‘I spent some of my happiest times down in the park at Arundel, watching the horses and listening to him’

It’s been a sad week for the families, friends, and supporters of two eminent sportsmen named Dunlop., writes Colm Greaves

While most normal people occupied themselves during the recent tropical weather by golfing, gardening or gargling, William Dunlop lost his life hurtling his Yamaha motorbike around the narrow lanes of Dublin on Saturday while practicing for the Skerries 100 road race, tragedy once again visiting a family where bike racing calamity is a far too frequent caller.

On that same day, John Leeper Dunlop, one of the most prominent British Flat race trainers of the last century, also passed away. Three days short of his 79th birthday, he was almost three times William’s age, but, unlike his namesake, death did not come unfairly and unexpectedly. Just poignantly in the embrace of his loved ones after a long illness and a life fully lived.

Dunlop was born in Gloucestershire just before the outbreak of war in 1939, the son of a racing-mad doctor who passed on his passion to his first born. After an expensive private education at Marlborough College, he served his compulsory national service with the Royal Ulster rifles in a nod to a heritage that traced back to Northern Ireland.

His career in racing began circuitously through short stints with several trainers having advertised his availability in the Sporting Life with a classified entry that read: “Young man, no practical experience, wishing to be involved in racing — remuneration not important.”

He took over Castle Stables in the picturesque Sussex village of Arundel in 1966 to train privately for the Duke of Norfolk.

There he remained for the next 46 years and from where he sent out over 3,500 winners, 74 of them in Group 1 races. Incongruously, history might record that his most important winner came in a bog standard two-year-old maiden at Brighton in 1977.

Two brothers from the ruling family in Dubai had caught the racing bug while living in Cambridge to learn English in the late 60s and a decade later decided to risk some of their ever-increasing wealth in thoroughbred horses.

Young Sheikh Mohammed asked John Dunlop if he would accompany him to the October Sales at Newmarket and help him buy some yearlings.

Pretty well all the fillies within his modest budget had already been sold,” he later recalled, “and very little was left for us except this Irish-bred Realm filly, who did not exactly inspire us with confidence. She was very small indeed and crooked in one leg, but the Sheikh wanted a filly, so we bought her for a mere £6,200. (€7,015)

This ‘crock’ was later named Hatta, she won by five lengths at Brighton before going on to win the Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood and credit her owner with his first group race success.

The Sheikh was hooked, and Dunlop had unknowingly provided a critical milestone in the development of the empire that is now known as Godolphin. The second of the brothers, Hamden al Maktoum, became one of Dunlop’s principal owners for many years.

Long before he was inadvertently helping to seed one of the more spectacular investments in the history of horseracing, John Dunlop was already making a name for himself as one of the up and coming English trainers. A young Turk along with Henry Cecil and Michael Stoute disrupting the established legends such as Dick Hern, Noel Murless and Peter Walwyn. In 1970 he secured his first Classic with Black Satin in the Irish 1000 Guineas.

He twice won the Epsom Derby, first in 1978 when Shirley Heights mugged Hawaiian Sound and Willie Shoemaker by a very short head on the line.

The colt followed this up a month later by coming only the sixth horse to take the English/Irish Derby double when he controversially kept the race having roughed up Paddy Prendergasts’s Exdirectory in the closing stages.

Dunlop later summarised his great champion: “You would have to describe Shirley Heights as something of a hooligan. But that apart, he was a real man. He was fearless but not really malicious; he would never do anything mean or spiteful. He was just rough, totally masculine, and completely confident in himself.”

His success continued to grow through the 80s with high-quality horses such as Habibti, Circus Plume and Moon Madness and in 1990 he won the Irish Derby with Salsabil, the first filly to win the race in 90 years.

A daughter of the then emerging new sire, Saddlers Wells, Salsabil had already won the English Guineas and Oaks by the time she arrived at the Curragh and her place in history was indelibly written when she collared Deploy inside the final furlong to win it cosily.

A somewhat patrician character, a lover of art who spoke with a lazy drawl, Dunlop was seldom seen in public without his trademark trilby hat and until narrowly surviving a serious heart rupture in 2001, was usually puffing heavily on a cigarette.

Sheikh Maktoum’s racing manager Angus Gold recalled his times with Dunlop affectionately this week. “I spent some of my happiest times down in the park at Arundel, watching the horses and listening to him,” he said. “He was a very calm and wise man but like all of us he could be prickly at times and he was no pushover. He was a great man in my life and I could not speak highly enough of him. You had to know your stuff, as he didn’t suffer fools.”

Dunlop was awarded an OBE in 1996, mainly for his charity work on behalf of stable staff welfare, which was later to prove to be an unfortunate irony given his painfully public exit from his beloved sport.

When asked after his heart attack he if he was planning to slow down he had declared that he would never retire unless he went “broke or mad, either of which is quite possible.”

He never did go mad but go broke he certainly did.

In 2012 he was forced to wind up his operation, entering voluntary liquidation with debts of £1.36m (€1.53m).

By doing so left a lot of small suppliers badly out of pocket and employees with wages unpaid and homes lost. One of his creditors, Tony Lindsell, summed up the sentiment of many: “This is an ugly way for a great career to end. People and businesses have been seriously hurt by this.”

Although stoic in his reaction to financial disaster, Dunlop was certainly hurting deeply too but he had carried a deeper hurt for many years. While two of his sons, Ed and Harry, are now both successful Flat trainers the original plan was that his eldest son Tim would succeed him at Arundel when the time came. But Tim was tragically killed in a car crash when working at Chantilly in 1987.

The angry roads claimed yet another talented young Dunlop.


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