Donn's Articles » Tommy Stack

Tommy Stack

If you were asked to name Tommy Stack’s greatest achievement, you would probably say that it was winning the 1977 Grand National on Red Rum. Negotiating all 30 fences and 41 rivals and punching the great horse up the run-in to land the most famous horse race in the world for an unprecedented third time.

If you prefer the flat, you might say that Stack’s greatest achievement was training Las Meninas to get up to beat subsequent Oaks and Irish Derby winner Balanchine in the 1000 Guineas in 1994. Or training Tarascon to win the 1998 Irish Guineas, and provide the fledgling Jamie Spencer with his first win in a classic. And you would be close. Close but wrong. They are a distance behind the mountain that he has scaled in order to be with us still.

When the doctor got to Thomastown Castle Stud at midnight on St Stephen’s Day 1998, his first words to Liz Stack were “I’m sorry, but there’s very little hope.” What Tommy had thought was the early stage of a flu was, in fact, the sledge hammer that is meningitis. For 13 days he lay in a coma in Mercy Hospital in Cork. And even when he pulled out of that, they wouldn’t release him from hospital for almost three months as pneumonia kicked in and his kidneys, liver and ears were systematically attacked. But this was just another battle that Tommy Stack won.

And sitting in his kitchen with him now, with Liz and their son Fozzy, talking and thinking about Alexander Alliance’s prospects of bringing another Guineas back to Thomastown Castle, you marvel at his strength and lucidness. You wonder at the family’s sense of contentedness and togetherness. You may have to be articulate and clear, and face him when you speak, and his sense of balance may not be what it was in 1977, but Tommy Stack’s enthusiasm for life is unmistakeable.

When he asks you who will win the Heineken Cup, think carefully before you answer. Here is a man who played scrum-half for Munster schoolboys and is as passionate about his rugby as he is about his horses. Of course he was in Lansdowne Road for the semi-final – what happened to Leinster? – which was fantastic, but you can’t beat Thomond Park for atmosphere. The flights are booked for Cardiff, they just need tickets for the game. Liz is on to it.

He talks about his days playing with Mungret school and afterwards, during his 18 months in Dublin working for Phoenix Assurance, of playing for Lansdowne in Dublin and coming home to play for Abbeyfeale at weekends. He and four other lads used to travel down home together to play. Tommy didn’t drink, so he used to drive the hired car. When you ask him if they were allowed to play for two different teams, he looks at you curiously. He thinks so.

While Stack was in Dublin, he wrote to 10 trainers in the UK asking them if they had any vacancies for a young rider. Only Neville Crump responded to thank him for his letter, but to say that he had more than enough young riders. In the end, a relation asked the trainer Bobby Renton – with whom he traded cattle – if he could take Tommy on, and the youngster was on his way.

He hardly ever went out during his first year in England. He just kept his head down and worked hard. His employer bought him a bicycle so that he could cycle the four miles to Ripon to go to mass. It wasn’t easy being a young Irish lad making your way in the north of England when you knew nobody. Stack’s first year in the UK was 1965 – the same year that a bay colt foal by Quorum out of Mared was born.

Stack was still an amateur when Red Rum arrived in Bobby Renton’s yard. He was a difficult horse to ride out and initially Stack wasn’t considered good enough for the job. But after he turned professional, he did get to school him before his first chase. He almost fell at the first schooling fence and all but refused at the ditch. “Right”, Renton told Stack, “you can ride him at Newcastle at the weekend.” Thanks very much. He jumped like an old hand around Newcastle and finished third. When Ginger McCain bought Red Rum at Doncaster, he told Tommy that he could ride him whenever he was available. That’s great, said Tommy. Just don’t ask me to school him.

“Red Rum was the most incredible horse,” says Tommy now, sitting up in his chair. “He ran exactly 100 times over jumps. He won 24 times and was placed 45 times. It is the most unbelievable record. Of course, there is one race that stands out.”

You sit, captivated, as Tommy re-lives the 1977 Grand National. You wonder at his attention to detail. The sparkle in his eye as he jumps every fence again. Red Rum had already won two Nationals and finished second in two more, and had to carry top weight in 1977. Davy Lad was favourite. Well, he would be, a Gold Cup winner with 10st 7lb on his back. But he fell at the third. In fact, about 12 horses had departed by Becher’s first time, and Tommy was surprised at how close he was to the pace.

Andy Pandy was clear going to Becher’s second time, but Tommy was travelling easily on Red Rum. He heard a gasp from the crowd at Becher’s when Andy Pandy jumped the fence. He couldn’t see over the far side, but he knew something had happened. When he jumped the fence, he just about avoided the stricken Andy Pandy. Canal Turn, loose horses, ride him into it to get past them. Look around crossing the Melling Road to see Churchtown Boy travelling well in behind. Hear a crash behind you at the second last and know that your nearest rival has hit it. Pop the last and head for the Elbow. Could this be reality?

“I’ll never forget going up the run-in,” he smiles. “I thought of Devon Loch, and I kept him towards the centre of the track, off the rail, just in case. There were people everywhere. And loose horses. He was a local horse and the people just cheered him home.”

The celebrations went on for weeks. That night in Southport, they brought the horse into the hotel. Up the steps, through the foyer and into the ballroom. They thronged around to proffer their congratulatory back-slaps, and the horse never turned a hair. Nor did he turn a hair when he stood on a balcony in Blackpool, T Stack up, and turned on the lights. Scarier than Becher’s Brook and The Chair put together. Nor when he was led into the BBC’s Television Studio so that he could be a part of the 1977 sports review of the year.

Tommy Stack couldn’t get to Shepherds Bush that evening. He was in the Leeds studio, busy recovering from a fall at Hexham that had broken his pelvis in 15 places. There is a photograph on the sitting room wall of a young Tommy on a hospital bed with so many slings and so much plaster that, if you didn’t know better, you would think that it was staged.

There are other photographs on the sitting room wall. A couple of Red Rum. One of Tommy on Strombolus, winning the 1978 Whitbread. Well Packed winning the 1966 Grand Annual, with Terry Biddlecombe back in third. A framed copy of the 1977 Grand National racecard, with colours and notes, presented to Tommy by BBC Radio commentator Peter Bromley. And one of a baby with a simple caption, “Fozzy”.

Ask Fozzy how he got his name and he laughs. Defers to his dad. “Why am I called Fozzy?” Tommy laughs out loud. “There was this bear on television when Fozzy was a child…” Neither is sure if you spell it with a y or an ie, but everyone seems to spell it with a y. Strange thing, though. When someone calls looking for James, Fozzy is the last person to answer.

The photo on the wall was probably taken at Longfield Stud, where David Wachman is now and where Fozzy spent the first two years of his life. Tommy and John Magnier had always been good friends, and John asked Tommy if he would come home to manage Longfield when he stopped riding in 1978. Tommy greatly appreciated that. The help that John and Sue Magnier gave him when he was trying to make his way. And the late Robert Sangster, owner of Las Meninas.

While he was at Longfield, Tommy spent a lot of time with Vincent O’Brien. “A genius. His attention to detail was remarkable.” It was Vincent who whetted Tommy’s appetite for training. And so it began.

And it could easily have ended in 1999. That was a tough year. Fozzy was working with John Dunlop when his father took ill. It was probably always the intention that he would take over from Tommy in time, but not when he was only 18. Four months with John Dunlop and a summer with Nicolas Clement in Chantilly shouldn’t have been enough experience to equip a teenager with the ability to run a top flat yard and worry about his father. Turns out, it was.

“He was sick and the horses were sick”, recalls Fozzy. “I think they went out in sympathy. Antinnaz won a listed race at Haydock that summer, beating Pipalong, and finished fifth in the Abbaye later that year. She kept the show on the road. And 95% of our owners were great.”

Fozzy was in school, watching on television, when Las Meninas and Balanchine flashed past the post together in the 1994 Guineas. Nobody knew who had won. After a couple of minutes of deliberation, RTE crossed over to Punchestown to show the four-year-old hurdle. Not good for finger nails.

And there are many similarities between Las Meninas and Alexander Alliance. They both raced twice as juveniles, both exclusively over six furlongs, both recorded their first success in a listed race and the main worry about both of them going into the classic was and is the distance. Although Las Meninas was by Glenstal, she was really bred for speed, out of a Habitat mare and a full-sister to a winner over six furlongs. Alexander Alliance is a half-sister to top sprinter Ruby Rocket, but she is out of a Fairy King mare, and that gives her a chance of seeing out the mile.

“We didn’t really deliberately keep her to six furlongs last season,” says Tommy thoughtfully. “That was just the way the races fell. We always thought that she was smart, even before she raced, but she just wasn’t ready for the Moyglare, which is over seven furlongs. In fact, she ran in her maiden on Moyglare day.”

In that maiden she was unlucky to come up against a colt of the calibre of Art Museum, who went on to win the Blenheim Stakes and was a leading fancy for the Guineas all winter. Alexander Alliance went and won a listed race herself impressively before the end of the season, and they put her away for the winter. The intention was always to go straight to the Guineas. She wants nice fast ground, so there was no point in trying to get her ready to run in one of the trials on soft.

“Her preparation has gone well,” says Tommy. “She has done well over the winter. She is a big filly and has grown into her frame. I would maybe have liked her to have come in her coat a little more, but it has been a fairly cold winter. Las Meninas was the same. Not far out of her coat.” Smiles and looks at you thoughtfully. “If we get the same result, though, we’ll be very happy.”

Chances are, they’ll be happy even if they don’t.

© The Sunday Times, 6th May 2006