Munro's success legacy of old days

ALAN Munro didn't own a suit when he first started work as a tiny 16-year-old at Barry Hills' Lambourn stables a decade ago.

He was fresh from school, could hardly sit on a horse, weighed 95lb wet through and had to rattle the poor can to find the change to ring home. He was lucky in one way.

Not all apprentices have such decent blokes as Brent Thomson as the stable rider and the kind-hearted Thomson took pity on Munro giving him a couple of his old suits to wear on special occasions.

The joke doing the rounds the last couple of months since Munro arrived fresh from taking yet another of the world's top Group One races - this time the Budweiser International in Washington DC - is that he is still wearing them.

But it is only a joke as the 26-year-old Munro has come farther in the last five years than any other jockey of his generation. In fact he has come so far that he is now one of the world's most sought-after riders with big-race victories to his name not just in England, Ireland and America but also in France, Italy, Germany and Spain.

Gone are those impecunious days when handouts from Thomson made all the difference and trainers such as Newmarket handler Sir Mark Prescott would slam down the phone at Munro's temerity at daring to ring for a ride from the local call box.

But those times have left an indelible impression. They were fun but they were tough. Their harshness has moulded Munro into exactly what he is today as far as riding is concerned - self made and determined to stay at the top of his profession.

His story has a charming naivety to it, a naivety that was evident from the very beginning. Munro didn't start riding until he came home from school one day to tell his parents that he was going to be a jockey.

Size dictated it. ''We were so ignorant that we even wrote off to a bunch of jump trainers,'' he recalls with a wry smile. Robert Sangster's then trainer, Barry Hills, was one of the first to reply, the scale of the yard impressed during the interview andMunro had taken the first step to becoming a professional jockey. It is a ladder that few climb and those first two years are only pleasant in retrospect.

''I didn't use to sleep too well as I knew that when I woke up and rode work I could well be falling off something again,'' admits Munro with disarming frankness. Work started at 6.30 am and the first gauntlet that had to be run was the local farmer's field.

The stable lads didn't have a car and it provided a convenient, if treacherous short cut to work. It wasn't so much the barbed wire fence as the farmer's dogs that patrolled the half-acre of no-man's land that were the problem.

Munro rode his first winner at 17 when Sentimental Roses bolted home in an apprentices' race at Yarmouth. It was fourth ride in public and once again the innocence came shining through.

''The next morning I was riding work dreaming about how my career was now going to take off when Barry drove up in his car absolutely furious. He told me I had terrible hands and ordered me to his office where he gave me the biggest rocket ever for looking round on the horse.'' Munro stayed with Hills for another year before moving north to join steel magnate Mel Brittain's burgeoning yard in Yorkshire. ''I learned more in three months than in the previous two years.

On work mornings we rode 20 from the gates in mini races, sticks up and against the clock.'' Here Munro met Jimmy Burke whose record of 13 rides for no falls in the Grand National is unlikely to be surpassed.

Burke was Brittain's head lad and he advised Munro to try a three-month winter spell riding work in New Jersey on the East Coast of America. ''When I arrived I didn't even realise that there was an American style of riding - that's how little I knew. Theytold me, 'boy, drop your pedals and get your ass down'.

''It was so easy to adapt and felt so comfortable. It's a good job I took their advice as one thing was for sure - I wasn't going to make it as a jockey riding English style.'' By this time Munro had been grafting away for four years. It wasn't until he returned from the States that the winners started to flow. But it was only a trickle. The following year he finished behind Gary Bardwell and Tony Culhane in the apprentices' championship.

The next season he was second, this time to none other than that precocious talent Frankie Dettori. Once again it then off to the States this time to Hollywood Park where Munro stayed in the notorious Eaglewood district more famed for its gang warfare andits seedy hotels.

He had no work permit and had to rise at 4.30 am so he could sneak into the track in the pitch black as once inside everyone assumed his credentials were kosher. There was an hour-long way for gallops to start. ''After work, I would run all the way back to the hotel as I thought I was going to get shot. I'd then ring the pizza delivery man, lock the door and sit eating pizza and watching triple X blue movies on the television.

They didn't show anything else. It was that kind of hotel.'' Finally, came watershed number one in his career. He was offered the job as stable jockey to Newmarket trainer Bill O'Gorman with a second retainer with Lynda Ramsden's top northern stable.

Munro won the opening race of the season, landed an enormous gamble on Daring March from 33-1 to 9-2 for the Ramsdens, and then took the first big event of the campaign with Evichstar in the Lincoln Handicap. He followed with such top horses for O'Gorman as Group One winner Mac's Imp and the prolific Timeless Times on whom he won an incredible 16 races during his two-year-old career. It was no surprise to the outside observer that 95 winners and 12 months later, he was offered the job as first jockey to Prince Fahd Salman.

Some thought he had jumped the queue. They hadn't seen him jumping barbed-wire fences for five years in order to make it to the top, they hadn't toiled away in the States or spent hour upon hour perfecting their style on a mechanical horse in a surburban garage with the kind of dedication that inspired Don Bradman to hone his batting skills with a golf ball and a cricket stump.

When Generous added the 1991 Irish Derby to the English Derby, Munro had come of age. In one of the most tense races I've witnessed, Generous floored Sauve Dancer, Star Of Gdansk and Sportsworld. Munro had beaten Wally Swinburn and Lester Piggott at theirown game - winning Classics. The world beckoned.