NOT SO NASTY; The big interview Neville Callaghan He has savaged Sir Michael Stoute on the Heath, been the bane of jockeys' agents and courted controversy throughout 37 years as a trainer. But as Peter Thomas discovers, Neville Callaghan just might be mellowing as he retires.
WITH a faint tremble, the jockey's agent lifts his mobile phone from the sideboard and pauses, takes a deep breath before dialling an unfamiliar Newmarket number. It is a number that, like the police, fire brigade and Hannah the Horny Housewife, is to be called only in a state of dire need, but this is just such a situation: winning percentages have been a bit thin on the ground of late and the kids are showing the early signs of malnutrition.
The phone rings, then rings again. Perhaps he's not in, thinks the agent with a desperate sense of optimism.
The breath he has been holding begins to escape in an extended puff of relief, just as the ringing stops and a dark voice from the bowels of a stable on the Hamilton Road prompts a sharp and flustered intake.
"Er, um, ah, oh hallo Mr Callaghan, it's Ron Bookham here his name has been changed to protect the innocent, I'm the agent for . . ." And there is a click.
The line goes dead, just as Ron is finding his stride and shortly after the word 'agent' leaves his mouth. That's funny, he thinks. Still, the conversation seemed to be going quite well. I'll call him straight back.
The phone rings, rings again, and the deep voice is back. Ron is still tremulous, but he is encouraged. "Oh, er, um, hello again Mr Callaghan, I don't know what happened there."
"I do," growls the deep voice. "I put the phone down." Which he does again, leaving Ron gasping like a goldfish and considering a change of career. Given a choice between infant mortality and phoning Neville Callaghan again, ever, he decides the kids could do with losing a few pounds anyway.
In fairness to Ron, he is not alone in his trauma. A long line of agents, journalists (especially journalists), handicappers, stipendiary stewards, stewards, senior stewards, policemen, jockeys (especially jockeys), fellow trainers and many, many more have been on the receiving end of the blunt instrument that is the public demeanour of one of HQ's longestserving trainers.
Few are spared. Legend has it that after witnessing a particularly poor morning gallop by one of his brighter young prospects, Callaghan once savaged a young Michael Stoute simply for whistling in a cheery manner on the heath. Stoute, unlike Ron, was later awarded a knighthood for bravery in the face of uncommon danger.
Yet, in spite of a diplomatic sensibility borrowed from Pol Pot and a vocabulary that makes Gordon Ramsay sound like Mavis from Coronation Street, here is a man whose friends swear by him (if you'll pardon the expression) and for whom many of his colleagues admit to a deep-seated admiration. While there are some who will not mourn his retirement last week at the age of 61, plenty more will pay tribute to a long career that, belying his stormy manner, displayed an evenness of application and a consistency of achievement surpassed by very few with such finite resources.
Let's not get carried away, though. Don't be swayed by the moving public tributes, by all the cheaply-bought winners, by a lifetime peppered with the high-profile successes of Stanford, Royal Derbi, Fairy Heights, Danehill Dancer, Danetime and, more recently, of Magistretti, Guineas runner-up Rebel Rebel and Mill Reef hero Excellent Art. No, this is still Neville Callaghan, a man who, it is rumoured, was once the subject of a public muzzling order. SO, IT is with some trepidation that I ask him about his nickname, one used, with irony or otherwise, by friend and foe alike. Is he happy with being called Nasty Nev?
There is a pause. Not a long pause, but long enough for me to think: 'Oh, my God. He doesn't know. Nobody's ever told him. I'm the first one to mention it and I may be the last.'
"No, it doesn't bother me at all," he says, finally, with a hint of a smile, and the sweat stops rolling down my back. "There's a temper there, but it's getting better with age.
"With the press, I suppose when things went wrong I was sometimes aggrieved at what they said, and I tended to hold it against them.
Perhaps I don't get over it that quickly.
I don't always forgive it, I hold it in my mind.
"When the scathing stuff's not about you, it's entertaining, but when it is about you, you take it harder."
And another thing: "I don't like this jockey's agent business. I dealt with lots of top jockeys over the years who did their own rides and I can't deal with the people now who jump on and off. Some agents I can cope with and some I don't want to be bothered with, like some jockeys."
For a man with a lot of anger, though, Callaghan sounds remarkably mellow as he chews the fat in the study of his house in Dullingham, "far enough but near enough" from the bustle of Rathmoy Stables. Perhaps it's the fact that he's about to hand over the reins to his 24-year-old son, Simon, turning the page on a job well done, yet being able to look forward to a new chapter that has his signature at the foot of it.
In a voice three-parts Home Counties schoolmaster to one-part faint Irish brogue, Callaghan reflects: "A lot of people said give it another year or two, but it's a young man's game, so they say. He was eager to get on and I didn't want to hold him up. He's very capable, he's had a lot of experience for someone of his age with Richard Hannon and Todd Pletcher and he's very level-headed, far better behaved than I was.
"But I've survived a long innings, despite predictions that I wouldn't last or that my licence would be taken away on lots of occasions. I'm handing it in as opposed to anybody taking it."
True enough, you would have got long odds in the early 1970s about the name N A Callaghan remaining on the list of licensed trainers for 37 years. The son of a mild-mannered Irish father and a fiery English mother, the Catholic school-educated youngster had already had his share of run-ins by the time he left Ken Cundell to become assistant to Bruce Hobbs in Newmarket.
Despite his non-racing, non-betting background he quickly found a niche that would satisfy his principal urges and gifts, specifically for gambling, drinking and buying good, cheap horses. Although he had a natural eye for equine talent, he also had a wild streak the width of Newmarket Heath that landed him in the soft stuff with great regularity. He was no stranger to the saloon bar, the card table or the court room, and he had his own spot on the carpet at Portman Square, but unlike many in his profession, he wears his weaknesses on his sleeve.
"Yes, I'm a gambler at heart in every walk of my life," he admits. "I think it's hard to be really into racing unless you feel that way. Getting up in the morning and seeing something sparkle on the gallops, that's where the buzz is. If you've got one who's well handicapped, for whatever reason, by accident or design, it's you against them. I could never have a horse in training with someone who didn't feel that way.
"I enjoy cards, I still go to Aspinalls once a week and the Racing Post is the first thing I look at every day. It's a way of life and it won't be any different next year. I hope I'll know how ours are going, unless Simon conceals it from me!
"And yes, I've had a drink all my life, too, but then the people I'm friendly with generally do. If you train racehorses, with all the frustrations and disappointments that entails, then you need a drink.
"It might make you say something stronger than you'd like, but at the end of the day, you say what you think and you say it to somebody's face, not behind their back."
Tales of Nev's early years abound, and some of them may even be true, including one upon which the mists of forgetfulness have conveniently descended, about the time he was discovered in the early hours by the Newmarket constabulary, the worse for drink and parked on the pavement outside the Jockey Club rooms.
Plod knocked on the window, it seems, and asked him, reasonably enough, why he was parked on the pavement outside the Jockey Club rooms, to which our hero is alleged to have replied: "Well, you wouldn't expect me to drive on the road in my condition, would you?"
Apocryphal or otherwise, it gives a flavour of the man who took out his first licence at the age of 24, a young buck at a time when the Heath was lorded over by the oldest of the old school, and proceeded to rant and rail against the establishment for the next three decades.
Many owners may have been frightened off, as much by his punting reputation as by anything, but in the youthful bookmaker Michael Tabor he found a like-minded soul with whom he struck up an enduring and exciting partnership that survives to this day. TABOR, no stranger to controversy himself and fresh from a two-year warning-off, was looking for a gambling yard in which to place his first horse, Tornado Prince, and at Rathmoy Stables he found one.
In 1975, Tornado Prince won a Haydock seller, backed from 4-1 to 11-4, to give Tabor his first ever winner. Many more were to follow, few of them unbacked, often with long-time ally Pat Eddery doing the steering.
For Callaghan, there are days, and then there are "important days", the days when plans come to fruition, when the money is down. He remembers a filly called Fashion Club who went to Newbury for a 6f handicap: "She was very well treated on 7st and we had a little lightweight called Chris Leonard to ride her, a big friend of Pat's. Pat had ridden her work and knew all about her, and he had a ride in the race, so he said, "I'll sit near him and tell him when to let it go". So Pat told him and he let it go one and a half out and it flew home.
That was one of the important days.
"I don't know quite how much it was, but Michael's always been a big-figures man and I've had some quite hefty sums on, even by today's standards, in my time."
Tabor moved on to bigger things but shared many more important days with Callaghan and was there for him eight years ago when he was struck down by severe intestinal problems.
With a help from his friends and the support of Simon, his long-suffering wife Jenny and daughter Camilla, Callaghan pulled through and goes into retirement with a clean bill of health.
His career has been successful. It could have been more successful, he admits, but his regrets are too few to mention. He says: "I could have had an easier life if I'd always been easy with everything, but then I wouldn't have been easy with myself. I never say what they want me to say, I say what I think and I'm happy with myself like that. You're either placid or you're not - you don't get the choice.
"I don't look back and regret the people I might have trained for but for that side of my character."
Perhaps the last word should go to one of the owners who wasn't scared off and stuck with Callaghan for 20 years, for better or for worse. Pat Gallagher, whose Red Alert Day will stay in the yard next season, says: "Let me tell, you, I've had more rows with him than I've had with my wife, and that would be a few. I remember one night when we were going to shoot each other but we couldn't find any guns, but by seven the next morning, it's always over and done with.
"He's not a man you get to know in five minutes and he's a marketing disaster, but underneath the madness, there's one of life's most honest men.
I've shared secrets with him I wouldn't share with anyone.
"There's no bloodstock agent with a better eye than him, and when he sets them up for a race, then God help the rest. Above all, I wish I was half as good at coaching my kids as he has been with his."
Perhaps by the time he's 70, they'll be calling him Nice Nev.
'Training horses, you need a drink - but it might make you say things stronger than you'd like'
Callaghan on drinking
'I'm a gambler at heart.
If you've got one well handicapped, by accident or design, it's you against them'
Callaghan on gambling
'He's a marketing disaster, but underneath the madness there's one of life's most honest men'
Owner Pat Gallagher on Callaghan
NEVILLE CALLAGHAN ON . . .
It's about being in the right place at the right time to get the right owners. Getting them fit isn't that difficult. Placing the ordinary ones is the difficult thing - ducking and diving with the handicappers.
We've bought some cheap horses who've done well, but plenty more have been no good. Buy a nice individual, sure, but you need a lot of luck. I've bought plenty of nice horses who've been bloody useless.
It's tougher now, against the big stables who can beat you with a 33-1 shot, but without gambling, where's racing? There's no prize money, so there's got to be some incentive.
Bending the rules
We went to Portman Square with a few but always managed to scramble out. We'd do it more or less within the rules, but racing would lose its sparkle if there wasn't a certain amount of that, wouldn't it? We'd never run horses to lay them, though. I wouldn't know how to work Betfair.
One of the best was Power Girl at Kempton years ago - 33-1 down to 13-2. That was for myself, ridden by Kipper Lynch, who rode a lot for me. I don't recall how it all came about, but she didn't have any form going into the race. I'll leave the rest to you.
My wild streak lasted longer than some, but I think it's gone now. I wanted to do what I wanted to do and I've never been too worried about authority, although I'm more careful now. You get respect for taking people on - they've got to fight their corner and you've got to fight yours.
Sickness and health
I was pretty rough for a while, I felt so ill. You see yourself arguing and fighting with everybody and think maybe there's more to life than that. But then you get better.
I love the July Course. I've had a lot of my best winners there and it's been very lucky for me. I take my dogs down there twice a day and it is my number one spot.
You can imagine now what he's going through, he's going through a tough time and there will be people he'll feel he doesn't want to talk to for a long time, and I understand that.
Pat gave you everything, whether it be in the big races or at Brighton on a Monday. If I told him it was important, he'd ride it like a Group 1. I had a great relationship with him for many years, as a friend and a jockey, and he was a wonderful rider. We had a few cross words, but not many, and it was all over in minutes.
He rode his first Group winner for me Chummy's Favourite in the 1989 Diadem Stakes at Ascot, and I still think he's the best rider around today by a long way, but we had some major fall-outs along the way because he's volatile, as I am.
But we've remained friends.
Very much a punter and if it goes wrong, he's the one person who won't ring you when you're on your way home. Maybe three days later he'll call and ask what you think.
Neville Callaghan and his son Simon, who has taken over the reins at Rathmoy Stables CHRIS BOURCHIER
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Nov 20, 2007|
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