Evan Williams is amused by some of the largely English misconceptions about where he lives.
“Some people do think Wales is a little 20 by 20 block of coal tip in the middle of the Rhondda Valley,” he chuckles.
Rather than being in some long-forgotten outpost, Williams is perhaps the only trainer able to see an international airport from his yard. From this quiet corner of the Vale of Glamorgan there are views not only to the edge of Barry and Cardiff but over the Bristol Channel. Some 11 miles or so across the water, Philip Hobbs is one of his nearest racing neighbours.
“People think we’re a long way west but it’s just as quick to get to Cheltenham as it is Ffos Las,” he points out. “Once you’ve been to Ffos Las, you think Wales is a long way away.”
Williams has always remained within close reach of Aberogwrn Farm, returning to stay there with his grandparents after his parents separated. He found himself left in charge of the dairy business when he was just a teenager but there was always a connection with racing, and one race in particular.
I can’t go into a pub around here without someone asking me when I’m going to win the Welsh National
His father Rhys rode Norther, the last Welsh-trained winner of the Welsh National, in point-to-points and on the gallops at nearby Cowbridge, while the iconoclastic Posy Morel trained 1959 and 1961 hero Limonali from the area.
“We’ve won most of the other good races at Chepstow and finished second and third in it but I can’t go into a pub around here without someone asking me when I’m going to win the Welsh National,” says Williams.
He began to compete in point-to-points himself and while there was never the time, nor the money, for a proper apprenticeship, he learned from riding for the likes of legendary Gloucestershire handler Dick Baimbridge.
“All my life revolved around was hunting, farming and there was always a horse around the place trained for the local point-to-point – that’s what you did,” he says. “As I started riding a few, point-to-pointing was changing and you were getting more and more rides – more like it is today. I was going well and a man called Bob Mason bought a farm a couple of miles away and had this dream of having pointers trained there.
“He was looking for someone to go there and I said, ‘I’ll do that’. It was purely because I was thinking, ‘Christ, somebody is going to pay me to train pointers, I’m riding them for nothing, this is just daft’. I didn’t think anything about it, I just did it. As we started to have a few winners, other people wanted me to train more horses, and that’s how it all happened.
“It’s hard to explain how it was. If I went to Hereford for a hunter chase ride, you were going to the end of the world. It sounds stupid now but there was nobody really doing much in Wales.
“There was never any great plan, I started purely because I thought we could earn some money, earn a living.”
Hastened by the falling price of milk and later by the financial cost of foot and mouth with cattle, Williams changed direction. He took out a licence under rules in 2003 and within a few months had clinched a Grade 1 with Sunray in Chepstow’s Finale Hurdle. Two years later he was hitting half-centuries for a season.
“The reality is we were handling too many point-to-pointers and I realised it was commercially stupid,” he recalls.
“The horses were always the passion, when I think back, and I’m more an old fashioned horseman than a farmer. I’m not qualified for anything but I always found dealing with animals very easy. If you want me to milk cows or get cows in calf, lamb a thousand ewes, break in a hunter, it’s just something I’ve been brought up to do.
“We haven’t made a big deal of things and I enjoy my little place. Don’t get me wrong, there are days you absolutely detest, but if something goes wrong, I just get up earlier the next morning and get stuck into it again.”
This matter-of-fact chain of events led to Williams being able to acquire the land next door and construct the barns and facilities befitting a modern operation with a string of 82. It is a close-knit family concern, the trainer’s wife Cath dealing with paperwork and son William the books once he has finished his financial day job.
One daughter, Isabel, is full-time in the yard and among those thundering up a fiercely steep and winding wood chip gallop that Williams installed on the edge of a neighbouring field.
What is interesting is how little the 46-year-old has departed from his roots as a stockman and, unusually for an operation safely ensconced in the country’s top dozen, it is self-contained.
Williams estimates he bought 90% of his horses himself and does not delegate much, overseeing the present racehorses in the morning and educating the future generations in the afternoon. His only hobby of sorts is maintaining a small herd of pedigree Hereford cattle.
You can buy nice horses, break them in, get them going, and they’ve got the pedigree, everything about them is right, and they go wrong and don’t come through, but that’s what can happen
“We’re lucky to have owners who can afford to take a gamble on a nice point-to-pointer but what we basically do is buy a bunch of stores every year and farm them on,” he says.
“There’s a big fall-out rate with them and it can be quite upsetting, really. You can buy nice horses, break them in, get them going, and they’ve got the pedigree, everything about them is right, and they go wrong and don’t come through, but that’s what happens when you handle a lot of young horses like we do.
“It’s hard when you still own them, but you hope to find a nice horse for a nice owner. A lot of the time they’re not as nice as we’d like them to be, and yet people still come back for more because they know at the end of the day we’re there busting a gut trying to do our best for them.”
An enforced recent change was the announcement in April that Paul Moloney, a constant for more than a decade, was retiring. In the same way as he develops his horses, Williams had prepared Adam Wedge to succeed the gifted Irishman.
“Paul’s strength when he came here was he had a lot of experience with lot of very good people. We moulded ourselves in that old-fashioned, Irish way of bringing a horse along quietly,” says Williams.
“He was a great man to have in the yard and we do miss him, he was a brilliant jockey but he wasn’t really a jockey, he was a horseman. Wedgey has been groomed to take over, he came as a 7lb claimer and slotted into the job. It seems to suit us to promote from within if people show a good attitude.”
Williams, a national point champion who rode the magnificent hunter chaser Double Silk on a few occasions, is also supervising the conditional rising star Mitchell Bastyan.
“I brought Mitch in at the beginning of the season,” he says. “I didn’t know much about the kid but thought for one with so little experience that there was a bit of potential there; he just needed to get in somewhere and be told in no uncertain terms what was required to become a professional jockey.
“He needed to get fit and harden up, because I think he thought it was a game and he had to realise it was a business. He’s gone the right way, as some boys can’t cope with the day-to-day grind.
“I’ve always got a lot of enjoyment out of giving lads their first winner. It’s tough telling others that they’d have to look elsewhere because they wouldn’t get opportunities. We never dress it up, our lads are told where they are with things and they either go forward and blossom or they wilt, but it’s better to be brutally honest rather than spin them a yarn just to keep them working in the yard.”
Fuelled by tea and an inveterate whistler, Williams is frequently cheerful company but at his core is a work ethic hewn from harder times. He also readily acknowledges that being something of a lone wolf has its drawbacks.
“I’d describe myself different to other people, I suppose. I mean I’m just a lovely happy-go-lucky fella that doesn’t worry about anything, but you know as well as I know that’s bullshit,” he says. “I think the world revolves around Aberogwrn Farm and me training a few horses. I’m very insular because it’s how it has been, and I don’t want the kids to have to do what I had to do.
“I’m sure I can cause Catherine to worry about things. I’m perhaps too hard on William; Isabel works her socks off first thing in the morning to last thing at night, I’m probably too hard on her, and any spare time Ellie has from university in Cardiff I expect her to ride out here. I’m probably too hard on Catherine and the people in the yard – I expect them to work and there are plenty that don’t take it.
“I’m very guilty of just doing my own thing, but at the same time somebody has to make a decision, and I think I’m never scared to do that. People might say I’m portrayed as being tough and prickly – I can understand that – but I’d be disappointed if people thought there was a side to me. I think I come through the front door, I’d prefer to give somebody a bloody nose than snake someone, but there’s no doubt I’m one-dimensional.
“I’d probably have a Timeform squiggle somewhere but I’ve had a lot of people who’ve been with me a long time and probably know how to play me. I think that’s the key to it.”
Ruckers cut from the same country cloth
William and Angela Rucker number among Evan Williams’ most long-standing and important owners and have provided him with the horse of his career so far in State Of Play. The couple divide their time between Worcestershire and London, where William Rucker has interests in finance and property.
“Mrs Rucker’s mother Mrs [Pat] Tollit was one of the best point-to-point riders of her and probably any time, and I rode in point-to-points and trained for her,” Williams explains.
“That’s how it developed, and Mr and Mrs Rucker graduated from the points with me. They like to buy a nice type of horse and they’re National Hunt people through and through – the family is steeped in the history of it.
“We enjoy doing the sales together and we’ll all have a strong opinion on what the horses have and don’t have. We’ll get it wrong a lot, and sometimes get it right. We generally sing off the same hymn-sheet but have opinions and aren’t afraid to air them.
“I’m quite old-fashioned in that I like to give horses time and they’re very similar. As they’re country people, they understand the old job a bit.”
State Of Play not only won connections the 2006 Hennessy and a Charlie Hall Chase but placed in three straight Grand Nationals from a total of four starts during that time, before their Cappa Bleu reached the Aintree frame in consecutive years afterwards.
State Of Play is retired with the Ruckers, Williams continuing: “I spent a lot of time with the horse, you should never have favourites but he’ll always be my favourite. I’ll never get as close to a horse again in the future as he was a special horse at the right time of our lives, which seems like a long time ago now.”
Among the next generation in the blue and pink colours are Apollo Creed, Chooseyourweapon and The Last Day, but Williams is reluctant to pick one destined for the top.
“We’ve got some nice ones but my horses will never show it all as a young horse because they won’t be asked to,” he says. “I don’t like to judge them on what I see at home, I always like to see a run or two first.
“Hurdles and bumpers are only a means of us trying to get to a staying chase and I have an awful habit of making horses very, very slow and staying a long way!”