Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the greatest football managers of all time, is more likely to be seen at a racetrack than in a tracksuit nowadays as he indulges in his other great passion in life: horses.
He is currently in Bahrain where the horse he co-owns, Spirit Dancer, a son of the legendary Frankel, competes in the kingdom’s showpiece race, the $1 million International Trophy on Friday afternoon.
This is the first time he has been back to Bahrain since 1986 when, having just taken over as manager of Manchester United, he brought the squad to the Gulf to train and play a Bahrain Select XI to celebrate the birthday of a member of the Royal family.
And Ferguson has nothing but praise for the transformation he has witnessed in the Kingdom in the intervening years. He is loving the experience.
“It has been fantastic here," Ferguson said on Thursday morning while watching his gelding being exercised. “The facilities are great and I think that in five or six years this will be one of the top places in the world for racing.”
Such praise and endorsement from a sporting legend will be music to the ears of the organisers, the Bahrain Turf Club, of a race which in only five years has risen to Group 2 status and for this renewal has attracted its best ever field from around the world.
Ferguson recalled he was drawn into racing as a young boy, remembering Saturday mornings with his father studying the form. “That was when the seed was set,” he explained.
He began to take it seriously rather than just a hobby about 25 years ago when there was an international break in the football season.
“I said to my wife Cathy, ‘Why don’t we go to the races?’,” Ferguson said. “She replied, ‘Where did you get that from?’.
“We went to Cheltenham and met two great Irish men, Dessie Scahill who did the commentaries in Ireland, and John Mulhern, a trainer and owner who was a wonderful man. I got hooked on it. I bought a horse with Jack Berry and I have now got 32.”
Racing helped to act as a distraction from the stresses of chasing titles and cup glory in the high-pressure world of football.
“It is a fantastic sport for me in terms of a release for me from the football,” he told Racing TV.
Ferguson explained that he was more sanguine about success and failure in racing.
“I leave my competitive element to football,” he said. “I never question the trainer or get upset if the horse loses. It is a different sport.
“I can’t tell a horse what to do but at least I could tell my players what to do,” he joked in reference to the famous ‘hairdryer’ treatment he on occasion felt he had to dish out to his team.
“In that respect, I am not a critical judge. I enjoy being at the races and of course, if it wins, you’re excited, particularly in big races.”
Spirit Dancer has a special place in his affections as he was homebred at the stud he now owns in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.
“He was the first product, a son of Frankel from Queen’s Dream. We have done well in the stud,” he added.
The four-year-old is trained by Richard Fahey at his yard in Malton, North Yorkshire.
“We’ve had a great season with him but it’s a tough race,” said Fahey. “It’s more like a Group 1 than a Group 2 in the Middle East. I’m very happy with him, we’ll just see what happens.
“Sir Alex has enjoyed him this year. You can tell he’s getting a buzz out of him. To be fair to him, he’s been patient, and he’s getting the rewards for his patience.”
Fahey shares Ferguson’s enthusiasm for what Bahrain has to offer.
“It’s great to be a part of it, Bahrain has been very good to us and fingers crossed we can finish in the first four.”
The favourite and class act in the field is Godolphin’s Nations Pride, trainer Charlie Appleby’s winner of Group 1 events in Germany and Canada already this year. He skipped an appointment at the Breeders’ Cup to run in Bahrain. He will be ridden by William Buick.
Aidan O’Brien runs Point Lonsdale with Ryan Moore on board. The four-year-old who was highly regarded by Ballydoyle has shown signs of coming back to form this season. Another one who could figure is Birr Castle trained by Andre Fabre in France.