The Hobbs stable has finished in the top ten in the trainers’ table in 25 of the past 26 seasons. How much pride do you take in this achievement and what does it take to be so consistent over such a long period?
It’s all down to having good staff to make everything work and good owners to keep replacing the horses. Without them nothing would happen. Some members of staff have been with us for 25 years or more and I still enjoy the daily banter.
It is important to try to keep at a certain level with the horses because once you dip out of the top few, it is very difficult to climb back again. You do need healthy horses, which we have most of the time, though they weren’t two seasons ago when we finished well below our average.
It’s the first time that’s happened but we have put various extra things in place, like ventilation and certain feed. That’s important because it doesn’t matter how good the horses are, if they’re not healthy they won’t win.
You are responsible for over 100 horses and 40 members of staff at Sandhill Stables in Minehead, Somerset. What do you consider the most important part of training?
First, you need horses capable of winning. Second, they have to be fit. Third, they have to be placed in the right races. Also, as I have just said, you need the right staff to get them there. In this day and age lack of decent staff has become a problem.
In the West Country we have an advantage because a higher proportion of people in our area ride horses. There are a lot of hunting yards and we have local people that come to work for us. Another vital part of a successful set-up is having training facilities that keep the horses sound.
You told this magazine in 2010 that you never compromise on good communication with your owners. Is that the reason so many of your owners have been with you for such a long time?
To quote Sir Mark Prescott, ‘You are very unlikely to lose a horse by training it badly, but you are very likely to lose a horse by not informing the owners’.
Communication is very important. Some owners will ring the trainer quite regularly, some will never ring the trainer because they don’t want to bother them and are waiting to be informed. I get in touch with them more than they get in touch with me.
On a Friday evening I make a list of all the owners I haven’t spoken to during the week and I call them while [wife] Sarah is driving me to the races on the Saturday. I can ring 50 people in two or three hours from the car.
Then I do the rest on Sunday morning. When there’s bad news to impart, the sooner I get it off my chest the better. A problem shared is a problem halved.
The treatment of owners at the races has improved over the years – but is there still a long way to go in your view?
It has improved massively. But I have always felt the owners’ and trainers’ area, which is the most important place on the racecourse for owners, should have three things.
A bar where you don’t have to queue for more than five minutes, which is sadly lacking on a lot of racecourses. Very often the trainer goes in with the owner after a race, tries to get a drink, only to find himself waiting for 20 minutes, then having
to dash off to saddle one in the next race and missing the chance of a chat with the owner. Also, every owners’ facility should have somewhere to sit, particularly for older owners who might need a base for the day.
At the very least, the lower grade courses should provide sandwiches and soup. Ascot and Cheltenham lay this on and owners do appreciate it.
Has training and stable management, with the ever-increasing load of paperwork, changed a great deal in your 35 years with a licence?
It has become easier. When Sarah and I started in 1985 we did everything longhand and at the end of every three months, we were up until 2am trying to get our VAT sorted and sent off before the deadline. Now our brilliant secretary Jo Cody-Boutcher does it all.
Doing entries on the internet is also easier. I used to plough through formbooks and then ring up with entries and declarations; now with a few clicks on the Racing Post website it is much more straightforward.
Overall, the paperwork has become less, though health and safety has become more important. I still need about 30 hours a week in the office in addition to training the horses and going to the races.
Does your wife Sarah, an accomplished event and point-to-point rider, represent the stable at the races? Do any of your daughters have a part in the business?
Sarah goes racing a lot more than I do because I need to see the horses at home and also spend time in the office.
Sarah stopped riding out a couple of years ago, and occasionally travels in the lorry; she does enjoy being in charge at the races. I don’t go much more than twice a week.
Of our three daughters, Caroline, Katherine and Diana, Diana is based with us and goes racing and does secretarial work. She had been riding out until she broke her leg six months ago but is hoping to be back in action soon.
Which horse has given you the most pleasure to train, and why?
There are two. Rooster Booster, our Champion Hurdle winner in 2003, was the best horse we had trained at that stage. He was unbeaten in the 2002- 03 season.
When you have the best hurdler in training, wherever you enter, you are going to be favourite and frighten off the opposition. They are all wanting to know if you’re running or not.
It’s a wonderful situation because you are kingpin. Rooster Booster was phenomenal; he had only two speeds, walk or flat out.
I have to mention Balthazar King as well. Not just because he won eight times at Cheltenham, including his cross-country races, but we took him three times to France for cross-country races and he won two of them.
That was a wonderful experience and the French made us very welcome. He was just a massively genuine and sound horse and is now enjoying hunting in the care of Ralph Beckett’s wife, Izzy.
How is Defi Du Seuil after his sixth Grade 1 win in Sandown’s Tingle Creek Chase and what is the plan now?
We were obviously delighted with him. He jumped great and is always inclined to pull up a bit on the run-in, and Sandown’s a particularly long one.
I suppose the most obvious race for him would be the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in mid-January, and hopefully Cheltenham after that.
The ground and opposition will help us decide which race at the Festival. Captain Chris and Flagship Uberalles were top chasers of ours, but Defi Du Seuil is only six and has already won more Grade 1s. You would have to say potentially he could be the best of them.
Sourcing National Hunt horses is more competitive than ever. How has your buying strategy changed over the years and who helps you recruit new talent?
A lot of our stores come from Bryan Murphy, who also runs the Dunraven Arms in Adare, Co Limerick. Bryan rode a lot of winners as an amateur and he buys foals and sells them on.
We also used to buy in France, as well as horses with Flat race form here, but both those markets have become so expensive. We also have owners who buy through their agents and send the horses to us.
Aidan Murphy is an agent who has helped us over the years as well, but otherwise we buy mainly ourselves.
One of our best purchases was Greenback, who I bought for six grand at Newmarket in the 90s for Jack Joseph. He won eight races over jumps in his first year with us and was still winning as a 12-year-old.
You rode 160 winners during ten years as a jockey. Now, as a trainer, you have been closer to four-time champion Richard Johnson than anyone else in racing. What makes him tick?
His work ethic is just amazing. If he has one ride, be it at Musselburgh or Plumpton, he will always go and ride it. And, as often as not, will drive himself because he says paying a driver costs more than the riding fee! His toughness is just extraordinary.
He fell on Wishfull Thinking in the Champion Chase of 2012. The horse and jockey went under the rails, taking a photographer with them. Richard hit a padded rail, but did not miss one ride and when I saw his injured leg a month later, I couldn’t believe how enormous and black and blue it was after such a long time.
He is also ultra-reliable and when he gets off a horse that’s run disappointingly, he will always take time explaining to the owners and won’t just rush off into the jockeys’ room.
He is a thoroughly reliable, honest, good bloke. It doesn’t matter whether he’s talking to one of our most important owners or a lad in the yard, he always comes across the same. There’s no side to him.
You have ventured on to the Flat with success, twice in the Cesarewitch and also in the Northumberland Plate. Do you get as big a kick out of winning a good Flat prize as you do a top chase or hurdle?
Yes, definitely. It’s nice to switch to the other side and pick up a decent race occasionally. Realistically, though, it won’t happen as much nowadays. I used to buy a lot of horses at Newmarket Sales rated 65–75 for about £25,000. Now they cost £75,000.
Sometimes those horses did well over hurdles and got better with age. You could run them back on the Flat with the same handicap mark and that could be very, very useful with a horse that had improved.
Last season we ran the French-bred jumper Gumball four times on the Flat and he won at Kempton, Lingfield and Salisbury. He is not over big but has loads of speed, so rather than novice chasing we decided to try him on the Flat. When you have the right one it’s fun.
If there was one thing you could change in racing, what would it be and why?
Get rid of Sunday racing. It’s never been what it was supposed to be. Perhaps the one exception is Cheltenham’s Sunday fixture in November. It is a really competitive day with good prize-money, but the rest of the Sundays are very ordinary.
They disrupt your stable routine with staff going racing when they might have other things to do, though I must say our staff do like to travel with their horses to the races.
It is also more expensive for owners because we have to pay staff overtime to go racing. Trying to service Sunday racing is very difficult.
You always appear calm and not one for shouting and jumping about. Are you never stirred into showing your emotions – even at Cheltenham?
I’m sure there is something bubbling away inside me. But I tell myself not to get too excited about the good days and not too down about the bad days because there will be both. To be realistic, what happens through the season as a whole is important, not what happens on a daily basis.
I must admit, though, that when we’ve had a winner, big or small, I wake up the following morning and the first thing I think about is that winner we had yesterday.
It always matters, whatever the race. Sometimes the smaller winners at the smaller tracks for the right owners can be better than the bigger winners.
Is the NH season too focussed on Cheltenham? If so, what would you do to redress the balance?
Yes, I think it is. Having said that, the Cheltenham Festival should always be the season’s main meeting. It is absolutely fantastic and has worked so well for so long. The enthusiasm for it seems to be never ending. I do think the press build it up a lot when there are other very good meetings which are nearly as important.
The press start talking Cheltenham as soon as jumping gets going in October. But if you ask somebody two weeks after Cheltenham what won a certain race, it’s amazing how quickly it’s forgotten!
I don’t think a five-day Festival would be a problem because we would need to find only two extra races, as one could be taken from each of the previous four seven-race cards.
A couple of extra races would not bring down the general standard. As far as I’m concerned, if there were five days we’d all have more chance of a Festival winner.
What is in your Festival armoury for 2020?
Obviously, we hope Defi Du Seuil will be going there. Thyme Hill, third in the Champion Bumper last season, is another possible. He has won twice this time at Chepstow and Cheltenham.
He is heading for the Challow Hurdle at Newbury after Christmas and at the Festival I’d imagine it could be the Ballymore or the Albert Bartlett. Sporting John has won well twice at Exeter. Whether he needs another ordinary novice hurdle before we step him up in class, we’ll see.
You and Sarah are known for taking an annual skiing holiday with fellow trainers, Venetia Williams, Nigel Twiston-Davies and friends. Is skiing a big hobby?
We do make an annual visit to the Alps and that’s become great fun, though skiing is not a big hobby because we don’t do it enough. We usually have a week and then a few days somewhere else.
Venetia is coming with us in February and the trip is organised by Merrick Francis, who runs Lambourn Transport. I do shoot a bit in winter. We also have a motor boat at Exmouth on the south coast and go down there a fair bit in the summer.