Clare Balding talks to Mick Channon

The racing trainer and former professional footballer talks to Clare Balding

Mick Channon’s website is a bit like him – revealing, humorous and a little rough around the edges. There is nothing of the slick salesman about Channon but there is plenty of the tough, committed, highly charged and largely optimistic sportsman. He is a walking example of the triumph of hope and optimism over reality.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Channon taking out a training licence. I asked him what he had learned from his first two decades as a racehorse trainer.

“I realise how bloody naïve I was when I came in to do the bloody job.” He said. (I will not from now repeat every expletive but you can insert them at about three word intervals.) “You think you’re going to change the world and that it will be easy but I’ve learned from experience that it’s a tough old game.”

As we have this summer got accustomed to daily bulletins of doom from the City and have even worked out the meaning of previously unheard of phrases such as ‘bear market’, it is tempting to think that no-one has ever had it so bad. Wrong. When Channon started in 1989 it was during a recession and he has lost track of how much money he has spent on his stables in West Ilsley or how much he borrowed to get started.

“With places like this,” he explained about the historic stables north of Newbury, “they eat money. Whether it’s the horses kicking the place down or the staff trying to burn it down or whatever, it costs just to keep it going.

“I’ve been so lucky and my God, you need that, to have the horses good enough to keep us on the right track. I started with just ten horses for a few mates but now I’ve got 150 horses, I employ 50 to 60 people and I have responsibilities to thousands of others. It puts rather a different perspective on it.”

Channon does not behave or talk like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders but he knows that he is only one bad season away from being in real trouble and he appreciates every day and every horse who keeps him in the lifestyle and the job that he came into with such passion. Life as a professional footballer for Southampton and England seems so far away that it is barely referenced these days. Say the name Mick Channon and anyone who knows their sport will say ‘racehorse trainer’ rather than ‘ex-footballer’.

To have scaled the heights in two demanding and unforgiving sports is simply exceptional and Channon’s record proves his determination and his consistency.

“This game is a great leveller,” he said, continuing in typically forthright manner, “You can be top of the tree one day and kicked in the balls the next.

“We’ve never been frightened to buy horses but you need to be lucky. If we had a real bad year, it would be a worry and you always do worry that one year, all the horses you’ve bought will be useless. It hasn’t happened yet, thank God.”

Channon is a man who wakes up every morning blessing his luck and looking forward to what he might see on the gallops. He genuinely loves the uncertainty and the art in the game, rather than the science.

“Sure it would be nice to train a lot of Group 1 horses who need a trip like Aidan does,” he said with a hint of envy of the O’Brien factory that churns out one superstar after another, “But he doesn’t always get it right and the good ones will come to the top regardless of what we do to mess it up.

“Look at that Duke of Marmalade [O’Brien’s leading older horse this year], he was just a lead horse last season. They didn’t know how good he was and no-one can really tell. The fun of it is that every day is different and there might just be a superstar out there. You live in hope. You have to.”

Youmzain is a Channon horse who has improved with age and clearly gives him great pleasure. Now five years old, he has won over £1.2 million in prize money and finally collected the Group 1 race he deserved in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud. For a trainer lauded for his handling of two-year-olds, it is a source of pride that he has kept a good horse happy and on top of his form for so long.

“Youmzain has got better every year he’s raced,” he said, “there have been plenty of people wanting to criticise him but he’s a bloody good horse and he will keep shooting at the top races and he won’t be far away. He only cost 30 grand and I know he’s not perfect but I’m delighted for him and with him.”

Apart from Youmzain, Channon names a few others to keep an eye on during August and September.

  1. Capeability (two-year-old colt) “Hasn’t run yet but is a nice horse. He’s in the National Stakes at the Curragh.”
  2. Please Sing (two-year-old filly). “She’s won two of her three races and I was really pleased with her. She’ll go to the Moyglare Stud Stakes in Ireland.”
  3. Lucky Leigh (two-year-old filly) “We shouldn’t have run her over 6 furlongs in the Cherry Hinton [won by Please Sing]. She’s a very fast filly and we’ll drop her back to 5 for the Molecomb at Glorious Goodwood.”
  4. Silver Games (two-year-old filly). “She’s a half sister to Nahoodh and we like her a lot. She’ll be running soon.”
  5. As for a dark horse, he cited Pearl of Manacor who is named after the newly-crowned Wimbledon champion Rafa Nadal.

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