Tue, 3 August, 2021


Geoff had the time of his Life

Posted: July 10th, 2021

AS promised, here are some extracts from Geoff Lester’s extraordinary account of his 34-year working life on The Sporting Life, racing’s greatest daily. He’s pictured at home this month, still enjoying life.

THE PERILS OF FILING FROM ABROAD

ARLINGTON, 30 miles north west of Chicago city centre, is a beautiful park course surrounded by oaks and willows, not to mention a lake and immaculately kept hedges. It was a racecourse which led the way in the innovation stakes, installing the first electronic totalisator board in 1933 and also bringing in the first public address system. In more modern times, the track hosted the world’s first $1m race, the Arlington Million, in 1981, with two legends, John Henry and jockey Bill Shoemaker, teaming up for a famous victory, the pair being immortalised by a statue overlooking what is a wonderfully picturesque paddock.

There were two British winners of the Million – Tolomeo and Teleprompter – in the first five years [of the race], which also included a triumphant return for John Henry at the age of nine. That prompted NBC to agree a deal with Arlington to begin screening the Million live, and I attended a press conference for the announcement of this memorable occasion. Obviously, British hacks had tight copy deadlines, what with the six-hour time difference, a situation not helped by the fact that I was working with the infamous dreaded Tandy computer.

The Tandy was introduced in 1980 but had run its course by 1991, being replaced by the more powerful CoCo 3. We at the Life had endless problems with Tandys, struggling to get copy through to the office from Ascot, let alone 4,000 miles away in Arlington. Consequently, I had to revert to transmitting my copy across the Atlantic by telephone, which, ultimately, proved an absolute nightmare. We had some excellent copytakers, but we also had a solitary two-fingered typist who was woefully one-paced in front of a computer! Unfortunately, on this occasion I was presented with the aforementioned, a young fellow called Mark, who had no interest whatsoever in racing. He looked like Rod Stewart with his spikey, back-combed hair, and his typing skills were probably on a par with Rod’s.

The previous day Mark had asked me if the Sheikh, as in Mohammed, was spelt SHAKE. Mark was a man of few words, so here goes the conversation as my copy began with news that Dick Duchossois, boss of Arlington, had just signed a lucrative TV deal.
Me – “Dick Duchossois…”
Mark – “Did you say Mick?”
Me – “No Dick as in Richard.”
Mark – “Rick?”
My voice was getting louder, and one of the American hacks asked me to keep the noise down as a press conference was going on.
Me – “I can’t – I need to get my copy over to the UK.”
U.S. hack – “Where’s your computer?”
Me – “I don’t have one.”
U.S. hack – “What do you mean you don’t have one, everyone has a computer.”
Me – “Well, I don’t. Now, Mark I’m back with you, it’s Dick, not Mick or Rick, Dick – D-I-C-K!”
U.S. hack – “F*ck me. If he’s having trouble with Dick, wait until he gets to Duchossois!”
The Arlington pressroom erupted in laughter. Sympathetic to my cause, the American hacks left me alone to continue the battle, which felt like I was pushing an elephant up the stairs.

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HENRY CECIL AND FRANKEL – A MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN

WE have been in awe at some wonderful partnerships in sport over the last five decades – the likes of Law and Charlton, Edwards and John, Redgrave and Pinsent, Torville and Dean. The list is endless but, while I freely admit that I’m biased, has there ever been a sporting twosome who did more for each other than Henry Cecil and Frankel?

Cecil, who lost his brave seven-year battle with cancer in the summer of 2013, was never one to confuse his geese with swans, but from an early stage in Frankel’s career, Henry knew that the horse was very special. When Henry’s cancer returned with a vengeance, it was Frankel alone who extended the trainer’s life by more than a year.

After Frankel had stretched his unbeaten record to 14 when bowing out in the Champion Stakes at Ascot, Henry, his voice now fading to a whisper, said: “He’s the best horse I have trained, and I doubt if racing will ever see a better one.” Few would dispute that claim, but it was so typical of Henry to divert all the credit to Frankel himself whenever he was congratulated for guiding the colt to pole-position in the world rankings.

But, while Frankel undoubtedly came along just at the right time for Henry, hero of 10 trainers’ titles and 34 Classics at home and abroad, if horses could talk I’m certain that Frankel would reciprocate that lavish praise which Henry lauded upon him.

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UPS AND DOWNS OF GLORIOUS GOODWOOD

GOODWOOD is for me the most beautiful racecourse in the world, but those picturesque Sussex Downs do not lend themselves to bad weather. I’ve been there when the sea fret off the English Channel made visibility so bad that you couldn’t see the end of your nose, let alone that wonderful view from the stands across to the Isle of Wight.

Wind and rain can often result in tables around the paddock bars being blown half way to Chichester, but in 1993 when Lochsong, one of the best sprinters of that decade, got the better of an epic scrap with arch-rival Paris House in the King George Stakes, conditions were as bad as they can get.

When the runners left the stalls, racecourse commentator Simon Holt asked the crowd jokingly, “If you see them before I do, give me a shout!”

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IMMORTALS OF THE PRESSROOM

THE likes of Hugh McIlvanney, Christopher Poole and Claude Duval could have done stand-up comedy, while Jim Stanford, Richard Baerlein and Michael Seely also had more fables than Aesop in their locker. They all loved an audience to tell their tales, none moreso than Hugh McIlvanney, who was a giant in a vintage era of sports writers, and, though he was always quick to stress that he was “a wee novice” when it came to racing, apart from football and boxing, it was his favourite pastime.

He was a total perfectionist and would never “come out to play” until he had read every word of the first edition of his Sunday Times copy the previous evening. Not only a magnificent wordsmith but also a wonderful broadcaster, Hugh’s gravelly Scottish voice made him a natural for narrating any sporting feature for television. The Observer had brought McIlvanney, son of a Kilmarnock miner, to London in 1963, and he stayed with that paper for 30 years before spending another 23 with The Sunday Times.

Like me, Hugh was on duty at Aintree for the 1997 Grand National that was postponed when a bomb threat was made to the course less than an hour before the race. The police evacuated 60,000 people from the track, including media, informing us all that 20,000 vehicles in the various car parks would have to be left there overnight. However, with no Sporting Life on Sundays I did not have to file my copy on this unique drama until the following day, whereas Hugh’s Sunday Times deadline time was closing fast. So, like Brough Scott and others, he found a friendly Liverpudlian in the terraced houses across the road who allowed him access to a telephone and a kitchen table, enabling him to enlighten the readers as only he could in such a bizarre situation.

Obviously, none of the press were booked in to stay the Saturday night, but Aintree announced that the National would now be staged on the Monday, so Mr Fix-It (Mike Dillon, a former Ladbrokes guru) secured hotel rooms in the Manchester Hilton for few of us and we all got a train across from Aintree.

We dined well and were on the crème brûlée when Hugh joined us, immediately declaring with intent: “Who’s thirsty? It’s time to play catch-up.” Mike, who had a close relationship with Hugh, knew that meant red wine aplenty and ordered a few more bottles. Hugh’s arrival had interrupted a soccer conversation, and as he walked into the restaurant Tony Stafford of The Daily Telegraph was in full flow, declaring to his colleagues: “Do you know, I think Juninho, the Brazilian striker with Middlesborough, is the finest footballer I’ve ever seen.”

Hugh had barely taken his seat, but he was clearly ready for confrontation and stood up. “Tony, you are talking b*ll*cks. Juninho wouldn’t be fit to lace wee Georgie’s (Best) boots. However, if you are talking really great footballers, there is only one man who warrants that description, and that is Pele. He was different class – just ask Bobby Moore who he’d rather play against, Juninho or Pele.”

There was a strange hush for a few seconds, when up popped my Life newshound Gary Nutting, who was sitting down the other end of the table. “It’s a bit difficult to interview Bobby Moore at the moment” (Bobby had died four years earlier), said Gary, stirring his wooden spoon mischievously.

Mike Dillon looked across at me, wincing, as he clearly knew that Hugh would hold the last card. Hugh, a face like thunder, had never met Gary, but his reply flashed low across the net faster than a Roger Federer return-of-serve. “Laddie, is your ability so limited that you can interview only the living?”

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