we were in. However, we had a problem. The private jet Robert had laid on had gone technical and was going nowhere. On the other hand, with some fancy footwork we were in a taxi heading over Washington to National airport and a domestic flight on to Bluegrass airport in Lexington. Washington is impressive and you cannot help the urge to drop your jaw as the iconic sites quickly fly by your window. All too soon you are strapped into a 727 and whizzing down to Kentucky, Dr Pepper in hand.

To set the scene, The Minstrel, a $200,000 Keeneland purchase two years previously, had just landed his famous Derby victory over Hot Grove under a vintage Lester drive. In the US Alydar had made a successful debut three weeks earlier, and everyone was in town trying to buy the next champion.

In the humid Kentucky summer we looked at yearlings and drank Coke. If Northern Dancer yearlings were Picasso paintings then we saw the entire catalogue: gorgeous colts with painted flashes and white eyes, even if they were not very big and sometimes had imperfect hocks. The word ‘quality’ was used a lot and I noticed a distinct forgiving from the judges when they were viewed. Everyone simply looked at these horses with different eyes. We do the same today with Galileo. We walked around with PP Hogan and the animals were inspected by Demi O’Byrne, at the time in a veterinary capacity. Vincent O’Brien, the master, stood for hours, looking into the horses’ eyes and occasionally conferring with his entourage, the likes of Tom Cooper, Bob Griffin and Stan Cosgrove.

There were great consignors and breeders present, among them E P Taylor, Seth and Arthur Hancock, Brereton Jones, Will Farish and the larger-than-life character Clay Camp (great mint juleps and a lovely daughter, Bunny). Some carried off their business with more than a little showmanship. At the time Tom Gentry took that particular biscuit with his wonderful pre-sale party.

On a sultry Kentucky night, with the fireflies in full swing and everything you could imagine to eat and drink, everyone danced to the entertainment – none other than the great Burt Bacharach.

Tom Gentry took that particular biscuit with his wonderful pre-sale party. On a sultry Kentucky night, with the fireflies in full swing and everything you could imagine to eat and drink, everyone danced to the entertainment – none other than the great Burt Bacharach

I remember that buses were laid on to take us back to the Hyatt in Lexington, but ours was slightly delayed as Mick O’Toole had somehow managed to mislay his teeth!

When we got back there was a sight to behold: the entire hotel had been evacuated and all of the guests stood out front in pyjamas and dressing gowns, looking up. One Irish trainer asked what was going on, and on being told there was a fire alarm blurted out, “I hope that feckin’ Vincent’s up on the 14th floor!” Souren Vanian, an enormous French-Armenian stud owner shouted, “Get [Khalid] Abdullah out, and leave the rest!” It was hilarious, and the alarm turned out to be an over-zealous sensor.

The Hyatt was brand new, as was the interconnecting Rupp Arena next door. We’d heard there was going to be a band playing – and it turned to be Fleetwood Mac, who had just released their new album, Rumours. Guy and I went to the concert – along with 20,000 others. It was spectacular, with everyone creating a city of tiny lights (and burning their thumbs) with cigarette lighters. Everybody smoked in those days and there may well just have been a hint of something aromatic in the air!

All too soon we were heading home, but something had happened to me. I had been bitten by a bug, and it wasn’t a firefly.

Reproduced with permission. In lieu of contributor’s fees, Bloodstock Notebook has made a donation to pancreatic cancer charities.

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