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A fresh start for an old favourite; Geoff Lewis set to combine training in Spain with UK role as bloodstock agent.

When Sir Mark Prescott was once asked if Heath House Stables will be perpetually over-subscribed until his dotage, he observed with typical sagacity that owners prefer to engage trainers younger than themselves, and, consequently, the flow of raw material will eventually become a trickle.

It seems inevitable that a trainer reaches an age when there are more funerals to attend than there are winners to celebrate.

Although Geoff Lewis retired on Friday, at 63, from a training career in which he achieved considerably more, and survived longer, than contemporary former jockeys like Lester Piggott, Eric Eldin and Frankie Durr, it was not until yesterday that the most taxing, and emotionally draining, aspect of his action dawned with full impact.

He has lived in Epsom for close on half a century, electing to commute from there when employed as first jockey by Peter Hastings-Bass, then Ian Balding, at Kingsclere, and Sir Noel Murless at Newmarket.

He was a jockey for 26 years; a trainer for another 19. Within a few days, when the four remaining horses depart for the sales, there will be empty stables, empty dog baskets, and, with Thirty Acre Barn having sold for pounds 1.5 million, Epsom will be emptied of the bustling, irrepressible and warm-hearted Lewis.

He will walk his three Jack Russells across the Downs for the final time before he and his ever-patient wife Noelene depart for a new life on Spain's Costa del Sol. The dogs will live with their daughter, Marianne.

"It'll break my heart to leave them behind, but the heat of Spain is no place for Jack Russells," he says.

"It won't be easy saying farewell to Epsom after so many years. The town has been so good to me. I'll certainly be back for the Derby every June, and while I'm here I'll stay over for Royal Ascot and Wimbledon.

"I don't want anyone to worry there's any danger of me succumbing to boredom in Spain, because I've plenty organised, and if my plans work out as I hope, I'm going to be busier than before I retired.

"On the family front, my grandchildren tell us they'll be out to visit every school holiday, and we've friends already living there."

One of his closest is Pat Eddery's brother-in-law and former agent Terry Ellis, a resident of Spain as of last Friday, and the pair are to form a business partnership, which may lead to a reversal of Lewis's exit from training.

Within a few weeks he will apply to rent around 20 of the 400 boxes alongside the soon-to-open floodlit racecourse in the Mijas region. Initially, the Lewis-Ellis partnership has a two-fold strategy; winter horses for UK trainers, and to train between 15 and 20 to race on the new course.

"I know at least three or four people who'd have a horse with me there tomorrow, so my career as a trainer may well not be at a close," Lewis enthuses.

"The trouble is that quite a few other Brits, Dandy Nicholls for one, have cottoned on to this and are making similar plans.

"I've had a look at the course from the outside-the gates were locked the day I went there-and I've an interview next month with the officials. All we'll need to get the business up and running is some new tack, plus a couple of guys to ride work."

In tandem with that enterprise, he will operate as a bloodstock agent in the UK, attending the majority of sales. He made his first transactions under that hat when buying six at Doncaster's St Leger Yearling Sales last week.

"I'm hoping to find a niche and I need to drum up some business," he says, "although I appreciate it won't be easy nicking clients off young guys like Cormac McCormack, Charlie Gordon-Watson and John Warren.

"I thrive on the challenge of the sales. There's a special atmosphere in the ring, perhaps it's something to do with the freshness of expectation."

Physique apart, there is something of a Fred Truman about Lewis, and he, too, can be filed under the once-met-never-forgotten category.

Fiery by nature, he is nevertheless a convivial host, and, like Truman, his reminiscing can ramble on interminably with a discernible 'better then than now' spin.

Of regrets as a jockey and trainer, he declares just two, aside from the predictable depression generated by his miserable final three seasons in the UK, when he was derailed by a boomeranging virus.

This final year yielded just six winners, leaving him languishing in 119th place in the trainers' table.

A championship title slipped from his grasp as a jockey because, he insists, he was too gentlemanly when it came to 'jocking off' others.

"At the end of August I was 19 clear of Lester Piggott and everyone was saying the championship was mine, including Lester," he remembers.

"Then Frankie Durr had a fall. He was riding David Robinson's huge string at the time, and Lester came in for his mounts. One week he rode 13 winners and I rode none. When he got to within one or two of me, my bottle went and Lester roared clear.

"I was too bloody soft, because instead of ringing a trainer for a ride, I'd wait for them to ring me."

His one regret as a trainer centres on the Breeders' Cup Sprint defeat of his champion Lake Coniston, the brilliant winner of the 1995 July Cup.

"In the States I'd had Lake Coniston in the best shape he'd ever been, and when he was in fourth place at the turn I was supremely confident he'd win.

"Then a wave of kickback struck him, and in no more than 100 yards he dropped to 11th. When he returned he was covered in so much muck that I didn't even recognise him. It took a vet more than an hour to get all the stuff out of his eyes."

Memories are rich and plentiful for regurgitation in quieter moments on the Costa del Sol. Mill Reef's Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Right Tack in the 2,000 Guineas, Altesse Royale in the Oaks, Mysterious in the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks, Jimmy Reppin in the Sussex Stakes. And Lewis remains the only jockey to have won Epsom's three Group 1s in the same week.

"You know, I must have been on plenty of steering jobs in the final nine years because I couldn't grip the reins. I'd lost virtually all feeling in the three last fingers on both hands after damaging my neck in a fall at Newmarket on the day that Mill Reef was beaten by Brigadier Gerard.

"To this day, all I can feel in those fingers is pins and needles. I can stick those fingers in a pan of boiling water and not feel a thing."

At the end of next month, Lewis will return from Spain to stand trial at Guildford crown court, accused of terrorising a man with a shotgun at his stables, and of possessing a firearm without a certificate. He has pleaded not guilty to both charges.

As the matter is sub judice, he cannot comment on the allegations.

However, Lewis being Lewis, he will no doubt have plenty to say when the case is over.
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 14, 1999
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