You have to know when you’ve had enough, and I think I got it right

Rolf Johnson on Richard Hannon, never a man to march to the beat of someone else’s drum

Winter
2020
Training Horses

If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer – words of the nineteenth century American philosopher-poet Henry David Thoreau, urging a return to the simpler life. Respect the fundamentals, he said – and he’d have found a kindred spirit in Richard Hannon Snr. Just don’t mention drumming…

Harking back to the devilry of what was a blazing youth only serves to make this, the most affable of men, grumpy, even if only briefly so. At 75, his fires are still burning but the glow is now of a warm hearth rather than the explosive incendiary device of years past. He has moved on and can cast his gaze, with equanimity, on his rolling acres at Herridge, bordering Salisbury Plain. He can sit back and reminisce on those early tumbledown days across the plain where he started training fifty years ago. With his son Richard Jnr now well established, he can wind down.

The hell he can! There’s some truth in ‘fathers look back; sons look forward’. Hannon was assistant to his own father Harry at East Everleigh and now he reprises the role with Richard Jnr, one of his six children. Most assistant trainers, traditionally itinerants, have it all to prove. Not so here, in Hannon country, and the role is by no means ceremonial, either.

And you know by reputation what the man himself is like: entertaining, enlightening, overwhelming. Question: what’s changed since you passed the baton on, so seamlessly as if by osmosis? “Osmosis?” he replies. “Can you get them vaccinated against it?” Seconds later, a work rider calls out, “This one’s not right behind, guv’nor.” “Neither am I,” is the retort. “Kick on.”

If you throw enough of it at a wall, isn’t some of it bound to stick? Hannon’s usual riposte? “Plenty did.” Two hundred and forty-three of them, to be exact, in an epic final season alone

At 25, Hannon took over the half-empty East Everleigh yard sheltering barely a dozen unremarkable beasts. After the shock of finding he’d been bequeathed a place he didn’t actually own, with the help of his jockey pal Frankie Durr (“Frankie only ever needed one gallop to tell him the time of day”) he found the £10,000 needed to buy it. “I’ll never have it to pay you back,” Hannon said. “Oh yes you will,” said Durr.

In 1990, Hannon added Herridge to his domain – at the slightly more significant cost of £1.4 million. Alec Kilpatrick had trained over five hundred winners there before retiring in 1973, after which it became both a minor stud and a place which had seen better times. Kilpatrick never trained more than thirty horses at a time. In contrast, the complement of the two Hannon redoubts currently nudges three hundred.

Hannon was the man to beat either side of the millennium. From the first runner he saddled on succeeding his father in 1970, he saw no reason to complicate the training of thoroughbreds. When Richard Jnr succeeded him on New Year’s Day, 2014, the son was not about to contradict or disturb his father’s example. After all, it had brought ‘the old man’ four trainers’ championships and a record 4,145 winners in a coruscating career. The man Hannon overtook for that record was his exact contemporary Martin Pipe, who had created a revolution and also handed over the reins but not the championships to his own son.

Nowadays he is a man fulfilled, roaming (in his four-wheel-drive) Herridge’s bucolic acres where pounding hooves (numbers forever rising) share the natural order with skylarks (numbers recovering).

Yet would-be inquisitors can’t resist delving into that turbulent youth and his flirtation with the Sixties’ pop scene, on drums: well, it would never have been the cello, would it? As if such trivia had any more relevance to the great racehorse trainer’s life’s work than Sir Henry Cecil’s penchant for rose-growing, Sir Mark Prescott’s empathy (as a spectator) with bull-fighting or Sir Michael Stoute’s affinity with cricket.

In the ephemeral matter of knighthoods, no, Hannon hasn’t kept pace: not a bother, though.

Surely, however, the BBC’s Desert Island Discs missed a trick when recently ‘casting away’ Mark Johnston? Somebody at the ‘Beeb’ must have earwigged that Johnston had overtaken Hannon as the winning-most trainer of all time. But what a technicolour show the Radio 4 audience was denied. What energy he has burnt outstripping the racing world with his constant tide of runners. It would have been a bold presenter who dug up the Smart Alec’s line: “If you throw enough of it at a wall, isn’t some of it bound to stick?” Hannon’s usual riposte? “Plenty did.” Two hundred and forty-three of them, to be exact, in an epic final season alone.

Everything around him is a tension-free zone. I can say with some confidence that Richard’s horses galloped less, were under less strain, than anybody else’s I’ve known

From Herridge to East Everleigh is a Keystone Cops ten-minute drive (look away, Wiltshire traffic police) across the plain, a helter-skelter ride going back in time. When Everleigh stood alone Hannon was obliged to share the plain’s gallops with the Ministry of Defence. They would fly red flags before dropping paratroopers or shells – shades of Johnston dodging RAF bombing runs over his original base in Lincolnshire.

Hannon reminisces about his father and Everleigh. “Dad was a good jump jockey too, you know,” he says. “Some army bod wanted to kick him off the dropping ground one morning so he said, ‘Get your men off here, I’m Brigadier Hannon!’ He was always known as ‘Brigadier’ after that. He’d shoot rabbits from horseback. He shot his ear off by accident when a horse spooked. It took them three days to find the horse – and they never did find the ear.”

What’s left of the old Herridge is a museum-like wing of passage-ways with old oak and antique brass fittings, overlooked by modern barns and the paraphernalia of twenty-first century training. Richard Jnr is all for innovation, but not at the expense of heritage.

Hannon Enterprises is thus a double-barrelled powerhouse patronised by the Queen, Arab royalty, international clients, leading syndicates and first-time toe-dippers into racing’s pond. Newcomers swiftly congratulate themselves on their choice and those whose appetites have been jaded elsewhere rediscover the fun, and the rewards, of racing. “All the fellas ahead of me trained for the Arabs, but I didn’t until Fahd Salman sent two,” says Hannon. “Now we have plenty – a good selection.”

Crack of sparrows, as ever, he’s on the gallops, then back to the office, scanning entries and declarations and humouring visitors. The routine is unchanging, and then there’s second lot. “He lives for being in the yard and on the gallops or the racecourse,” says his son-in-law, former champion jockey now Lambourn trainer, Richard Hughes. “Everything around him is a tension-free zone. I can say with some confidence that Richard’s horses galloped less, were under less strain, than anybody else’s I’ve known.”

It wasn’t a linear progression to the top. The first winner came in a couple of months, and the first Group winner, Crespinall, after two years, appropriately enough at Goodwood, where Hannon runners have always excelled. Hannon’s first Classic winner, Mon Fils, came after just three years. The next of them, Don’t Forget Me, took another fourteen years, though, even if the third Guineas win, with Tirol, came just three years after that. The first trainers’ championship came 22 years after taking out the licence, and the second 18 years later.

The winners accumulated, though, and the horse Hannon insists is the best of the thousands he trained came in 2009. That spring, the acknowledged judge Hughes accompanied an unraced colt by Tagula in his first swinging canter. “This one’s the best you’ve had,” was his message on dismounting that morning. On his Newbury debut that May, Canford Cliffs went some way to substantiating the judgement, winning by seven lengths, and went on to be Frankel’s worthiest opponent. Yet others, most notably Paco Boy, drew a more emotional, public response. Some were surprised at the tearful reception Hannon gave Paco Boy in the Newbury winner’s enclosure after his Lockinge victory in 2010.

Dry wit we readily associate with the man, but wet eyes? “Well, he cost nothing, he came through the ranks, and every time he went to the races he was brilliant,” comes the reply. Paco Boy was a trademark ‘Hannon’: a cheap purchase, bought ‘on spec’ when given the nod by the trainer, in cahoots with bloodstock agents Peter and Ross Doyle, permanent Hannon team players.

Those who over the years lost their shirts trying to out-bluff Hannon at the pub game spoof, which requires the sang-froid of a Las Vegas high-roller, were confounded by the unpremeditated outpouring of emotion that day. He wasn’t to know that it would be Paco Boy’s last win; and when I tell him that the horse has ended up at stud in Turkey, he seems lost for words and lances me with a baleful stare.

Hannon bequeathed his intuitive way of getting the best out of racehorses, and people, to his like-minded son. “You have to know when you’ve had enough, and I think I got it right,” he says – I detect a tremor of resignation. “I’ve outlived a lot of my owners, most of whom were good people. Prize money? Well, they’ll be handing out rosettes next.”

For Richard Jnr’s part he says: “It’s my firm but we’re doing the same as ever and it works. I’m not Dad; we’re lucky to have him.” He’s not referring to the open-heart operation his father went through in 2010, from which came the hospital bulletin: “If I’m going to die of anything in here, it’ll be boredom.”

That was the Canford Cliffs year, when Hannon bridged the gap of nearly two decades between titles. For the first he’d pipped Henry Cecil, with five times the runners. “I wouldn’t have had the energy to send out that many,” admitted Cecil, whose training licence was granted the year before Hannon’s.

The sons of trainers recycle the quotation, allegedly invented by Sydney trainer Anthony Cummings about his own father, the legendary Bart: “My father taught me everything I know about training, but not everything he knew about training.” Richard Jnr, patently grateful for his rich inheritance, says: “Dad taught me how to handle success and failure. Quietly, he’s pretty proud of what he’s achieved.”

The son kicked off with a ten-length winner with his first runner, and a 2,000 Guineas with Night Of Thunder followed. Richard Jnr was never likely to be abashed by that stale, vexatious cliché “he’ll never be his father”. And the same wicked sense of humour percolates the bloodline. When Harry Hannon was uncomplimentary about an irascible lady owner, she took her horses away. Having second thoughts, she rang back and asked if she’d heard him right. “Yes, I said you were a fucking old cow”. Her horses were furloughed, until she provided Richard Snr with his first winner, Ampney Prince.

Years back, when Hannon was caught on the loo at Everleigh, a shout came about a phone call from a difficult transatlantic owner. The bruff response – “Tell him I can’t deal with two shits at once” – travelled along the corridor all the way to the Bahamas: more departures.

Mark Johnston overtook Hannon for total winners in 2018. Had Hannon been as rapacious for success in his early years as he was to become, his final total could now have been out of sight… His robust appetite for life has always been insatiable, a lust that the necessity of training winners intruded upon but never obliterated.

Not least of his top fillies was Lyric Fantasy, owned by the late Lord Carnarvon. Harry Herbert remembers his father calling him at the sales to look for a trainer who would take a free half-share of another filly and train her for nothing in return. Serendipitously, Herbert was looking straight at Hannon at the time. “Shake,” said the trainer, and spat on his hand – the old Irish ‘deal sealed’ – cemented with, “It’ll be a privilege to train for his Lordship.” The association with Carnarvon paid for itself many times over. Owner and trainer got their heads together to ‘cook up’ the Weatherbys Super Sprint for cheaply-bought juveniles – and promptly won its first running with Lyric Fantasy.

What Hannon might have mentioned at the time was that this was an arrangement he’d used all the way back to Mon Fils, bringing owners into the fold by doing sharing deals with breeders who were finding their yearlings difficult to shift.

Myths surround legends: there are ‘versions’ begging the retelling in the Hannon repertoire. He recalls the Listed Race at Ascot in which Carnarvon was looking to sneak a place with a homebred filly, to help the ‘page’. Lester Piggott was informed by his Lordship that she’d “best be held up”. Piggott remained blanket-faced. Hannon recalls: “As I’m legging him up, Lester mutters: ‘Tell his Lordship I’ll make all, and win’.” Which was, of course, the inevitable outcome.

Dwelling on the past isn’t part of the Hannon curriculum, though it does frame the bigger picture. It is worth recalling that for someone so firmly associated with precocious juveniles, ten years before his first championship in 1992 he’d won an Ebor with Another Sam. Meanwhile, Assessor won a Prix Royal-Oak, a Yorkshire Cup, a Prix du Cadran and an Italian St Leger, having also won first time out as a two-year-old.

The ‘typical Hannon’, Lyric Fantasy, was that rare thing, a two-year-old winner of the Nunthorpe (the first for 36 years), in 1992 with Michael Roberts aboard – Roberts and Hannon ’twinned’ that, their championship year. Less well-remembered is that Hannon also had the runner-up, Mr Brooks, who had finished last in the Derby when trained in Ireland! And on that same York day, Niche took the Lowther Stakes and Revelation the Convivial: three winners, who’d cost 35,000gns the lot as yearlings.

A day to remember, then. But Richard’s self-confessed proudest moment was Lord Carnarvon’s funeral in 2001, when he was placed immediately behind Her Majesty.

The Queen has referred to her visits to Herridge as the most enjoyable of times. I’m not sure the bowls of sausages, staple fare for the never-ending stream of visitors, are ‘by Royal Appointment’, but the stories of monarch and trainer have an authentic ring. A horse gets loose on the gallops and Hannon bumps the Land Rover and his royal passenger along in breakneck chase. When the animal is cornered, relief – for the trainer, at least. “It’s OK Ma’am,” he says. “I was worried it was one of mine. He’s not. He’s one of yours…”

On another occasion, owner and trainer were shadowing the string with the latter trying, vainly, to get instructions through to one of his many Indian staff. Frustrated, the trainer’s (not extensive) grasp of Empire history triggered the heartfelt enquiry: “You ruled them once, Ma’am. Do you speak their lingo?” Again, there are ‘versions’ but you can’t improve on the original.

How do you keep notes when you’re trying to keep up with such snapshot banter? The only bit of the Hannon repertoire that’s repetitive is the imperative of “a good name”, as bequeathed by his father. It crosses continents.

“Yeah, Jo and I go to Barbados most winters,” he says. “We’ve got a daughter out there and have had some owners there, too. One, ‘Dr Steve’ (Bennett), took eight horses out to race at Garrison Savannah. They had to go via Trinidad. Steve wouldn’t pay the air fare [for the last leg of the journey] so they were on the deck of a banana boat. One of them escaped and jumped into the sea. The lad jumped in and helped it swim to land – and then got locked up for being an illegal immigrant!”

It’s too good a story to challenge, and the next follows in a trice. “Taffy? Ah Taffy, travelling head man – drove my horsebox for donkeys’ years. He was a bloody menace! He probably only had one tooth left in his head, and one day I had to tell him I was going to lose my temper and knock it out. He’d been using the horsebox to deliver Christmas trees – bloody Christmas trees! One night, I swear, he forgot to unload a runner: left it there, in the lorry, all night.”

When I’ve jammed on laughing brakes, I’m bound to ask about the hit West End play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which features the drawn-out decline and downward spiral of the boozed-out racing writer. There’s a scene where triplet babies, in nappies, are placed on a sofa and the trick is to ‘find the lady’ – revealed when the nappies are unpinned. Bernard attributed the game’s origin to the Hannon triplets – Richard Jnr, Henry and their sister Lizzie (now married to Richard Hughes). Owners and visitors were invited to put their money down. I’m led to believe it was like taking candy – from a baby. “I had the chance to train in Hong Kong once, but I had too many kids,” Hannon laughs. “They’d have flown one or two back to the UK for their education, but not six of them!”

In turn the children adore their parents. “Mum is the queen” says Lizzie. “We all dreaded the one who was told, ‘I’ll tell father about you when he gets home,’ but that was because we all wanted to impress him.”

Henry followed his own drum to work in property, setting up his own ‘homesearch’ business not long ago. Richard Jnr had contemplated the City before doing the world racing tour and settling for following his father’s example. There are plenty of examples of family wealth setting up a generation of trainers – “on exeats from Eton,” murmurs Hannon, not intentionally unkindly. He is, after all, one of last representatives of the ‘old school’, the Clive Brittains, the Michael Jarvises, the David Elsworths, who had to make their own way, from the bottom, in the racing world.

He still wants to know everything that’s going on: how he and my brother can store everything up in their heads, I’ll never know. He’s never down in the dumps; nobody has the same constitution for defeat

Elder daughter Fanny, one of the unsung good judges of young thoroughbreds at the sales, says she hopes she’s got “Dad’s eye” for a yearling (she has). The girls, both married to trainers, are a double act all their own. “It was a noble decision for Dad to stand down for Richard,” says Fanny. “We’d like to take after them – as good as Dad, as strong as Mum.” Echoing her husband, Lizzie agrees: “Stress hardly raises a pulse in Dad. He holds any room. I’m proud that all the newspaper articles I’ve saved are so full of praise for him,” she admits. The sisters are united in their anger at an ancient headline on an article chronicling their father’s rise: ‘Commoner in the Sport of Kings’.

Infighting exemplifies the strength of a family and this one has the full set of ‘characters’. “I could have divorced Jo (hardly likely given the strength of a half-century marriage),” says Hannon. “I’d lined up Brian’s Venture, a sprinter, for a Scottish mob and they went in big, really big. What happens? I get beat by Elzee’s first ever winner, Raffia Set. And then Jo tells me she backed the bloody thing at 25-1!”

Richard Jnr remembers being driven to the races during school summer holidays, shivering in the back of the car as the air-conditioning was always on, full blast. Lizzie laughs: “We’d be taken to the races as kids, Gladys Knight and the Pips playing all the time,” she says. “And when we got there, he’d cram us twenty quid, which always seemed a fortune. He still wants to know everything that’s going on: how he and my brother can store everything up in their heads, I’ll never know. He’s never down in the dumps; nobody has the same constitution for defeat.”

The more Hannon avows his ultimate departure, the more sceptical are those around of its imminence. The stable racing secretary Kevin Mason, who has served both father and son, still addresses him as ‘boss’. And the licence holder? He’s at the races where he can expand in true Hannon manner. The assistant keeps the home fires burning.

Unlike his chum David Elsworth, who began his working life at Herridge under Alec Kilpatrick and rode a fair few winners over jumps, the nearest Hannon came was one day at Taunton when a hurdle was in his pocket. The other riders urged him on. “Only that bugger Jimmy Renfree, who wasn’t in on it, comes yahooing along and does me!” he laughs. “I had a real chance at Birmingham one day. Mike Scudamore said ‘just follow me’. So I did. And he won!” He laughs at the recollection; his audience in stitches. Few recall that early on he trained three Grade 1 hurdle winners – Right Win, Lift And Load and Gran Alba.

Memorials to Elsworth will be the racecourse statues of Desert Orchid and Persian Punch. There are no statues to Hannon’s horses. And there is none to either man. Perhaps that’s because when the pair were forged, they broke the moulds.

Given all we know about the depth of Richard Hannon Snr’s genius, how did all those big-priced winners come about? Think of Mon Fils, backed by his trainer at 200-1 for his Guineas; or Fox Chapel, 100-1 winner of the 1990 Britannia handicap, until this year the longest-priced winner ever at Royal Ascot. Even in the Super Sprint, a Hannon benefit race, Lady Livius, previously ‘unsighted’, went off at 100-1 in 2005. And won.

Why did you run her? Answer: “Why not?”

This spring, just before the lockdown, Richard Jnr saddled Haayem at Wolverhampton. The Arab-owned colt came in at 80-1 – in the March to Your Own Drum Novices’ Stakes.

Like father, like son.

Other Notes

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