Watching the Wheels

Michael Channon Jnr on coming home to England via 1955

Winter
2020
Bloodstock Life

As a scouser mused in 1980 after a period of self-reflection, albeit after a rather grander experience of global success, “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round”

There’s this paranoid doubt in the back of my mind these days; the thought that I’ve become a one-trick pony. Like the ageing footballer who hasn’t moved on from a previous life, turning a header from three yards out at Grimsby Town in Division Three two decades ago into a forty-yard rasper at Anfield in the quarter-final of the cup.

‘People say I’m crazy,
Doing what I’m doing,
Well, they give me all kinds of warnings,
To save me from ruin…’

That thought hit me as I put Sixties Icon on the walker yesterday morning. I’m back doing what I did over two years ago before I left for Australia. Dealing with a personal hero, yes, but well aware that our best days might be somewhat behind us. A thought underlined by the next horse I put on the walker. Rumble Inthejungle has joined Sixties on the roster at Norman Court Stud now and, while I’ll admit that he’s an absolute smasher (and far less grumpy), there has been a sense of melancholy since the new kid on the block arrived.

I’m experiencing a real sense of downtime now after possibly the worst career move ever undertaken in the history of gainful employment. In any other instance I’d be sitting here wondering why I threw it all away: a job I loved within the most powerful racing team in New South Wales and, when considering the financial state of the racing industry in the UK, I could be accused of having lost my mind by returning home in May.

Perspective is required, mind. Many people have found themselves bereft of direction since Covid-19 impacted on all of our lives back in the spring. I’m no different but certainly better off than many.

So, I’m back where I was, in a one-bedroom flat on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border. This time, though, I have a memento hanging above the fireplace. A gift from Chris Waller Racing that inspires a wry but affectionate smile when I’m watching telly next to a cat that bullies me every evening. It represents so much in terms of a personal transformation from a clinically depressed and downright morbid being into someone who can actually see a future worth enduring, Covid or not.

The cat has certainly kept me grounded – I was of the understanding that he came with the flat, but it took me very little time realise that I did. ‘Cat Thing’ thinks I’m its butler. Them’s the facts.

My Aussie horse represents my three-yard header at Grimsby Town. But it wasn’t two decades ago, and it wasn’t in the third division of English football league. Last year’s Everest was probably the best sprint race ever held but, as we all know in racing, time moves on very quickly. There’s a new Everest winner now, but I’m happy to drone on about when I played a part in scaling the heights of my profession, even if it was just for one day.

Sixteen months ago, whilst still basking in the reflective glory of strapping the Sydney Cup winner Shraaoh, the prospect of accompanying Yes Yes Yes as he was about to embark upon his three-year-old campaign dominated my thoughts. I’ve dealt with plenty of two-year-olds in my time and although you often hope they will improve, I was convinced that he was an individual who definitely would. I’m seldom that positive, but Yes Yes Yes was different.

His juvenile victory in the Group 2 Todman Stakes was emphatic but away from that he provided even more evidence. We’re all guilty of anthropomorphism at times: the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object and, while we can all accept that it’s so often just plain daft to do so, Yes Yes Yes was just that – plain daft.

Everything he did was a game, everything he was asked to do was so easy, and everything he undertook was done with relish. Boy, he was fun to be around.

And that fun gave way to immense pride after the Everest, a pride still felt when I wear my Yes Yes Yes-branded jacket and mention it whenever and wherever I get the opportunity. “Oh this? This is the horse I looked after when I was working in Australia. Have I not mentioned it yet? I looked after this horse, he won the richest turf race in the world, a track record as well...”

I’ll admit that I’m something of a bore when it comes to Yes Yes Yes. And that plays on my mind – I know there’s more to life than a horse winning a race, but the pride endures.

‘When I say that I’m okay,
Well, they look at me kind of strange,
Surely you’re not happy now,
You no longer play the game...’

I’ve found myself wrestling with that quite a lot at the moment.

The 3am alarm that woke me every morning at Rosehill has been replaced by a far less intense regime at the stud. My sleepy one-bedroom flat today is far removed from my digs that never ceased to rumble to the sound of James Ruse Drive in Rosehill, which was something of a mad house, surrounded as it was by abandoned shopping trolleys and young stable staff. They were my colleagues but so much of my time was spent counselling them as they went through the anxieties and traumas that all youngsters do. It was fun, I’ll admit; offering advice whilst knowing that all I had was empathy for their angst at their regretful, sometimes humiliating, often drunken shenanigans. I found it funny, too, because I had no solutions whatsoever, I’d just been there and done it twenty years before. But I was approachable – their elder equal.

In fact, I wasn’t even that – many of them rode work and were on a far higher wage than I ever was but I thrived on the meritocracy of it all. I have a million shortcomings but I’m a forthright soul these days. I know what I’m good at: talking, reasoning, thinking and drinking, whilst I was demonstrably kind and understanding with the tricky juveniles who could randomly lash out at times, often without warning. I was patient with the horses too.

My colleagues liked me, and I helped more than a couple with their travails through life. I’m still a fuckwit myself – it’s just that I’m 25 years further down the line – but I was their pithy, middle-aged confidante, a source of encouragement. I can give myself credit for that. Sat here now, I regret leaving many genuine friends and the suburbs of Sydney behind.

Regardless, from Rosehill to Norman Court Stud then, in the village of West Tytherley or, to paint a more vivid picture, 1955.

They don’t even know that Elvis is dead around these parts so I daren't tell them about John Lennon’s fate. Such a backwater makes crowbarring my Yes Yes Yes exploits into casual conversations at the village shop a very difficult skill to do, so I’ve had to find something else to occupy my time: talking about my heroic return to weekend sporting endeavours for instance. Without the drain of the racing calendar in my diary, I relaunched my cricket career for West Ilsley in June after a 16-year absence, topping the bowling charts in the Oxfordshire Cricket League in 2020 – albeit in Division 4. But I was the oldest man to do it.

This autumn I’m even a registered player for the West Tytherley Pigeons FC. At our level (although I’m not sure how low that actually is) I retain plenty of talent, I merely lack mobility, and there’s very little any of us can do to cover that up. I move like an abandoned shopping trolley in Rosehill.

I often ask myself if I’m still relevant when I look at the framed photo above the fireplace.

‘When I tell them that I’m doing fine,
Watching shadows on the wall,
Don’t you miss the big time, boy?
You’re no longer on the ball...’

Driving the tractor helps, as does listening to Arthur Conan Doyle’s timeless audible books narrated by Stephen Fry, along with cricket podcasts and anything related to the debauchery of the 1990s. In between, I’ve made being kicked by foals something of an art form, especially on Wednesdays when the farrier does his rounds.

I dealt with plenty of yearlings and two-year-olds at Waller’s and, barring a few isolated incidents of rank absent-minded stupidity, I was a sound and solid member of staff. But now, back at the stud, I’m generally considered to be a liability once more amongst those who used to work alongside me in our days at West Ilsley for my old man.

It seems as though I get kicked at least every other day, much to the delight of my colleagues Keith, Janet and Michael. They laugh heartily every time they hear me swear from afar and witness the pitiful sight of me limping round a corner. There’s one foal in particular, by Bungle Inthejungle and out of Good Morning Lady (back in the day we trained both with no personal conflict that I can recall) and I swear he hates me.

Granted, I took his mum away from him when we were weaning in September, but he kicked me on my very first day back at work in June and I’d never compliment his intelligence by saying that he foresaw that incident occurring. We were merely moving paddocks. I was leading his mother across the gangway and towards a gateway into an adjacent field when he leapt forward and quite deliberately booted me in the stomach.

Winded as I was, I couldn’t make a sound because breathing had rapidly become beyond my capabilities and, as my torso began to double over involuntarily, ‘Stud Boss’ Keith, who was holding the gate, could barely talk either. Truth is, he was pissing himself with laughter.

“Don’t let her go until she’s in, Michael”, he half-barked, half-chortled, by which time I was shuffling along on my knees attempting to inhale with the grace and dignity of a banked salmon. Eventually, he took the lead rein, unclipped her and sympathetically said, “Fuck me, you’ve not changed. A fucking liability.” Keith loves me.

Ominously, that foal is growing before my eyes and I might again be employing a dose of anthropomorphism into my analysis of our personal vendetta. Indeed, I often liken our seething moments of eye contact to that of the giant chicken and his epic brawls with Peter Griffin in Family Guy. Nobody knows where this conflict came from but it’s there, it’s deep and brimful of resentment, with the only difference being that I haven’t got the bottle to fight back.  

So, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve slotted back into stud life with seamless fluidity.

‘Well, they shake their heads,
And they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind,
I tell them there’s no hurry,
I’m just sitting here doin’ time…’

Since my return I’ve also gone to enormous lengths to try to build what I see as burnt bridges with Sixties Icon. It’s become slightly ridiculous if I’m honest; polishing his brass plaque outside his stallion unit for example – as if he gives a toss about that. He’s just a horse after all.

But Rumble Inthejungle now lives next to him and I’m well aware that, as with all freshman sires, he’ll need supporting with mares, many of them being our own. I’m not saying that Sixties will suffer the same drop off as the one I’m currently enduring (at the time of writing I’m at the front of the market for the coveted ‘Celibate of the Year’ in 2020) but I genuinely believe that he should get more support from outside breeders. It’s easy to forget the sensation that he was when he started out. I’m ridiculously biased, of course, and while a part of me feels like a fraud in telling anyone what to do or think, that seems to be a popular modern-day pastime.

If I can in some way manipulate the masses through an established publication (Bloodstock Notebook) I feel as though Milo can be my Rupert Murdoch; the overlord in an editorial plan to bend minds to fit a blatant agenda.

Sixties Icon is by Galileo and out of Love Divine, and he’s standing for £1,000 in 2021 for heaven’s sake! What more do you people want?

And this handy propaganda tool provides me with a relevent link between the two equine gods in my life.

Galileo is the cornerstone of Coolmore, the same operation that bought into Yes Yes Yes after his two-year old victory in the Todman last year and Sixties was Galileo’s very first winner of a British Classic.

Now, when I worked in racing in the UK, the entries of the Coolmore/Ballydoyle horses would often demoralise me. In the face of such opposition, I’d often became both bitter and demoralised as the results played out with all the predictability that their pedigrees suggested.

I’ll be frank, I saw them as bully boys. What chance did we have against this all-consuming monster who had that much firepower? With hindsight, my feelings back then were understandable.

But there’s very little point in having a mind if you don’t allow yourself to change it and, as the lad who looked after Yes Yes Yes, my opinions on the ‘Coolmore Monster’ were turned upside down.

Teeth-grindingly, the seeds were sown a while back.

About fifteen years ago I bumped into John Magnier in a lift at Newbury races when he called me ‘Mr Channon’ and congratulated me on a maiden winner we’d had earlier on in the card ahead of the Lockinge. In spite of my prejudices, I begrudgingly had to accept that he seemed like a thoroughly decent bloke.

A few years later I was on the phone to Grandma with a saddle under my arm as I was walking down the hill towards the stables at Epsom on Derby Day. Aidan O’Brien was walking in the opposite direction. We were about to pass each other on the bridge that goes over the road when I noticed that Mr O’Brien was trying to get my attention.

At that moment, Grandma was telling me that she was doing a shepherd’s pie for when I got home that evening and it’s a rather bizarre moment when you’re faced with the world’s greatest trainer waiting patiently for you to finish a conversation with the world’s greatest woman without wanting to fob either of them off.  

Eventually, I told Grandma I loved her, ended the call and just stood there wondering if I’d done anything wrong. Then Aidan (even calling him Aidan feels far too informal) spoke.

“Michael, I just wanted to congratulate you on Samitar winning the Guineas. She’s a marvellous filly. Very well done.”

I don’t recall what I said in return, but I remember awkwardly trying to stuff my phone into my pocket and switch the saddle from under my right arm to my left as he offered his hand in a very forthright and meaningful fashion. That was a moment.

My involvement with Yes Yes Yes last year then led to me meeting Tom Magnier. Annoyingly, he too seemed like a really good bloke. He always said hello and often sought my opinion on the horse. Despite being defeated by Godolphin’s Bivouac in his first two starts at three before the Everest, not once did I feel the need to employ the owner bullshit app.

I think I deleted it before I got on the plane at Heathrow the year before.

I feel as though I’m trying to remain relevant again by bringing up Yes Yes Yes but the short story is this: he needed his first run of the season and I’ll take the risk of saying that fate robbed him of his Group 1 on his second start, the Group 1 Run to the Roses Stakes. He’d only had a trot that morning and he was in fine order as I left the barn at 9am to go home, have some grub, shower, change and take him racing at 11.30.

The journey to Rosehill races was only 500 yards from the barn at the same track but when I pulled him out, you’d have thought his leg was about to fall off. He was lame for 50 yards and his off-fore was burning up on the coronet band. This led me to embrace a state of high stress which didn’t leave me for the rest of the day. Thoughts of my dad’s episode with Queen’s Logic on Guineas day and more recently Harzand’s scare ahead of his Derby win with Pat Smullen onboard in 2016 rattled through my mind.

Even worse, trying to keep Yes Yes Yes away from his adoring syndicate members as I tubbed it in ice for an hour in a hose bay was highly stressful. Still, he ran and only went down by a head, having looked the winner all over as they reached the furlong pole with Yessie a length in front. Did the foot cost him? I don’t know, but if it didn’t, then a step back to six furlongs looked logical. Pus burst out of his heel the following Monday with no ill-effects, meaning I could look forward to a trip to Flemington for the Coolmore Stakes a month later at the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

But, inside a fortnight he was thrown into the Everest.

The day when Tom Magnier stopped me as I was walking Yessie in the build-up.

“What do you think, Mick?”

“All I know is you can put him anywhere. He’s bombproof mentally and he’ll run his race.”

“Is he in good form?” This was delivered with an air of a man under severe pressure.

“I don’t know how good he is Tom, I just know he’ll run as well as he can.”

I wasn’t dodging the issue and applying platitudes. I delivered it with complete conviction. I’ve never had so much faith in an animal. And he won.

Before Yessie came back to unsaddle, Tom approached me in front of the grandstand and extended his hand in congratulation. I didn’t accept and chose instead to pick him up in a bear hug. I figured nothing mattered in that moment, least of all respectful decorum.

Yes Yes Yes was a far better racehorse than I was a strapper, but I’ll always have that moment. That horse made me think that not only might I know what I’m on about, but also that anything is possible if you leap into the unknown. He was a freak in the sense that he restored my faith in people, in sport, in myself. He also came into my life by sheer, ridiculous chance.

His injury and subsequent retirement knocked the stuffing out of me. Plans had been made to take in Royal Ascot this summer, with the Golden Jubilee in my opinion a complete formality. And that’s not stable lad bravado. He was a brilliant racehorse.

The great thing was though, the whole Coolmore team was tremendous. My dad was over for a holiday and instead of watching Yes Yes Yes race as was the plan, he got to see him just as he was settling into his new stallion quarters at Jerrys Plains. As sycophantic as I know this sounds, the Coolmore team acknowledged everyone who had played a part. I’m always heartened to see the number of friends and former colleagues from Waller’s who visit and post photos on Facebook of their trips to see Yessie as he lets down, transforming into a stallion almost unrecognisable from the wiry juvenile I first met.

I now really like Coolmore.

The old me would be rather disappointed in finding the good in others but they are proper people.

But that’s what racing is full of when you are able to step back and see it for what it is.

There’s plenty going for taking a step back from time to time; for watching the wheels go round, but I can’t do it much longer. The money I saved from the prize-money percentage at Waller’s will be gone by Christmas – and I can’t see the UK’s industry ever providing me with anything approaching the life I had as a stable lad Down Under in its current state. But we have to get on because we’re all in this together.

I’m not the man to be looked to when it comes finding a vaccine for Covid-19. I just came home because Grandma wasn’t well, and I knew the family were blatantly not telling me they were worried. So, I was going to bed in Sydney not feeling right about not being here. She’s OK now though, just turned 99. Our family’s star. I made the right choice. Although I really miss Sydney.

My old man and I had one of our fleeting but always enjoyably awkward conversations in the car the other day.

We spoke about cricket, the Saints (both of us in agreement that Danny Ings is a top player) and reflected on Sixties Icon’s continually overlooked class as a sire in the aftermath of Nastase’s victory in the Rockingham at York (he’s still kicking himself about starting him over seven furlongs back in July). When you’re the owner-breeder though, you can freely admit to trainer error.

Rhetorical stuff – none of which he’d recall with any detail. And then he came out with something I never expected.

“What are you going to do then? Do you wanna train?”

“What?”

“Well, there’s plenty of room at West Ilsley. Jack will be, why not you? You’re popular and there’s plenty of room.”

A long pause.

“The difference is, Dad, going to Oz made me realise that I can train. But now? At my age?”

“Yeah, but I ain’t gonna last forever you know?”

“I’ve been saying that for a while!”

We chuckled. At least I did. He looked worried. I’m 46 years of age. We’re enduring a global pandemic. Probably a financial depression on the way. I’m on top of the bowling averages in Oxfordshire Division 4. Plus, the West Tytherley Pigeons need an ageing striker on the bench.

I don’t know. Who does?

Where will we all be when Bloodstock Notebook comes out this time next year?

I’ve tried to prepare. I’ve written a book, with two or three opportunities presented to me along similar lines. I figure we might just have to make things happen ourselves in the coming months.

As for now, I’ve got my laptop in front of me. I’m typing away, listening to Lennon with Sixties Icon in vision on the CCTV monitor.  He looks a bit grumpy but then again, he always does. He’s been there, proved it, done it. He’s a star. I’m not, but that won’t stop me from aligning myself with and ripping off the work of another sixties icon.

Because we’re all in this together.

‘I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,
I really love to watch them roll,
No longer riding on the merry-go-round,
I just had to let it go.’

Other Notes

Sign up for News

Thank you! Your submission has been received!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form