There is a slightly surprising answer when you ask Chris Gordon to nominate the winners that have meant the most to him.
It’s not either of his most prestigious wins in Kempton’s Grade 2 Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle with Highway One O Two in 2020 or Aucunrisque last season, nor any of his successes at Cheltenham, where Annual Invictus and Unanswered Prayers both won at this season’s November meeting.
The two he nominates came recently in modest steeplechases at Lingfield. Both carried huge personal significance because they sported the colours of long-standing supporters who helped build the foundations that are now allowing Gordon’s operation to thrive.
Les Gilbert, owner of Coolvalla, who won a Class 5 chase on November 24, was the first new patron Gordon attracted when he moved into Morestead Farm Stables near Winchester shortly after previous occupant Brendan Powell swapped Hampshire for Lambourn.
Ramore Will’s win in another Class 5 contest came in the colours of John and Annie Farrant, the couple who gave Gordon a foothold in racing as a raw teenager in 1986.
Making the latter moment even more special was the fact that Gordon’s 17-year-old amateur jockey son Freddie was in the saddle. It was a full circle moment.
Gordon says: “John became a father figure to me and has been with me all the way through. If it wasn’t for him and Annie I certainly wouldn’t have been here. They got me out of a lot of scrapes in life. Freddie riding Ramore Will made it quite an emotional day.
“Coolvalla’s win for Les was also very sweet. They are both hardcore owners who have been with me all the way. Keeping the business going can seem quite a battle at times.”
The numbers would suggest Gordon is winning both the battle and the war. When he and wife Jenny moved to Morestead Farm Stables in December 2007, they had only four horses to run under Rules plus “a few promises” and around 16 of the point-to-pointers which had helped to establish the Gordons’ reputation when based in East Sussex.
Now there are 60 racehorses, four pointers and Gordon is in the process of building another six stables. There is also quality looking over the stable doors, the trainer having recently spent over £100,000 – twice – on a horse for the first time.
But Gordon’s dreams of where he might ultimately end up are held in check by realism, shaped by the journey he and wife Jenny have travelled.
“It was incredibly tough,” Gordon explains. “You had to succeed to make it pay but I would like to think what we have done could inspire other people to think they can too.
“Me and Jen basically came here with bugger all, apart from hopefully a good reputation for dealing with horses.
“We both rode out six a day because we needed to and in those first few years I would have to say to Jen, ‘Please can I have a tenner to go racing in case I have to buy a drink.’ People wouldn’t believe that side of it.”
When Chris and Jenny met on the Sussex point-to-point circuit, chickens were as important to him as horses.
“John Farrant was editor of Poultry World and Poultry Weekly. He had 24,000 battery hens. I ended up being his farm manager,” Gordon recalls. “We trained the point-to-pointers on the side at Robertsbridge, which is how I got around to being an amateur jockey. Back then, you couldn’t work in racing or a point-to-point yard.
I had been bitten by the racing bug during work experience stints with Josh Gifford while I was at school
“I had been bitten by the racing bug during work experience stints with Josh Gifford while I was at school. I wasn’t good enough to be a professional by a long way, but I rode until I was 39 and had around 150 winners, with about five of those under Rules.”
At the same time Jenny worked for East Sussex-based Jeffrey Peate – grandfather of Jonny Peate, who is currently making waves as an apprentice jockey on the Flat – and his wife Penny, riding 50 point-to-point winners.
When Jeffrey retired, Jenny got a job training point-to-pointers for Simon Tindall, whose blue colours with yellow sleeves have been a familiar sight on British tracks, and Chris started to work with the woman who he would marry.
For seven years that was their working life until taking the plunge to move to Morestead Farm, borrowing £40,000 to get the business off the ground.
After six years renting the property, they bought the house and stables in 2013 and secured a 35-year lease on the gallops, which Gordon says “will see me out”.
Consistent progress since saw 43 winners secured last season, a best-ever return which looks likely to be bettered this campaign given the strike-rate the Gordon stable had been operating at up until Christmas.
A massive tool in the Gordon armoury in the early days when money was tight was a lesson learned from another of his big influences, Ann Blaker.
Gordon explains: “I rode for Ann and she was a great inspiration to me and taught me more about horses than most. She produced drag horses, hunt horses, show horses and point-to-pointers, all at the top level.
“I was in my early 20s when one day she pulled a horse out and said, ‘Now young man, you think you know so much about horses, tell me about this one’. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
“But she said, ‘Tell me about his head, his neck, his body’. Whenever a new horse turned up, she would make me go through its conformation. She was a top show judge in her day and after a couple of years she told me I should do some judging.
“It was the last thing I wanted to do but she persuaded me – and I started as a probationary judge. I have now done the Horse of the Year Show and really enjoy it when I can do it.
One of the first things I wanted to do was target a track
“This has all stood me in such good stead because when we first came here I had to buy cheap horses, yet they all had the correct conformation. They might have been as common as muck on pedigree, but they could run a lot. That was so important in those early years. It probably made it look like I had more horses than I did!
“One of the first things I wanted to do was target a track so at least I could be good at it. I chose Fontwell, so we headed there often and became leading trainer with less than 30 horses.”
Recognising it is easy to become labelled, Gordon’s desire to spread his horizons and train a better stamp of horse was fuelled when he started to tap into second-hand horses bought from the stable of 13-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls.
That included £7,000 buy Lightentertainment, whose five wins for Gordon included one at Cheltenham, and most successfully £8,000 purchase Remiluc, who also had a Cheltenham success among his four victories for the Gordon stable as well as a runner-up finish in the County Hurdle at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.
Gordon says: “I hit it off with Paul and bought some wonderful horses from him quite cheaply that didn’t quite fit into a big yard but thrived in ours.
“They’d originally cost quite a bit of money and you could see that in their conformation and quality.”
I buy everything.
Gordon’s work as a judge at the Horse of the Year Show with Henrietta Knight and the friendship that has blossomed also helped, with Knight introducing Gordon to the respected Costello family, who sold her three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate, and the equally respected Doyles.
Those two Irish academies for equine talent are now where Gordon prefers to search for his future recruits. He adds: “We were lucky because Richard Cheshire joined us as an owner about six years ago. It was the first time I have been able to turn up with a bit of money to spend and Henrietta took me to meet the Costellos.
‘We bought Commanche Red and Baddersley Knight, who turned out to be good, and cemented that relationship. I have a good relationship with the Doyles as well. Most of my horses come from them both.
“I buy everything. There is no agent who steps in. If I fail it will be by my own sword.
“When we came here initially, we were buying horses for £800, £1,000 or £1,500 and it was hard work. Up to five years ago the average price of a horse in the yard was £8,000. I was riding point-to-pointers which cost more than that! The average now is around £35,000.”
Gordon admits that running on racing’s relentless treadmill made it impossible to take objective stock of the progress his stable had made. Ironically, that only happened during the shutdown of racing caused by the Covid pandemic. “It gave me time to reflect and think we had done alright,” Gordon says.
The one thing he didn’t need reminding about was the part Jenny, whom he first met at a young farmers’ disco when they were teenagers, plays in the operation.
Her alarm can go off as early as 3.30am and, while Chris is the public face of the operation on the track, Jenny is the cog the home operation revolves around. She also trains the stable point-to-pointers with great success. Last season they were ridden by Freddie, who is now based with Nicholls, but this season it will be another member of the Gordon team, Molly Landau.
Her father Guy won the 1987 Whitbread Gold Cup on Lean Ar Aghaidh, while her mother Emma Coveney was Jenny’s big rival during their point-to-point riding days.
Jenny says: “It worked very well last year. I was the top trainer with under seven horses and Freddie was second in the novice championship, so I could tell Chris I was a champion!
“It was quite nice to have a bit of recognition in my own right, but he is the boss. Someone has to make the decisions. We would never have a joint licence but that doesn’t bother me.
“I don’t think anyone gave us any more than six months when we set up, but we work well together and see pretty much everything in the same way.”
That’s a way that is proving very fruitful for Chris and Jenny Gordon.
“I think summer jumping is as dull as dishwater”
Racing has some significant decisions to make as it considers how it could be restructured to become more prosperous and attractive to its audience.
That agenda is the future of summer jump racing. While not wanting it scrapped, Chris Gordon would like to see the return to a break from jump racing of six to eight weeks during the middle months of the year.
He says: “I think it is souring racing. I have loved racing all my life, but it turns me off completely. Quite often these days, if we are not doing anything during the summer, in the afternoon I quite often would not have the racing on the television.
“I think summer jumping is as dull as dishwater and I think it is extremely hard on horses.
“I used to look forward to jumping starting when we used to have two months off. You could see everyone was enthusiastic for it. It would be fantastic if we could go back to that.
“Some trainers no doubt feel it is a way of keeping their businesses running but if people need horses in at that time of year for their business, they should get a few dual-purpose horses. We would certainly like a few more Flat horses to train.
“That would also boost the Flat – increasing the numbers of runners at tracks like Bath and Chepstow – and then when the National Hunt season started again those horses could go back jumping. It is not as if the yard is empty. You can do breakers and pre-trainers.”