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HomeSportsHow a Strange Controversy Involving a Horse Triggered Manchester United's Decline

How a Strange Controversy Involving a Horse Triggered Manchester United’s Decline

These days, the relevant people at Manchester United prefer not to talk about the wild, eccentric story that identifies a champion racehorse, Rock of Gibraltar, as the catalyst for everything that has gone so spectacularly wrong for the club ever since. Sir Alex Ferguson, in particular, has made it clear the subject is off-bounds. Ferguson’s achievements at Old Trafford make him the most successful British manager there has ever been. But the Rock of Gibraltar affair in 2003 was not one of his successes and, for United, the consequences are still being felt to this day.

A new generation of United fans, meanwhile, might think the extraordinary chain of events that led, ultimately, to the fall of a once-mighty team — Malcolm Glazer’s takeover, the fan protests, the debts, the years of decline, the rancour and recriminations — seem a bit far-fetched. “The biggest football team in England,” might come the response, “and you’re seriously telling me it all started to unravel because of a racehorse?”.

Well, yes, though not just an ordinary racehorse, bearing in mind the achievements of ‘Rocky’ in happier times, when it was registered under Ferguson’s name via his friendship with John Magnier and JP McManus, aka the ‘Coolmore Mafia’, two Irish businessmen who turned out to be the hardest opponents the Scot ever encountered. To introduce them properly, Magnier and McManus were the richest men in Ireland, and it hardly did them justice when the English media described them as simply racehorse owners. Their power and wealth went much further than that. Ferguson had befriended them through his love of horseracing and, in turn, persuaded them to buy their way into United as shareholders.

It was a formidable alliance. Magnier and McManus, operating from the Coolmore stables on 7,000 acres of rural farmland in County Tipperary, were at the top of their profession. So was Ferguson, managing the Premier League champions, and so was Rock of Gibraltar, developing a reputation as a serial winner on the biggest stage.

“I went into racing for the simple reason of the release and the enjoyment away from my own job,” said Ferguson in a four-page interview published by The Players’ Club, the official magazine of the Professional Footballers’ Association, in 2002. “It (football management) is a pretty exhausting job, it is demanding. Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to find a release.”

The association with Rock of Gibraltar began, he explained, after the then colt had raced in the Coventry Stakes at Ascot the previous year. It finished sixth. “Nobody knew how good Rock of Gibraltar was going to be, not John Magnier, not (trainer) Aidan O’Brien and not me,” said Ferguson in the same article. “I’ll probably never get a horse as good as this again.”

Ferguson believed he was entitled to half of Rock of Gibraltar’s stud rights — a breeding programme potentially worth tens of millions of pounds — as part of what he believed to be a gentlemen’s agreement with Coolmore when the horse was put in his name. Coolmore’s view was that Ferguson had misunderstood. Magnier and McManus said no such deal had been put in place.

All of which explains why the author and former newspaper editor Chris Blackhurst has a chapter titled “It all started with the horse” in his book ‘The World’s Biggest Cash Machine: Manchester United, the Glazers and the Struggle for Football’s Soul’, which is being published later this week, and why he writes in its introduction that the U.S-based Glazer family “have a racehorse and an almighty personal falling out to thank for their amazing good fortune”.

Today (Monday) is the first anniversary of Rock of Gibraltar succumbing to a heart attack, at the age of 23. It was, to quote former champion jockey Richard Hughes, “a wonder horse, the best in the world.” It was also running in Ferguson’s colours — the red and white of the football club he managed.

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