Saturday 20 July 2019

Fergie Sutherland

Soldier, sportsman and horse trainer who believed in living life to the full

Fergie Sutherland, who has died aged 81, was a soldier, sportsman and racehorse trainer, and sent out Imperial Call to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1996; remarkably, it was his first runner at the National Hunt Festival.

Although born in England into a Scottish family, Sutherland spent the latter part of his career training in Ireland, from a small stable in Co Cork. He had considered sending Imperial Call to the Gold Cup a year earlier, but opted instead for a more patient approach: "He was a young horse, I knew he would be a contender for the 1996 Gold Cup and didn't want to muck it up asking him to do too much too soon."

Two weeks before the 1996 race Imperial Call, ridden for the first time by Conor O'Dwyer, had beaten Master Oats by six lengths to take the Hennessy at Leopardstown. O'Dwyer kept the ride at Cheltenham, and Imperial Call, the 9/2 second favourite, powered up the straight to beat Rough Quest (winner of the Grand National a few weeks later) by four lengths. It was the first Irish winner of the race since Dawn Run a decade earlier.

Fergus Carr Sutherland was born in London on June 1, 1931, and grew up near Peebles in Scotland. His father, Arthur, who had fought with the Black Watch in the Great War, ran the family tea-trading firm and had been a great friend of the Queen Mother's older brother Fergus Bowes-Lyon, who was killed in the Battle of Loos in 1915. Arthur named his son after him. Fergie Sutherland was educated at Eton and Sandhurst, going on to serve as a captain in the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards during the Korean War. In 1953 he lost his left leg in an explosion while on reconnaissance. "Going up a hill, one of the four troops I was with tripped the wire of a landmine and set off the blast," Sutherland recalled. "I was the only one badly injured. One of the troops said 'You're OK, Mr Fergie, it's only the leg'. I knew that because I had already checked."

He was taken to the military field hospital, where the surgeons prepared to amputate his right leg as well. Sutherland slowly cocked his loaded revolver and indicated to them, in words of one syllable, that under no circumstances should they attempt to do so.

The doctors later told Sutherland – who had loved horses since childhood – that his riding days were over. He ignored this diagnosis, continuing to hunt and compete in point-to-points. He had specially adapted artificial legs for specific activities – for example, one for riding, one for shooting and one for dancing. According to his son Harry: "We grew up in houses full of legs. There were legs in every cupboard."

On one occasion Sutherland, dressed in old russet hunting breeches, was observed stomping across a road in Ireland by two small boys. One said to the other: "Will you look at the jockey", to which his friend replied: "What would you know? He's not a jockey at all – he's a pirate!"

His military career cut short by his injury, Sutherland went to work at Geoffrey Brooke's stables in Newmarket, and then for Joe Lawson, who sent out Never Say Die to win the Derby in 1954, the first of Lester Piggott's nine victories in the Epsom classic. On Lawson's retirement in 1957, Sutherland took over his Carlburg stables, and the next season he won the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot with A.20.

In the Sixties Sutherland moved to Killinardrish in Co Cork. His parents had divorced, and his mother, Joan, had married Lt-Gen Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, VC, former military representative to Chiang Kai-shek. She and de Wiart had moved to Ireland in 1950, and after the general's death in 1963 Sutherland joined her there, eventually turning her dairy and pig farm into one of Ireland's leading small training establishments. He pursued horse trading as well as training: "For years that was how I got by, getting a horse, riding it myself and selling it on when it was educated."

He trained many winners in Ireland, and among the horses with which he enjoyed success were Go Go Gallant, Tempo and Pancho's Tango. He wound down his operation in 2000.

Sutherland believed in living life to the full. He had a quick wit and a fine singing voice in which he delivered his rich repertoire of Irish songs. A brilliant shot notwithstanding his disability (he used to shoot sitting down, which appeared not to inconvenience him at all, and stored cartridges in his false leg), he had a passion for wildfowling. He was an equally fine horseman, and excelled on the hunting field; he once won the Melton Ride in Leicestershire, a cross-country event for the very intrepid.

Fergie Sutherland married first, in 1954 (later dissolved), Judy Ranger, with whom he had two sons and two daughters. After a brief second marriage he married, in 1970, Ann Dorgan, with whom he had a daughter. Ann and his five children survive him. He once told one of his sons: "There are men who talk and there are men who are talked about, but they are talked about for what they do, not what they say. If I were you I would strive, if you can, to be one of the latter."

Sunday Independent

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