Conrad, Donald and me

October 1st, 2021 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

September 6 was the day of the Carnaby seller at Brighton and also the day Donald Zec died, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Actually, I say the Carnaby seller but there was a mix-up and the race, under a different name, took place on August 23 so I had to settle for a modest non-seller. It was the 25th year I’ve sponsored, a milestone the pandemic thwarted twelve months ago; I think everyone had a good time.

Interestingly, Jack Ryan won the seller that should have been mine and finished fourth in the non-seller on September 6. He was very backable the first time, especially if you spent an hour or three rummaging through the form and trainer John Ryan’s plans. The horse was also engaged at Yarmouth the following day with Tia Phillips (7) down to ride him. Clearly, John thought he’d need to offset the 5lb penalty for winning the seller and it all came to pass, Darragh Keenan riding a powerful finish to keep him in front at Brighton (9/2, not bad) before Jack Ryan finished a fair fourth the following day.

It reminded me of sellers from years and years ago, and it reminded me of R C Sturdy, of course, as many things do. Edward Hide was the first to come up the stands’ side at Brighton when the ground turned soft and one day he won easily on Loughborough George. The stewards asked Sturdy about the marked improvement and the trainer said that the horse preferred seaside tracks, probably because of the soil’s sandy or chalky base. Clearly taken aback by this when they’d expected the usual nonsense about different ground, different tactics etc, the officials omitted to ask him why, in that case, the horse hadn’t been sighted at Yarmouth 24 hours before. Happy, happy days.

During my stint at the the BBC I went to see John Ryan’s father Mick at Newmarket as part of a feature on apprentice jockey Conrad Allen, who trains today, as you know. The producer Emily McMahon had noticed that Conrad, then an unknown 7lb claimer, had pipped the great Lester Piggott in a tight finish, having joined Mick’s stable after working in a bank.

“I don’t know if he worked in one or robbed one but he can ride a bit”, Mick said. He was a bluff character, an old-school trainer who’d studied under Bernard van Cutsem and was always trying something different. During a quiet spell for the stable he worked out that races were easier to win in Holland, at Duindigt, and recorded a string of victories with horses carrying the ‘Boxberger’ tag. Some of them were up to contesting British races and ran at Yarmouth and  Windsor night meetings. Boxberger Prins may have been the best of them but I forget now.

Mick knew how to train top-class horses as well, including Katies, who won the Irish 1,000 Guineas and the Coronation Stakes for legendary owner Terry Ramsden, who bet quite simply in millions and enjoyed rather more than his 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol would have it, before finally hitting the skids and going to jail for financial irregularities in the City. You never hear of Terry now, but he had a minder who politely declined my request, about 20 years ago, for an interview for the magazine the Sports Adviser. It was a pity because I don’t cobble together articles based on telephone conversations and would have taken him to lunch.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, Conrad Allen. He’s quite a character, too. As a boy he appeared in television advertisements for confectionery of some sort, chocolate bars maybe. He has never forgotten the fact that another interviewer, Brough Scott has been mentioned, had him down as the original Milky Bar Kid, which most people would find quite amusing. Conrad clearly thought more care should have been taken and will still tell you all these years later that he wasn’t the Milky Bar Kid.

I don’t know where Emily read about the Lester Piggott race but I doubt she dipped into the Sporting Life. The Daily Mirror, perhaps, which had a much higher public profile in those days and some quite famous columnists  –  Marge Proops and, going back to the Sixties, Sir William Neil Connor, who wrote under the pen name Cassandra. It prided itself on being ‘the working man’s paper’ and it followed that my dad, who started out as a Geordie miner, took it every day. But he also took the Daily Express, which was a broadsheet in those days and was far more capable of giving the Daily Mail a run for its money than it is today. Peter O’Sullevan and Clive Graham, what a team on the racing pages. Peter, long before he was Sir Peter, was a clever writer. The thing was never to have a losing run going on too long, so he had no hesitation in tipping a 1 to 3 shot if necessary. And he used ‘Bert at the garage’ now and again. Bert would wonder about this and that and Peter would supply the answer. ‘As I told Bert at the garage, Lester hasn’t made up his mind yet but the word from Newmarket is that he’ll be on……’ Peter twice invited me to lunch and I never summoned up the nerve to ask him whether Bert actually existed. It didn’t matter, of course. We had this mental picture of a chap in blue overalls, his hands forever oil-stained, working out his days in some Chelsea mews, always delighted to see the great man.

But the writer with the most phenomenal output was unquestionably Donald Zecanovskya, the grandson of a rabbi and one of eleven children born to Russian immigrants who settled in Euston before 1914.

They changed their name to Zec and Donald, who left school at 14, worked as a messenger on the Evening Standard before joining the Mirror 83 years ago. He was unstoppable, realising early on that there is simply no point in holding back, no point in not going for the main story, and it was show business that attracted him most. And the Mirror was the right paper for him. Just as Emily sussed out bits that might make features, so Donald Zec knew what would get people talking. He had a contact inside Buckingham Palace, a boilerman no less, and was able to tell Mirror readers that Princess Elizabeth’s horse-drawn coach on her wedding day in late 1947 would be warmed by aluminium hot water bottles. People care about such things, they pass them on. And it was late November, after all. What sensible person would turn down a few hot water bottles?

Hollywood soon beckoned. In one truly incredible week he interviewed Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart and Kirk Douglas. ‘It wasn’t for my pretty face’, he smiled. He got close to John and Yoko when most people were mystified by their bed-in for peace at the Hilton hotel in Amsterdam. Sure, they may have gently taken the mickey out of him, but who else was allowed to sit by the side of the bed and who else got all the quotes?

It seems appropriate in this of all weeks, with the new Bond film finally up and running, to mention that producer Barbara Broccoli organised Donald’s 100th birthday party in London. He was frail and announced that he would not be making a speech, only to make two. He lasted another two years and died on the day the runners made their way down to the start for the Ian Carnaby Handicap. And I’d think that was absolutely right and proper, truly I would, if only I’d achieved one-hundredth as much in my life as Donald Zec.

Ian’s two books are available to buy on our website. Click here to see his latest book The Long Road From Portman Square, a fantastic read for any racing fan.