Speed and supreme athleticism are qualities that have always been synonymous with cricketing great Michael Holding.
Through the Seventies and Eighties, the man they called ‘Whispering Death’ terrorised the world’s best batsmen with his ability to catapult deliveries from his towering frame at almost 100mph.
The Jamaican still holds the record for returning his team’s best bowling figures in a Test Match: 14 wickets for 149 runs for his beloved West Indies against beleaguered England at The Oval in the scorching summer of 1976.
These days Holding, a lifelong racing fan, immerses himself in appreciating the prowess of the top-class thoroughbreds trained by his close friend Sir Michael Stoute -a leader in his chosen field and, having grown up in Barbados, a passionate lover of cricket.
Holding, who prefers to be known simply as ‘Mikey’, has even made his home in racing’s most famous heartland of Newmarket, and when he’s not gracing the airwaves on Sky Sports Cricket he can be found on the town’s gallops at the crack of dawn with Stoute’s army of blue bloods.
This year he will add a new string to his bow when he joins the Sky Sports Racing presentation team for two days of Royal Ascot on Tuesday 18th and Wednesday 19th June.
Sky Sports Racing presenter Simon Mapletoft delves deeper.
So Mikey, how far back does your love of racing go?
I have been involved in racing since I was ten year’s old, that's more than fifty years, and used to go to Caymanas Park in Jamaica with friends. Before I joined Derbyshire in 1985 I had horses in training with Nigel Nunes in Jamaica. I had a bit of success and two of my horses reached a pretty good level out there. Under Cover was a good middle-distance horse and Bunny’s Halo was also a decent sprinter. Through Nigel and his son, Andrew, I met Ronald Burke, who trained in Barbados and knew Stoutey.
How did you and Sir Michael meet?
Ronald called me when I was at Derbyshire and arranged for the two of us to visit Michael’s stables and that was the start of our friendship. I loved going to the yard in those early days. I used to travel to Newmarket when I wasn’t playing. It was a great buzz for me and I was instantly hooked. Some years later, when I joined Sky’s Cricket broadcast team in the late Nineties, I rented a house right opposite his Freemason Lodge Stables and now live just a few minutes’ drive away.
After all these years do you still enjoy watching the horses on the gallops?
I never tire of it. I’d rather be out on the gallops than go racing if I’m honest. I do enjoy a day at the races - I had a great time with Investec at the Derby and I’m really looking forward to working with the Sky Sports Racing team at Royal Ascot, but there’s something special about being on the heath, rain or shine. I’ve come to know so many trainers in the town and it’s great to have a laugh with the likes of John Gosden, Michael Bell, William Haggas and Ed Dunlop.
On work mornings I’m out with the string at 5.30, and every other morning they pull out at 6.30 so I get a bit longer in bed. I give the work riders a leg up if they need one, and I’m happy to hold the horses while they’re being washed off after exercise. I love it, man!
What’s it like to shadow one of the world’s greatest trainers?
In the early days Stoutey used to ride his hack out on the heath and I would follow him on a bicycle. Now he goes everywhere in the car and I jump in beside him. He’s very focussed on the horses when he’s watching them going through their paces but as soon as he’s back in the car all he wants to talk about is cricket.
One important thing I learned about him a long time ago is that he’s very superstitious and hates the colour green. He won’t let anyone drive onto the yard in a green car and he won’t be happy if you turn up in a green hat or green boots. I have to make sure I’m wearing the right colours, you know!
Stoutey prefers the Limekilns when they’re open and likes to make sure his horses are there first, which is why they pull out so early. His attention to detail is second to none but his greatest strength is his ability to recognise talent in a horse that needs time and patience.
The Queen’s filly Estimate was a perfect example. She didn't show much speed as a two-year-old. He used to let her work by herself in her own time because he saw something in her that no one else did. What she needed was time to grow and mature and it was wonderful to see her go on and win the Gold Cup for him in the royal colours.
You’ve also developed a friendship with Ryan Moore; is he as intense as he appears to be?
I’ve seen Ryan develop into one of, if not the best jockey in the world. Over the years I’ve got to know him well and although he appears very quiet to the outside world and doesn’t enjoy being interviewed he is very good company. Ryan speaks a lot of sense about many things, not just horse racing, and has opened my eyes to certain things.
When he’s working he’s very intense, like all great sportsmen. Sometimes I will go racing with him in the car to Yarmouth or Nottingham, and we’ll always have a good conversation, but when he gets to the track he gets into the zone and switches on. He can walk past me to the parade ring and not even say ‘hello’.
I’ve tried to explain to him that his many fans would love to hear more of his thoughts about the horses he rides and racing in general. He’s very knowledgeable, but he shies away from the cameras and that’s just the way he is. Stoutey is similar. By the time the reporter has asked the second question he’s already walking away, but you couldn’t wish for better company around the dinner table.
It looks as though Sir Michael has a potentially strong team for Royal Ascot this year?
It does. Plans are still fluid for a few of his horses. Stoutey has a great record at the Royal Meeting but it’s a tough place to go and he’s willing to wait for better opportunities if he thinks certain horses aren’t ready. He acknowledges that it’s a long season and particularly likes to target the big races later in the summer like the Ebor Festival at York.
Which of his horses have been catching your eye en route to Ascot?
I’m pretty excited by Jubiloso, who has the credentials to be top class. She was very impressive when she won her novice at Newbury by seven lengths, but is still relatively inexperienced. If she runs in the Coronation Stakes she’s going to come up against Aidan O’Brien’s dual Guineas winner Hermosa, who looks very special. She hasn’t done a lot since Newbury, just a few canters, so we’ll have to wait and see.
Mustashry is a typical Stoute horse; six years old and he goes and wins the Lockinge. When he kept him in training I knew he’d recognised something in the horse so when I did an interview on Trinidad radio before the race I told the listeners to back him and I hope they all did. The form of that race is better than some people think - he beat Laurens comfortably - and he’ll run a big race in the Queen Anne.
There’s another big race in Crystal Ocean who is in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes and the Hardwicke. It might be a case of trying to avoid the O’Brien horses as much as possible as we'd want Ryan onboard, but I think this horse can win a Group 1. Ryan likes him and he also holds an entry in the Eclipse next month.
Sun Maiden is coming into her own now. Ryan was very excited about her last year but she was immature and needed time. She seems bigger this year and, being by Frankel, has a beautiful pedigree. She’s in the Hardwicke as well but I’m not sure what Stoutey will do.
Another horse I really like is Zaaki who came into the yard last year and has run some really good races. He had a few little problems but everything’s been easier with him this year - no hiccups - and he was very impressive for Ryan at Epsom. He’s one to follow.
As well as the racing it’s an exciting summer of cricket on Sky Sports with the World Cup now underway. Do you think England can justify favouritism?
On paper England should win it. They’ve got a very strong team and the format should see the best teams come out on top. Having said that, one-day cricket is very unpredictable but that’s what makes the competition so exciting.
Jofra Archer, their latest rising star, has impressed me. He looks the real deal. He has serious pace but good control and I like his action. He’s nice and smooth and economical.
Your beloved West Indies also made a good start but do they have what it takes to progress?
There is a lot of talent in the team and Chris Gayle is still hitting the ball a long way so it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t like to run much. It’ll be his last World Cup so I hope he makes some big scores.
I’ve been pleased with Oshane Thomas’s bowling. He has serious pace and is coming along nicely but needs a bit more control to become an even better player; he’s still young so it’s all a learning process. There is so much pressure on Chris Gayle to score runs but with the likes of Darren Bravo, Shai Hope, Shimron Hetmyer and Andrew Russell doing well I think they will also make an impact.
Later this summer you’ll be joining the Sky Sports Cricket team for the Ashes Series, too.
I’m looking forward to watching some good Test cricket. It promises to be a well balanced series and with England being on home soil they can be confident. But Australia’s strength could be their fast bowling with the left-armer Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins both capable of causing a lot of problems for the England batsmen. I’m looking forward to it but I’m concentrating on Royal Ascot first. I’ll be doing my homework so I can find the Sky Sports Racing viewers a few winners.