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Interview: Stan Mellor - Self-deprecating man who was `too laid- back' to make it big as a trainer; Rodney Masters talks to former champion jump jockey Stan Mellor, due to send out his final runner as a trainer later this month.

Byline: Rodney Masters

GOLD and silver trophies are packed away. So is the MBE. Tea chests are beginning to fill at Pollardstown Stables. Some of those chests contain battered nick-nacks that assist in chronicling the story of a record-breaking career that, although stalled in recent years, few others will rival.

Stan Mellor, 64, digs deep to a packed case and unwraps what looks like a Jewish skullcap with the initials SM stamped across it in cracked white paint. He plonks it on his head. As he is not of that faith, it prompts a question as to its purpose.

No thicker than an eggshell, and with no chin-strap or ear cover, it was known as protective headgear in the days when Mellor carried it to his three jump jockeys' titles.

"I had a fall coming down the hill at Cheltenham and the cap slipped off and spun away at speed like a kicked football," he says. "My wife was watching from the stands and screamed, `Oh my God, his head has come off'.

"By the end of my riding days, we had a far more robust helmet. That was in no small part thanks to Eddie Harty, who bought the first of them back from the US."

From another already packed chest, he takes a foam pad with straps attached and MELLOR scribbled in the same white paint. The buckles of this prototype back protector, which he designed in collaboration with a London hospital and the Jockeys' Association, fit rather less comfortably now than the skullcap does. No Velcro in those days.

There is the still-polished riding boots that took the fancy of a Merseyside lass. Mellor chuckles at the memory and rubs his jaw. In the worst of his 750 falls-in the 41-runner Schweppes Gold Trophy, then (in 1963) at Liverpool and with no safety limit-his lower face had been smashed as horribly as it could be without complete detachment. He endured a blue- light ride to Walton Hospital.

That injury was to rob him of a fourth championship-he was 20 clear of Josh Gifford at the time-and, he remembers, he almost lost his footwear.

"As I was wheeled on a trolley through casualty, a girl with a strong Liverpool accent shouted out, `Those leather boots are smashing, luv'. I was more concerned about those boots being nicked than the state of my face."

A SOFTLY spoken and unpretentious man who you would pay to be your children's uncle, there was never any fuss to Mellor, as a jockey or a trainer.

There is no red book to be packed. One of the very few stars-footballer Danny Blanchflower was the best-known of the others-to turn down This Is Your Life on television, he has no lasting regret at doing so.

Programme researchers approached his wife, Elain, shortly after his 1,000th victory and MBE ceremony, but Mellor had already pleaded with her to decline, citing family reasons.

In truth, he was concerned that his father, a demolition contractor, would create havoc in the studio. There was, it appears, no loved lost between snr and jnr.

"He'd have caused chaos by wanting to take over the show," says Mellor. "He was a control freak who'd never admit he was in the wrong. At that time I was keeping well away from him.

"He did, however, give one excellent piece of advice. He said before I got married I could see my future by looking at the girl's mother. He was right. Elain's mum is a hard-working treasure. And so is Elain."

Although highly successful as a jockey and, until recently, as a trainer, he admits he made far less money than many would expect from either profession. Major pay-days came as a result of shrewd property transactions, a talent inherited from his father.

His best deal was the sale of Linkslade Stables in Lambourn to Kuwait's Sheikh Mohamed Al Sabah, who was 20-stone-plus and ridiculed locally as blessed with considerably more money than wisdom. The Sheikh, who was in his 30s, died of a heart attack soon afterwards. The property was wrecked by squatters but lovingly restored by present owner William Muir.

With the profit from Linkslade, the Mellors were able to buy 20 times the acreage close to The Ridgeway overlooking Swindon, and also build the stables and a spacious home that they named after their first Triumph Hurdle winner.

He is apologetic over what he perceives as his failings as a trainer, and one feels compelled to remind him that most in the trade would be proud of assembling 700 wins, especially as they included two Whitbread Gold Cups with horses placed in the Grand National (Royal Mail and Lean Ar Aghaidh), four Cheltenham Festival wins, notably a 1-2 in the 1983 Triumph Hurdle with Saxon Farm and Tenth Of October, plus a Stewards' Cup.

"I feel guilty I wasn't more commercially minded as a trainer," he admits. "I could be blamed for being too casual and enjoying it too much.

"A trainer these days must be ambitious and greedy, striving hard for every winner as soon as possible. That's not me, and quite probably the reason the business has gone down the sink a bit in recent seasons. I'm too old-fashioned.

"Looking back, I wonder why I didn't bother to cash in on the good results I had. I suppose I was too laid-back and too much of a bargain-hunter. I didn't have the mentality to encourage owners to spend big sums of money. I was for ever looking for value, and that wasn't entirely sensible in the circumstances.

"I was one of the first to buy New Zealand horses-Royal Mail came from there -but then they started to send me the bad ones. I couldn't stomach that. At the same time, I wasn't prepared to pay the extortionate prices in Ireland, so the new stock wasn't coming through."

IT TOOK three years to finally persuade local planners that it was a sensible idea to split Pollardstown into two units. Unfortunately, by then his number of horses had fallen short of making even a slimmed-down stable viable, and the property was sold last month as a whole to become an eventing yard.

Mellor is deeply proud of tutoring Elain and their two daughters, Dana and Linz, to ride winners under Rules.

So anxious to learn, Elain recorded details of his guidance in a notebook. Included were breathing exercises, the correct body rhythm for riding a finish, where her bottom should be, and the preferred angle of arm movement when using the whip.

Mellor says: "Elain had set her heart on doing everything just right in her first race, and would conscientiously study those notes every night, leaving the pad on the bedside table. At the time we had a lass in a few days a week to clean for us. Some years later, I was told she'd become the most popular girl in Lambourn."

While Mellor chides himself for not building on his successes as a trainer, he has never lost his enthusiasm, enjoyment or the respect of other professionals. Surely three benchmarks of a career more meaningful than all others.

CAPTION(S):

Mellor stars of the past, from top: Pollardstown (left) en route to winning the 1979 Triumph Hurdle; Royal Mail, pictured before finishing third to Aldaniti in the 1981 Grand National; Lean Ar Aghaidh lands the 1987 Whitbread; Stan Mellor in the tack room at Pollardstown Stables: the complex is to become an eventing yard when he moves out in a fortnight's time
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Aug 6, 2001
Words:1258
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