Racing with Goldfinger

Fulke Johnson Houghton on Charles Engelhard | 1917 -1971

Horsemen's Lives

Charlie was a big man, in every sense. Physically, his size was to some extent attributable to a well-known addiction to Coca-Cola, whilst his wealth, success in business and philanthropy meant that his reputation preceded him wherever he went in the world. However, while he was a major force in international racing and breeding, closer to home he would also be a huge influence on my own career as a trainer.

I am proud to have had some very good horses for him. I first got to know him when his racing advisor David McCall bought a filly called Ticklish, of which my mother had a half share, on his behalf. Charlie kindly left the filly with us and in turn that led to the purchase of Romulus, a son of Ribot, as a yearling at Keeneland. My mother was always a great judge of a horse and she and David bought him for Charlie – who was mad about Ribot and decided to get into him in a big way, a decision that would serve both of us well.

Romulus became champion miler of 1962, which kind of made me as a trainer: I was only 22 at the time, so very young, and very lucky. Funnily enough, he was one of the seven fallers in Larkspur’s Derby: the favourite Hethersett was among them and even now nobody is quite sure what happened or whose fault it was. I quite fancied his chances that day, but Romulus recovered to win the Sussex Stakes, Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and Prix du Moulin. It was a really big thing to have a good horse like that so early in my career.

I was always led to believe that Charlie was a hard man to work for, but racing was his leisure and he couldn’t have been a better owner, really. He was always charming and would come to look at the horses here two or three times a year. He had a great sense of humour and was marvellous with the lads – and generous with presents for them, too. He and David would invariably arrive and say that they couldn’t stay for too long after evening stables, because he had to be back in London for some dinner or other – and then they’d stay until all hours, drinking us dry of whiskey and gin. I should have guessed what was going to happen because he’d always bring huge amounts of Coca-Cola with him, saying that he’d only drink American Coke and didn’t like the British version.

My mother and David would buy five or six yearlings in America every year for Charlie. We’d have first choice of the Keeneland yearlings, while Jeremy Tree, who trained at Beckhampton where Roger Charlton is these days, would have first choice of those from Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga sale. Ribocco, the next of the good Ribots we had, was a fantastic-looking little horse but quite a character. Every morning he’d drop his lad and then stand there waiting for him to get back on, just to show him who was boss.

The big ‘what if?’ with Ribocco would prove to be the starting stalls, which were introduced at the beginning of his three-year-old season. He and I had quite an argument about them. I won, thank God, but he sulked afterwards, and on his first couple of starts that year he ran terribly because he was in such a bad mood. I can’t help thinking that he’d probably have won his Derby, instead of finishing second to Royal Palace, if he’d run a decent race beforehand: Lester might have been able to put him into the race a bit more. I didn’t and don’t blame Lester for the defeat, though: by that stage, we were almost tearing our hair out in desperation because the horse wasn’t enjoying life at all. Sod’s law, he then decided it wasn’t too bad and won both the Irish Derby and the St Leger. If only… He was a very talented horse and I remember that as he came in after the Leger, he wouldn’t have blown a candle out – the vet turned around to me and said that you wouldn’t have thought he’d had a race. Ribocco had his own ideas, though, and that was very typical of many of the Ribots: you had to make them think that things were their idea, rather than yours, and they resented being told what to do.

Ribofilio was one hell of a good horse but had the unfortunate infamy of starting favourite for four Classics the next year – and being beaten in all of them

Ribocco’s year-younger full-brother was Ribero, another Keeneland yearling. He was a bigger horse but lacked both the acceleration and ability of his brother. He was much more straightforward and genuine, though. They were full-brothers but very different, even if both won both the Irish Derby and St Leger. Lester was brilliant on him at Doncaster. I nearly took him out of the race because he had an abscess in his mouth, but Lester never touched his mouth all the way round. Charlie was thrilled.

Engelhard at Keeneland 1969, with Mack Miller, Helen Johnson Houghton and David McCall

A month after Ribero’s Leger, Charlie and I won the Dewhurst with another son of Ribot, Ribofilio, who was Champion two-year-old of his year. He was one hell of a good horse but had the unfortunate infamy of starting favourite for four Classics the next year – and being beaten in all of them. He won the Craven Stakes at Newmarket but was ‘got at’ before the 2,000 Guineas. I was sure he’d been doped and so was my vet, Charlie Frank; and ten years later the Jockey Club vet admitted to me that he was certain about it, too. Ribofilio went down to the start all right but just fell out of the stalls and was effectively pulled up. His heartbeat was all over the shop after the race. I was gutted, and would sadly never win a Guineas. Other horses were doped in the same way at the time, and they only needed to be given a pat with a hand – the drug was absorbed through the horses’ skin. I’m fairly sure who did it, and while I cannot name them here, I hope that they are rotting in hell, to be honest. We shouldn’t have then run Ribofilio in the Derby, in retrospect, even if he wasn’t disgraced when finishing sixth. We thought he’d recovered from the Guineas, but he hadn’t. He then coughed his way out of the Eclipse, and looking back he had so much speed that I should have kept him at a mile, instead of going to the Irish Derby and St Leger. He probably didn’t stay the trip in either: I often found that identifying a horse’s correct trip is the most difficult thing of all.

Maybe one of the reasons we got that wrong was that in the same year we had Habitat (by Sir Gaylord), who had been a more expensive yearling, again bought at Keeneland by my mother and David for Charlie. He was a serious horse and Champion miler – but I couldn’t really have run him and Ribofilio against each other. When he retired to stud, I was lucky enough to secure a share in him, which paid for both of my children’s education.

It’s funny how things work out in life, but Charlie’s fondness for Ribot as a stallion would indirectly lead him and Vincent O’Brien to Nijinsky. I don’t think Vincent liked Ribots much, as he decided that they had too much character for even him to manage. But it was because of a Ribot colt that Vincent found Nijinsky, who was the first horse Charlie had at Ballydoyle and won his Dewhurst fifty years ago.

I once asked him quite how much money he really had, and he replied that while he wasn’t poor by any means, he was an absolute pauper compared to Nelson Bunker Hunt and Paul Mellon!

What’s so sad is that within less than a year of Nijinsky’s Triple Crown, Charlie was dead at the age of just 54. We’d been worried about him for a while: he had long-term arthritis in his knee, and was terribly overweight and pretty lame, and didn’t half blow when he walked around. We’d all laughed a few years before, when he’d lost a stone or two in weight and had to have all his suits taken in. Sure enough, he immediately put all the weight back on again and his tailor had to let them all out…

The end is at hand? A feeling Ribocco’s owner and trainer knew only too well...

Before he died, Charlie had done the mating which produced Rose Bowl, a homebred by Habitat who ran in the colours of his widow, Jane. She was one hell of a filly with the most marvellous acceleration. I trained her to win the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes twice and she was also first and second in consecutive runnings of the Champion Stakes. The best of them all, though, was Ile De Bourbon, when we got him right. For his his two-year-old career, he was owned by Jane Engelhard and Charlie’s estate. Paul Mellon bought most of the bloodstock from the executors as a package deal, but this was one of the few horses Mr Mellon didn’t want.

I’d seen the horse as a yearling in Kentucky and had then rung David McCall to tell him that he looked near to death – I’ve never seen a horse in such a bad state. At the time, he looked like a camel, with long hair and every rib visible. He was so weak that he got every illness and virus going. I think that MacKenzie (‘Mack’) Miller, who was Charlie’s trainer in America, had seen him at the same time, and remembered it when Mr Mellon was buying all the other stock. When we got him both healthy and fit, though, he was the best horse you ever saw.

At the end of Ile De Bourbon’s two-year-old season, we had to get Robin Hastings and the British Bloodstock Agency to value the horse on behalf of the estate’s trustees. I said to David that whatever the valuation was, we had to make sure we bought him. The BBA got Sir Philip Oppenheimer to take a share, along with my mother and David, and told me that there was a 10% share left for me to buy – even if I’d had rather more than 10% in mind! He was a great success, though, and won both the King George and the Coronation Cup for us before being retired to Banstead Manor Stud, then owned by Hugo Morriss, where he sired Derby winner Kahyasi.

David’s involvement was a big part of the Engelhards’ success in racing. Quite apart from his skill at buying yearlings, he was the best racing manager there ever was. We’d discuss everything and, unlike most of the buggers in similar roles, he’d share the blame when things went wrong and didn’t always just claim everything was the trainer’s fault. Having David as the conduit made between us made life so easy for both Charlie as owner and me as trainer.

One of my favourite stories about Charlie concerns Cragwood, the estate in New Jersey he and Jane bought as a family home for themselves and their five daughters. Soon after they had renovated the house, they received a visit from the Jesuit priest who had married them. Charlie gave him a tour and asked him what he thought of it. He said, “My son, with God’s help I think you have done a wonderful job.” Charlie’s reply? “You should have seen the place when God was running it on his own…”

It was always said that Charlie was Ian Fleming’s inspiration for the James Bond villain, Auric Goldfinger. I can’t be sure that it’s true, but I know Charlie rather enjoyed the association and never denied the story. I once asked him quite how much money he really had, and he replied that while he wasn’t poor by any means, he was an absolute pauper compared to Nelson Bunker Hunt and Paul Mellon!

He was a tremendous character, though, and very international in his outlook for racing. Even if going to Keeneland with him was a bit like what it must have been like with Sheikh Mohammed, in that he could outbid everybody, he did nonetheless try to run his racing on a business footing. He spent a lot, but was very lucky and made a lot of money when selling his good horses on as stallion prospects. In doing that, he was great for the business – and for me.

Charlie really put me on the map when I was a young trainer, something for which I shall always be grateful, and I still think of him a lot. In the hallway of the house on the Oxfordshire downs where my wife Gaie and I now live are a couple of lovely paintings by Lyn Alexander of both Habitat and Ribero. Pride of place in our dining room may be a photograph of Accidental Agent, but on the walls are portraits by Richard Stone Reeves of Rose Bowl, Habitat, Ribocco and Ile De Bourbon: great horses, great days and a great man.

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