Major Ronald Ferguson, father of the Duchess of York, rode the ups and downs of a colourful life lived to the full.

A talented polo player and former polo manager to the Prince of Wales, his 1994 autobiography was aptly entitled The Galloping Major.

Born into the country gentry and educated at Eton, he followed a 19-year military career via Sandhurst and a commission in the Household Cavalry.

At the height of his equestrian prowess, he captained the Sovereign's Escort during the Trooping the Colour parade to mark the Queen's birthday.

Presumably overcome by pride and carried away by unbounded enthusiasm, he reportedly came close to upstaging Her Majesty.

''Back a bit, Ron - it's me they've come to see, not you,'' the Queen ordered as he trotted alongside the royal carriage and masked her from full view. But the high-society major also had a liking for the high life and his romantic excesses caused blushes at the royal court. His notoriety brought salacious newspaper headlines of a visit to a seedy massage parlour and at least a brace of affairs. In 1994, kiss-and-tell revelations by polo-loving Lesley Player proved his ultimate undoing.

Gruff on the exterior, he was a friendly, fun-loving man and once appeared on stage, dressed as a punk rocker, with female impersonator Dame Edna Everage.

The major was fiercely protective of his daughter Sarah, whose marriage to Prince Andrew turned sour and ended in al-fresco, topless disgrace with American ''financial adviser'' John Bryan in the south of France.

The duchess, who showed her father's battling spirit to fight back from deep debt and personal despair after divorce, doted on her father. He was not afraid to speak his mind, proving the point when he lambasted royal courtiers, accusing them of undermining his daughter's marriage.

Courting controversy yet coveting privacy, he told a journalist: ''I am nobody. Nobody at all. I just happen to be the father of the Duchess of York. I mean, that doesn't make me terribly important, does it?''

As a lieutenant in the Life Guards, he married his first wife Susan, an 18-year-old debutante, in 1956. They had two daughters, Jane and her younger sister Sarah.

A tryst with a colonel's 23-year-old daughter led to the break-up of his first marriage in 1972 when Susan sought solace in the arms of Argentinian polo star Hector Barrantes, with whom she set up home on a remote ranch, 300 miles west of Buenos Aires. Divorce came in 1974 when Sarah, the future Duchess of York, was still a teenager. While bringing up his daughters as a single parent, the major courted a string of society women, including the Princess of Wales's mother, Frances Shand-Kydd, to whom he proposed marriage.

Mrs Shand-Kydd declined the offer and, in 1976, he married his second wife, also called Susan. They had three children, Andrew, Alice and Eliza.

Major Ferguson was the Prince of Wales's unpaid polo manager for 21 years. Before that, he filled the same role for the Duke of Edinburgh.

When, in 1988, the royal aide was photographed entering and leaving a London massage parlour, he parted company with his job as manager of the elite Guards Polo Club.

He denied dire money problems when he watched glumly as his beef herd, established in 1948 by his father Colonel Andrew Ferguson, fetched (pounds) 65,000 in April 1991.

A few months later, he sold 130 acres of land, opposite the family's Hampshire home in the village of Dummer, near Basingstoke, for (pounds) 240,000. He received (pounds) 15 for six plastic buckets disposed of, with other unwanted items, in a farmyard sale.

An affair with the 34-year-old Miss Leslie Player was followed by the major's departure from his (pounds) 32,000-a-year job as sponsorship organiser at the exclusive Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club. He attempted to weather the storm but, this time, it seemed enough was enough and the Prince of Wales bowed out of top-rank polo, so no longer needed

his services.

In 1995, along with other Lloyd's ''names'' including the late Adam Faith and then Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell, the major won a legal battle contesting multi-million-pound losses incurred on the London insurance market.

Facing up to ill health later in life, he showed characteristic courage. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996 but, after radiotherapy treatment, was given the all-clear in 1998. He championed the Coalition For Prostate Cancer and helped with the launch of the UK's first prostate cancer awareness week, presenting a petition to 10 Downing Street calling for increased spending on research, early detection, and treatment.

His cancer returned in 2001, but he confronted the news with grit. ''I have no intention of dying yet,'' he said. After he refused hormone treatment, the duchess told him about a beneficial holistic diet which he took up with optimism.

Offering words of hope to other cancer sufferers, he said: ''You can never get used to that word, cancer. Cancer is something that hits straight away and because you hear about so many cases of people with cancer dying, immediately cancer is connected with death. But it doesn't have to be, far from it in my case. It doesn't have to be.''

In November last year he collapsed, having suffered a suspected heart attack, and was admitted to hospital. He rallied after suffering a second heart attack but, at the end of a long struggle, his condition deteriorated.

Major Ronald Ivor Ferguson; born October 10, 1931, died March 16, 2003.