The legendary Fergie Sutherland, best known as the trainer of the 1996 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Imperial Call, died yesterday in Marymount Hospice, Cork following a long illness. He was 81.
Imperial Call put the then 64-year-old on the map when he was his first ever runner at the Cheltenham festival and proceeded to land the biggest prize in National Hunt racing.
Beautifully handled by Conor O’Dwyer, he exploded up the straight to beat the subsequent Aintree Grand National hero, Rough Quest, by four lengths.
O’Dwyer had only ridden the horse for the first time a couple of weeks earlier, when the combination made all of the running to beat Master Oats by six lengths in the Hennessy at Leopardstown.
So impressed was the trainer with O’Dwyer that he quickly decided the partnership had to be kept intact for the Gold Cup.
Sutherland came from a well-to-do Scottish family, although he himself was born in London on June 1, 1931.
An army officer and educated at Eton and Sandhurst, it was quite extraordinary that he spent the latter part of his career training horses in west Cork.
A larger than life figure, with a quick wit, he became immensely popular in both his adopted county and country.
Soldiering was in his blood (his father was commander of the Black Watch in the Great War), but his own military career was abruptly ended in the Korean War.
A lieutenant with the 5th Dragoon Guards, he was injured in an explosion and lost his left leg.
“Going up a hill, one of the four troops I was with tripped the wire of a land mine and set off the blast,” he said.
“I was the only one badly injured. One of the troops said ‘you’re okay Mr Fergie, it’s only the leg’. I knew that because I had already checked.”
After Korea, he returned to England and worked in the stables of Geoffrey Brooke in Newmarket, where his contemporaries included Peter Walwyn.
Sutherland went on to work with Joe Lawson, who won an Epsom Derby with Never Say Die, and after Lawson retired, Sutherland’s father purchased the stable for his son.
One of his first successes came when he won the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot with A.20 in 1958.
Hunting was his abiding passion and circumstances contrived to present him with an unexpected opportunity.
His mother wanted to sell her home in Killinardrish, Co Cork, but Sutherland, familiar with the area’s hunting and racing connections, asked her to keep it. After remarrying, he left Newmarket and eventually moved to Cork.
In the heart of a National Hunt breeding district, it was the ideal location to indulge his passion for teaching young jumpers. As much a horse trader as trainer, this is how, much later, he saw his role.
Said Sutherland: “For years that was how I got by, getting a horse, riding it myself and selling it on when it was educated.”
A meeting with Sarah Lane, the estate director of Lisselan Farms, owners of Imperial Call, set in train the sequence of events that provided him with the opportunity to train the horse.
He was bought for Lisselan Farms from the late Tom Costello as a three-year-old. Costello had already sold on three previous Gold Cup winners in Midnight Court, Cool Ground and The Thinker.
Sutherland resisted the temptation to send Imperial Call to Cheltenham in 1995. Said Sutherland: “He was a young horse, I knew he would be a contender for the 1996 Gold Cup and didn’t want to muck it up asking him to do too much too soon.”
O’Dwyer has fond memories of that wonderful March day. “What sticks in my mind are Fergie’s instructions,” recalled O’Dwyer.
“They were very plain and simple and he told me the horse was a novice and to go out and ride him like a novice.
“He didn’t say where to ride him through the race, or when to go on, and that gave me great confidence.
“He was a perfect gentleman to ride for. Whether you won, lost or drew, he was always the same.
“I had a great relationship with Fergie and was mad about him. I have to say as well that his wife, Anne, was an absolute lady.
“My wife, Audrey, and I used to go down to Cork and spend the night in their house. The four of us would go for a meal and a few drinks. He loved to chat and we were treated like royalty.
“Afterwards we would return to the house-and another drink or two! I would then ride out in the morning for Fergie, they were great days.”
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