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Press articles

Racing Post Sunday January 6th 2019

The Big Read

Lee Mottershead talks to Oscar-winning actor Dame Judi Dench about her passion for the sport.

‘I absolutely love to have a bet – I love the element of risk, I just can’t resist it’

Dame Judi Dench

Judi with Bryan Agar, Mark and Amsby

Dame Judi Dench, actor extraordinaire and national treasure, has a tendency to use the word “heavenly” rather a lot, including in relations to a plate of scampi and chips that is consumed to hearty approval in a pub just outside Newmarket.

Rare indeed are the occasions when one gets to eat scampi with an Academy Award-winning thespian, yet this is a rare day in more ways than one. Dench’s inordinately busy schedule has been interrupted so she can travel to the yard of Mark Tompkins in order to meet her new racehorse, a son of Sir Percy who is being prepared for the introductions while his part-owner drinks something hot in the trainer’s office.

Given we are talking about a lady who has graced stage and screen for more than 60 years, it makes perfectly good sense to preface what comes next with a little plot guidance.

The twist in this take is that the four-legged acquisition will be owned not solely by Dench but also by the dame’s great friend Bryan Agar and her grandson Sam. Agar has for this day reprised his former role of many years as Dench’s driver, and is therefore on the cast list, but Sam in not.

The reason for his absence is this particular production takes place a few weeks before Christmas, which is significant as the grandmother is very keen her racing-mad grandson does not learn granny is giving him part of the horse as a Christmas present. An agreement is therefore reached that this story will not be told until after December 25, which is why you are reading these words now, not then.

The timing of the telling is further complicated by a postscript to that day in Newmarket. The two-year-old is not the only horse Dench and Agar have shared. The first and best was Smokey Oakey, who under the coaching of Tompkins landed the Lincoln and Brigadier Gerard Stakes in 2008.

After being retired following a farewell success at Brighton in October 2013 he went to live and work at a Riding for the Disabled facility near Dench’s Lingfield home. He was adored by his owners, who noted the visual similarities between the old boy and their young baby. Sadly, Smokey Oakey died just days after the Newmarket get-together.

Work commitments – Dench is almost always working – prevented her from being at either Doncaster or Sandown for Smokey’s most famous triumphs, but she well remembers watching the Lincoln with her actor daughter Finty Williams and Sam – “I’ve given him the love of racing” – in Scotland, where they roared their hero home.

Judi with Mark

Fast forward a decade and Dench is sat in her trainer’s office, one wall of which is adorned with a picture of that Town Moor triumph.

“Sammy doesn’t know I have a new horse with Bryan – and if he reads about me coming here today in the Racing Post he’ll put two and two together,” says Dench, while contemplating a plate of sweet treats from which she selects one of those popular continental buttery biscuits that exists within a decadent coating of thick chocolate. Before she gets to clap eyes on the horse – named Amsby because as a child Sam couldn’t say Sam and instead said Ams, as a result of which Dench christened him Amsby – there is a chance to talk about horses, racing, Queen Victoria and a fair bit more besides.

“Oh, what excitement – what excitement!” she says, the picture of the taking her back to the collective viewing of the Lincoln on television. “Mikey would have loved it,” she adds, bringing into the conversation her late husband, the actor Michael Williams, who died in 2001. They had starred together in the ITV sitcom A Fine Romance and before that in the 1974 film version of the Dick Francis racing thriller Dead Cert.

“We filmed it at Josh Gifford’s stable and had a lovely time,” she recalls, but she cannot remember much about the film itself. “I’ve never seen it,” she says but acknowledges it was not quite as successful as the book on which it was based. “No, I don’t think it was,” she concedes with a laugh that is distinctively hers and pleasingly infectious.

There were points during filming in Findon when she had to sit on a horse, as she had when a young girl brought up in York.

“My ma used to ride a lot,” she says. “I used to ride with her and a marvellous man called Marshall. ‘Watch your bloody back!’ he used to say as we set off.” She mimics his voice, using a strong Yorkshire accent. “He was just heavenly. Mummy was very good and used to ride beautifully.”

Asked if you herself was good, she laughs again and says simply: “I used to ride.”

At a canter? “Oh yes,” she adds, slightly but delightfully affronted. “I wasn’t a good rider but I was adequate.”

At acting she has proved to be far more than adequate. She is one of the true greats, admired all around the world and never not in demand, a point made by the legendary actor Dame Joan Plowright. Addressing the subject in Nothing Like A Dame, the 2018 film in which she reminisces along with Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Eileen Atkins, Plowright told the group: “My agent in America said to me: ‘Well, if you do want to come over again, we’ll look around for a nice little cameo that Judi Dench hasn’t got her paws on.’”

It is indeed the case that the older Dench has got – she is now a very young 84 – the more celebrated and successful she has become, her global fame increased considerably by playing M in James Bond movies from 1995 to 2015. She has dazzled in countless roles on stage, made audiences laugh in the BBC’s As Time Goes By and received acclaim for her work in films such as Shakespeare In Love – for which she won a best supporting actress Oscar – Iris, Mrs Henderson Presents, Notes On A Scandal and Philomena.

Right now she is involved in a film version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats, in which she will play an elderly monarch called Victoria in Mrs Brown. Among the co-stars were Billy Connolly and Blue the horse.

“They said to me I was going to have to ride,” she says, “’Oh, that’s no trouble at all,’ I told them. But then they said: ‘Yes, but you’ll have to ride side-saddle.’

“Now, side-saddle in jeans and a sweater is absolutely fine. It’s a very cautious, uneasy position, but you get used to it. However, when you have to ride side-saddle wearing a corset with a huge petticoat and then over that an enormous dress with a cloak, it becomes more difficult – especially when in addition you also have to deal with Billy Connolly.

“Unfortunately poor old Blue farted every single step he took. Billy used to look at me and say: ‘Is that you?’ [Her impression of ‘The Big Yin’ is most impressive]. ‘Excuse me.’ I’d say in response. ‘I thought it was you.’

“I’ve not ridden since then. I did play Queen Victoria some years later but, in terms of riding, she was past it by then. Way past it.”

Now way in the past is Dench’s first time on a racecourse. These days she enjoys an afternoon at Goodwood and on Good Friday is invariably to be found at Lingfield. Her debut, however, came as a young girl in France.

“My sister-in-law was French and her grandfather owned a racing stable in Chantilly,” she says. “After the war we went back to Chantilly and saw these beautiful racing stables the Germans had left. It was unbelievable.

“We then raced at Chantilly, where there was a horse running who had the same name as my cat. My father decided we should have something on the horse. He came home in front and the winnings paid for our holiday. With retrospect, I realise why my father was so excited that afternoon.”

Judi with her partner David Mills

When Dench says that she really means it. The very leading lady – who would have part-owned a 2018 Grand National runner had As De Mee not picked up a late injury – regularly enjoys a little flutter, even if it’s only a fun wager with her partner David Mills.

“Would I ever have a bet? Of course I would,” she says, most emphatically. “I love it. I absolutely love it. I’m always betting. I love the element of risk. I bet David the other day £5 about something and I was so sure I was right I upped the bet to £10. I had to pay him straightaway because I was wrong.

“I just can’t resist it. I like to bet on hunches and on the names of horses, who they were sired by, that sort of thing. Sometimes I feel that for some reason I just have to back a horse. I have nobody to rely on when I’m doing it, though.

Sammy once said his grandmother had taught him two things – how to open a bottle of champagne and how to put money on a horse.”

A good reason to open champagne comes along when we leave the office. For there, behaving impeccably despite his raw youth, is Amsby, a son of Astrodiva, a mare who also raced in celebrity silks having belonged to Mystic Meg. Amsby’s half-brother Ttmab – short for ‘to the moon and back’ – raced in the same Dench/Agar silks but suffered a fatal injury. The hope is better luck rest on the shoulders of a baby bred by Tompkins and his wife Angie at their Dullingham Park Stud. He calls Dench ‘Jude’ and has nothing but good things to say about her.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether a person is the Queen or a dustman,” he makes clear. “I try to treat everybody the same. I can’t stand snobbiness in any shape or form. Jude has always been absolutely marvellous and we’ve got on like a house on fire.”

Jude and her new horses are getting on similarly well. “Oh, look, you’re so very like Smokey,” she says, stroking his nose and telling him: “You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful.”

He is indeed beautiful. That’s what horses are, even those not so blessed with conventional good looks. Moreover, every one of them deserves to be looked after properly, which is why, following the death of Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Dench agreed to become patron of the British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre.

“What happens to horses after they finish racing is so important, as it is with greyhounds,” she says. “That’s why I’m so pleased Smokey went to a great home with Riding for the Disabled. The children adored him from the start. Bryan works for them every Monday morning. He told me about it and said, wouldn’t it be great if Smokey went there? We wondered if Smokey would settle down enough to do it but immediately he was just glorious.”

The same word could be used to describe the relationship of Dench and Agar. “Bryan and I have been good mates for years,” says Dench, prompting Agar to interject: “I don’t know how I’ve survived.”

Smokey Oakey

But what was it like being her driver? “The truth is it wasn’t work, it was fun,” he says. “Some days she was very tired and would sleep. On other days we would have a laugh.

“When we used to go into London Judi would give me her bank card and ask me to get some money out for her. I did that for years. There was one time, though, when we were running early, so she said she would do it herself.

“Off she went, but then she came back and said the machine wasn’t working. She went to three more cash machines and every time got back in the car and said the same thing. We thought the whole cashpoint system must have gone down, so I suggested she popped into a bank and asked what was going on. She did exactly that. When she came out she couldn’t talk for laughing. It turned out she had been trying to take out money using her railcard.”

It could happen to anyone. The anecdote should not lead you to believe the powers of a lady who has been a dame since 1988 are fading. Nor is her capacity to be irked when anyone behaves as though marbles may be missing.

Not too long ago she had the misfortune to be bitten on the bottom by a hornet, an attack that caused her to need medical assistance.  Regrettably, the fresh-faced paramedic sent to help approached her with the inquiry: “What’s our name?” He then followed up by asking: “Have we got a carer?” Quite understandably this did not go down well with Dench, who knows her name and does not have a carer. “You, f**k off,” she said. “I’ve just done eight weeks of The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick.”

She received rave reviews for that as well. “Thank God, I’m still busy,” she says, but adds before the scampi lunch: “I poured out two glasses of water the other day and somebody said ‘Well done.’ I almost poured the water over them. When you get to a certain age that’s what happens.”

Eventually, something else inevitably happens. Two days before Agar came to Newmarket with his famous friend, he lost his wife of 56 years, Brenda, who passed away in a hospice after a long illness. Then, five days after meeting their new horse, their old horse died. Agar had been to see Smokey Oakey only one day earlier.

“They went within a week of each other and are probably together now,” says Agar. “I know it might sound strange but Brenda always wanted to achieve, she always wanted to please and she like people, all of which summed up Smokey as well. he was like one of the family. He meant so much to us.”

Dench concurred with those sentiments. “After Smokey died Judi sent me an email, letting me know she couldn’t talk as she was so upset,” says Agar.

Having heard her reminiscing so fondly about their Lincoln winner and then seen her cooing over Amsby, what Agar said is easy to believe. The pleasure horses, racing and the occasional punt have given her was plainly obvious on that winter day in Newmarket.

Aside from the Queen, Dame Judi Dench may well be racing’s most famous and popular patron, one who has enjoyed a long and glorious reign of her own. If Amsby can now deliver a little more success on the track, that really would be heavenly.



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