Competition within the ranks of ambitious young trainers pushing for a place among jumps racing’s elite has seldom been hotter, and in these troubled times the pressure must be all the more intense, so Anthony Honeyball’s 308-1 treble on a televised card at Ascot could hardly have come at a better time.
Honeyball has had his moments in a training career which began in 2006 – and plenty of them to be fair – but he’d never had a day quite like the last Saturday in October, when the JP McManus-owned stable favourite Regal Encore landed the feature Sodexo Gold Cup on an afternoon when Sully D’Oc AA, carrying the same colours, and Kid Commando had already graced the winner’s enclosure.
Bar a blip two seasons ago when a persistent virus forced him to shut up shop for a while, Honeyball’s career has been following a steady upward curve, and last season’s 36 winners represented a new personal best, but this was success of a different order.
Reflecting on the impact such afternoons can have, Honeyball says: “If you have one winner on a Saturday like that people might say jolly well done, but when you bag three you really are getting noticed and it shows how we are upping the quality.
“In races like that they could have all run well and none of them won, but it was very pleasing to get those three winners and bag all of that prize-money.
“If the demand is there and we can afford it we are brave enough to keep expanding”
“We are a very solid 40-odd horse yard – maybe getting nearer 50 now – and last season they didn’t miss a beat, from our first proper runners in October through to lockdown in the middle of March, with most horses doing what we thought they should and a treble on the Saturday before lockdown.
“But we don’t race through the summer and so to have nine winners and over £100,000 prize-money just a week into November was a really good foothold for us so early in the new season. It put us somewhere around the top 20.”
Honeyball, whose wife Rachael rode out her claim when riding under her maiden name of Green and is an integral part of the team, adds: “Our ambition is to keep building things up bit by bit, without getting ahead of ourselves. I’ve always wanted to do a good job and
to make sure that I know everything about every horse, and we’ve got a nice number for that, but now I feel that if we keep building new infrastructure, like the new walker we’ve just put in, then we can cope with slightly larger numbers.
“We are never going to say that we don’t want any more horses, and we’ve put in plans for a new barn that will house 20 more, with a new office and owners’ room. If the demand is there and we can afford it we are brave enough to keep expanding.
“We want to have enough horses to keep the ball rolling and have winners at the day-to-day fixtures, and also to get more into that top echelon, competing at the big fixtures. At the moment we can have a busy few days or a week, but then we might go missing for a week or two as we haven’t got the numbers.”
One might have expected the numbers game to be increasingly difficult as the effects of Covid-19 bite. However, that is not Honeyball’s experience, although he acknowledges that there might be a lag before the full effects of the shrinking economy are felt in the training ranks.
He says: “It’s certainly no bad thing to be busy now and getting our name in the papers, but we hadn’t lost any horses or owners and we’d actually gained one or two, even though we were quiet through the summer without runners, so had nothing to shout about.
“I think some of our owners saw it as an opportunity to get a bit more of a bargain, and we’ve also got a lot of syndicates.
“There’s not much to enjoy in life at the moment, but the horses can still run and it’s not hurting the syndicates too much. My theory is that people who own racehorses aren’t spending so much on a new car or a cruise this year and so perhaps have a share in another horse.”
“We learned the vast majority of what we know today from Richard and Viv Barber”
Having an owner like McManus on the books alongside the syndicates and smaller owners is no bad thing either, and his presence stems back to Regal Encore’s impressive bumper debut on an all-weather card at Southwell in 2012 at a time when turf racing was frozen off.
Honeyball recalls: “We were doing okay, with some nice winners, but to get an owner like JP to buy a horse and leave it with us was amazing, and something we wouldn’t have dreamed of at the time.
“Regal Encore has always been the flagbearer of our relationship, but we’ve sold JP one or two others which have done okay and it was nice to win with Sully D’Oc AA for him at Ascot in a relatively high-profile race.”
Honeyball trains on the Seaborough Manor estate from which the late Richard Barber sent out so many top hunter chasers and point-to-pointers, and the lessons he learned while working for Barber, and his understanding of gallops with which he has been familiar for approaching 20 years, are key to the success the stable is now enjoying.
He says: “In terms of training we learned the vast majority of what we know today from Richard and Viv Barber, and the Barber family full stop have been a big help to us.
“Richard was a genius of a trainer but didn’t want the limelight. Rachael and I were both point-to-point people and we went there because we felt it was the place to go. They looked after us so well, and perhaps haven’t had quite the praise they deserve.”
He continues: “We are using the same gallop that Richard was using when he was sending out 40 or 50-odd point-to-point winners a year and winning Foxhunter Chases left, right and centre at Cheltenham and Aintree, and that gallop was also used by Paul Nicholls when he had lots of his good horses in a satellite yard at Seaborough.
“It’s incredibly good and rises about 120 feet from start to finish without you noticing it. We know how to get them how we want them on it, and we know where we are with them.”
Honeyball, who says he learned “another layer of professionalism” in an enjoyable season with Paul Nicholls as a conditional, is particularly expert when it comes to placing his horses, as a strike-rate last season of 29% underlines. That percentage was not bettered by any trainer who sent out ten or more winners, and getting the measure of the team on the gallops is a massive help in this area.
He confirms: “I place them carefully and put a lot of thought into it, and either myself or Rachael will at some stage have sat on, schooled or worked every horse in the yard.
“We get a fair idea of what they are and what they can and can’t do, and it helps us to place them – what tracks might suit them, whether they might benefit from a tongue tie, and so on.
“The Barber family full stop have been a big help to us”
“If you are running as many as you can and your strike-rate is somewhere between 15% and 30% then the wheels aren’t falling off. You are doing something right.”
Aidan Coleman has ridden more winners for the stable than any other jockey in recent seasons, while Harry Cobden has been another significant ally, but when they are not available Honeyball has no hesitation in putting up one of his own lads.
He says: “We’ve got two cracking lads in Rex Dingle and Ben Godfrey – two lovely, hard working lads who are not too up and not too down.
“If there’s a gap between a Rex Dingle and an Aidan Coleman, the extra knowledge Rex has of our horses from working in the yard helps to bridge it. You would be an idiot not to use him, as he knows them so well and he buys into the way we think and what we want.
“Ben is in the same mould. It was the same here when Rachael was doing well, because she was so confident on our horses.”
It has been said that confidence breeds success, and success breeds confidence. If you want the proof, look no further, as this is one enterprise that continues to thrive in a difficult world.