Very few people get to live the dream. The lucky ones describe it as surfing a wave of euphoria, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is hard to put into words. The rest of us can only concoct this flight of fantasy through the prism of a fertile imagination, not to mention a covetous eye.
What, then, do we make of the man living the dream for a second time? Steve Preston smiles and lets out a gentle sigh. “I will try to articulate it, but it is not an intellectual story,” he says. “It is all from the inside.”
His first surfboard was Sire De Grugy, whose Champion Chase triumph nine years ago was the stuff of fairy-tales. It was a special thrill for Preston to drape a red-and-blue scarf around the neck of the Duchess of Cornwall – as Camilla, Queen Consort was then – on receiving the winner’s trophy.
Sire De Grugy (below) was a phenomenon: the £37,000 purchase whose five Grade 1 victories bankrolled connections the thick end of £900,000. When his racing days were over Preston and his cohorts, who owned most of the horse, threw a party in his local pub. And by any yardstick, that should have been that. It should have been the night when Preston returned to earth with a sore head and a treasure chest of memories. Instead, it was the catalyst for an improbable sequel.
On that night Preston inquired which of Sire De Grugy’s merry band of owners wanted to roll the dice again. His best friend, Barry Lockett, was up for it but three others – Neil McNulty, Dave Simpson and Preston’s eldest son, Liam – took the money and ran. “Understandably, they felt it could never be as good again,” Preston reflects. “But two friends, Michael and Steve O’Brien, were at the party. They wanted to come in, so we went and bought Editeur Du Gite.”
Fast-forward five years and Preston has eyes on a second Champion Chase. Editeur Du Gite is on the rise, as was Sire De Grugy ahead of his victory in 2014. On his last start he beat Energumene and Edwardstone at level weights. It is as if the white stars on the arms of Preston’s silks are aligning for a second time.
That’s what makes the whole story so beguiling. It’s a classic example of overcoming the odds in a domain where regular Joes look in from the outside – as Preston, 64, did for most of his life. An avid racegoer from his formative years, he never expected to savour the thrill of ownership. It was beyond his financial means. Sire De Grugy was all but inflicted upon him when he was given £2,000 on his fiftieth birthday to put towards his first horse. Even then, he could never have envisaged standing proudly beside Sire at Cheltenham after the chestnut outran horses owned by JP McManus, Rich Ricci, the Whateleys and the Potts family.
“After Sire’s win, the late Andy Stewart [owner of Big Buck’s among other top-class horses] put it all into context,” Preston recalls. “He came up to us and said: ‘I don’t know how much money I have put into it, and I have no idea how many horses I have owned, but I have always wanted to win the Champion Chase – and I can’t. So the one thing you’ve got to do is enjoy it.’ That gave us perspective on how lucky we were.”
What Stewart would have made of the second coming is anybody’s guess. At €150,000, Editeur Du Gite cost a good bit more than Sire De Grugy and has taken longer to find himself. But as Preston puts it with barely suppressed excitement: “As things stand, I would say Editeur has a realistic chance of a place. At the same time, he is the only horse in the Champion Chase who is still improving.”
That synopsis would have cut little ice before the turn of the year, when Editeur Du Gite, then a back-end eight- year-old, seemed typecast as a decent handicapper. That was about as much as Preston dared hope for, although the prospect of the horse scaling even whose heights appeared remote when he arrived at trainer Gary Moore’s yard in the summer of 2018.
Back then he was brim-full of promise, having landed a competitive four-year-old hurdle race at Compiegne on his second start. Then the wheels came off. He sat idle in his box for the next 18 months, after which two runs in the 2019-2020 season saw him pulled up at Sandown and finish last of six at Kempton three weeks later.
Preston maintains he kept the faith all along, although it was another ten months before the horse reappeared at Ascot in October 2020. He fared well enough then, and again on his next two starts, yet he looked anything but a top- class prospect when he was then pulled up at Chepstow in January.
At that point he was a seven-year- old novice chaser without a win over fences, but valuable lessons were learnt. It became apparent Editeur Du Gite was happiest when allowed to bowl along up front on decent ground. The transformation has been striking.
So much so that the red-and-blue scarves will once again be out in force on Champion Chase day. They allude to Preston’s childhood upbringing in Woking, much of which he spent with his father at local tracks like Plumpton and Fontwell, the dogs at Wimbledon and Catford and watching football at Crystal Palace, whose red-and-blue livery is replicated both in the scarfs and Preston’s racing silks. The three white stars on the sleeves commemorate Preston’s three sons.
“I used to sell peanuts at Selhurst Park [Crystal Palace’s home ground] when I was eight years old,” Preston reminisces. “All three of my boys are fans as well even though we moved north to Cheshire 30 years ago. I enjoyed the football but racing was always my favourite day out. My father was a butcher who worked Saturdays, so we used to go racing on Bank Holidays. “I much preferred jump racing,” he continues. “It became my passion to watch the spectacle of horses jumping, and the tracks we went to felt more intimate to me in every way. I’ve been to Royal Ascot many times; we got dressed up and I really enjoyed it, but I never felt the same feeling of being part of it as I do when I go to Cheltenham.”
Back then, Preston was less preoccupied with the mechanics of racing than the visceral thrill of being there. It mattered not whether he watched a championship race or a Class 6 handicap; he was sold on horses and jockeys engaged in the cut and thrust.
“Sandown is my favourite track, maybe because we had so many good experiences there,” Preston relates. “You make so many associations over the years, and when I was growing up I’d look at the owners and trainers in the paddock and think to myself: ‘Yeah, maybe one day, one day…”
That particular bell seemed ready to chime for Preston when he reached his late 40s. He’d advanced from selling Pretty Polly ladies’ tights to working for the sports equipment maker Umbro, where he became general manager after 17 years.
From there he ended up commuting weekly to Holland, where he worked for a firm that bought a bankrupt concern, turned it round and sold it on. But a second stab at reviving another company in distress foundered. “We got too big for our boots and we were out of our depth,” Preston recalls. “We got into financial difficulties.”
That’s when he was given £2,000 by friends and family on his fiftieth birthday to put towards buying a racehorse. At the time, however, Preston was more preoccupied with repairing his finances, which had been pummelled by his ailing investment and a divorce.
“But for that birthday present, I honestly don’t know whether I’d have ever bought a racehorse,” he reflects in sombre tones. “The divorce brought uncertainty and I had a stake in a business that was struggling, and which eventually went bankrupt. I ended up in debt and I have always been careful with money. Since I’m not a gambler by nature, I doubt I would have bought a horse.”
However, the gift from family and friends implored him to. Even then, as his exploratory path into ownership began to take shape, he really should have backed out of it. He’d settled on Moore to pursue the project largely because the trainer agreed to own part of any purchase. He was also adamant that Moore had to find a horse from outside the stable. In return, Moore insisted on calling the shots governing where and when the horse would run.
The prospect of buying Sire De Grugy arose soon after. And that’s when Preston should have walked away. “We’d never talked numbers with Gary [Moore],” he relates. “I was thinking maybe I’d put in £10,000 for 50 per cent of the horse. Then Gary said the horse would cost €50,000 and he was only prepared to take 25 per cent.
“Well, I don’t know how I managed to keep a straight face,” Preston continues. “I couldn’t possibly see how we could justify spending that kind of money. We just wanted to run around at Plumpton and Fontwell because we still had family in that part of the world.”
Nevertheless, having got that far, Preston felt compelled to go the extra mile. “I went along with it, wondering how on earth we were going to afford it,” he says. “I rang around all my friends and somehow we found the money.”
By the time the horse was divided up Preston had committed more than twice his initial budget. But that inauspicious beginning soon gave way as Sire De Grugy went from strength to strength. The whole episode was so improbable that Channel 4 inquired into making a documentary about it, although that never came to fruition.
Looking back, Preston realises how fortunate he was. And he greatly appreciates Moore’s honesty from the outset. “It was an incredible journey,” he says, “and Gary gave us the best piece of advice we could have had. He told us to think of the money we’d put into the horse and training fees as lost money. He said we would never win anything in this game because no owner does.”
In heeding Moore’s advice, Preston and his partners never touched the money that accrued in the bank account he set up for their racing costs. There was one financial blip, when the partnership bought Sire De Grugy’s full-brother, Blue Sire, who proved of no account, but Sire’s career was so bountiful that the account remains in credit to the tune of some £200,000.
There is also Editeur Du Gite’s imminent run in the Champion Chase to come. The horse’s narrow defeat of Edwardstone in January was a welcome surprise, with Preston maintaining that a 20-length defeat by that horse would have justified Editeur’s place in the Champion Chase line-up.
The vista now looks very different after Editeur inched out Edwardstone in an epic duel from the final fence. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited watching a race,” Preston recalls. “The difference between being a fan and owning a horse is the nerves you feel when they run. That’s why we were jumping around like children when our number was called first in the photo finish.
“In all of Sire De Grugy’s  races he was never involved in a photo finish. It was something new to us, and the way Editeur Du Gite did it, coming back after he was passed on the run-in, made it extra special against the best two-mile chasers.”
Victory for Editeur Du Gite would be a case of lightning striking twice. In that event, however, Preston will not drape his red-and-blue scarf around the Queen Consort’s neck, as he did in a moment of jubilation nine years ago.
“I was told off big-time for that,” he days with a smile, “although the princess herself [as Camilla was then] could not have been nicer.” The fact that Preston was in a position to do it at all is the very essence of his story.