Even in a village of 65 people, it is easy to miss the stables where Harry Fry is causing such a stir. Seaborough is a Dorset community without shops or a pub. It is reached by a lane from Crewkerne that requires several minutes spent holding your breath and wondering how the horsebox ever gets out.
As a signpost announces your arrival, the sight of an all-weather gallop and schooling fences urges you on. Instead, turn off at a long redundant post office, admire an ancient parish church, ignore the conviction that there can be nothing beyond it and pull into a functional yard with a mellow stone house standing unostentatiously to the rear.
The yard and house, not to mention the gallop, a point-to-point course and much else around these parts, belong to Richard Barber, a horseman to the core and more than just landlord to the second-season trainer. Just as his brother, Paul, has been the constant support and advisor to his own tenant, Paul Nicholls, Barber has mentored Fry so well that he could one day be a champion himself.
The circle is still closer than this, however, as Fry cut his racing teeth working for Nicholls. Crucially, he was given responsibility when the then champion trainer started a satellite yard at Seaborough and it was from there that Rock On Ruby was trained to win the 2012 Champion Hurdle. That was enough to convince Fry he was ready to go it alone and nothing that has happened since indicates he was mistaken.
There is a quiet authority about Fry, doubtless helped by his bass voice and looming height. Certainly, he suggests a maturity way beyond his 27 years. “My plan had been to start when I was 30, not 25, but I never worried about being too young and none of the owners thought it was an issue,” he says. “I just knew I had to seize the chance.”
He has done so with a handpicked team of horses – “we didn’t have to start with everyone else’s cast-offs, like many new yards” – and with an assistant, Ciara O’Connor, who became his girlfriend and is now his fiancée. “I wouldn’t be doing this without her,” he insists.
His first season brought 20 winners from only 72 runners and he has already improved those remarkable figures this term. “It’s not something we set out to achieve,” he says of his enviable strike-rate. “But I see no point whatsoever in running horses if they have no chance. With all the costs up to the day, then the raceday expenses, owners will get disappointed. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Given this thought process, it is significant that he is aiming at least six horses at the Cheltenham Festival. Plainly, none are social runners. To all intents and purposes, Fry trained Rock On Ruby to his Champion Hurdle win but the records will forever credit Nicholls. “Getting a Cheltenham winner in our own right is an absolute priority,” he says.
So how did it happen, this whirlwind creation of a skilled trainer and businessman so indecently young? It was not inherited, for sure, as Fry’s father is an accountant and was initially keen that his eldest son at least acquired a full education on which to base career decisions. Fry, though, had been making the 20-minute journey to Seaborough from his family home every weekend since the age of 13. His mind was set.
“Growing up, all I wanted to be was a jockey,” he recalls. “The first morning I came in here, Richard looked at my hands and feet and told me to forget that. So I began to think about training. Racing is a fickle game, though. Only a lucky few make it. As an accountant, dad was probably thinking of those percentages and reckoning I’d be better off getting a decent education.”
He went along with it, albeit half-heartedly. “I was a day boy at school in Sherborne, where the headmaster was very keen on racing,” he recalls. “We were supposed to spend all day there but he turned a blind eye to the fact I turned up only for lessons – I was here at Seaborough the rest of the time. I spent my gap year here, too, before going to Cirencester Agricultural College, where it took only one lecture to convince me I was in the wrong place.”
Fry had gone to Cirencester in turmoil. He had just missed out on a job as pupil assistant to Sir Mark Prescott but had been offered a similar job by Nicholls. Parental pressure persuaded him to start his college course. “Richard told me I was wasting my time and, ten minutes in, I was already planning a call to Paul to see if the job was still available,” he says. “Mum and dad were in Africa, which was probably fortunate, and by the time they came back I had started at Ditcheat. I think they were impressed that I’d followed my instincts and made a decision.”
He made another one in the spring of 2010. “I’d just come back from Punchestown and I went to Paul and said I needed a new challenge,” Fry reveals. “He went to a point-to-point that afternoon and spoke to Richard about it. Richard said it would be ideal if I came here to run the place I knew so well and that’s what happened. For two years I was under the wing of Richard and Paul, and I count myself lucky to have learned from two such fantastic people.”
He learned quickly. Fry had never even been to the Cheltenham Festival until 2008. Four years later, he was largely responsible for the Champion Hurdle winner.
“Ruby has never even been up the Ditcheat gallop,” he says. “The closest he gets is the farm down below. Paul Barber’s son, Chris, owns that and he is in the syndicate in the horse.
Ruby spends his summers there but, when in training, he has always lived at Seaborough.”
Some are scornful of his Arkle prospects, reasoning he is nine years old and has beaten only three horses in his two bloodless chase wins, but Fry counters: “Not many champion hurdlers have gone over fences recently and he’ll go there with as good a chance as any.”
There is, though, an unspoken yearning at Seaborough to be known for something other than this one horse.
“That’s why the most important day last season was when Opening Batsman won the Racing Plus Chase,” Fry says. “Suddenly people saw I wasn’t just a one-trick pony. The phone started to ring and more horses arrived.”
There are 40 in the yard now and Fry is cautious about straining for more. He recognises the privilege he had, with a ready-made yard and a star horse already installed, and contrasts it with the position of his friend and former colleague at Ditcheat, Dan Skelton.
“Dan and I are very close,” he says. “We’re both young and ambitious and we would speak every week. We’ve been lucky in different ways. I took on an established yard whereas Dan had to fill his boxes, though his father’s support has given him fantastic facilities.
“We could easily put up another ten boxes in the barn and there are more in Richard’s point-to-point yard next door. Expansion would be great eventually but I need to get the right people in the right positions first. We have 18 staff and most of them live on site. It’s a young team and steam is let off occasionally, but that’s fine. To me, this is about involving everybody.”
This spirit extends beyond the daily routines. “This place can get cut off when it’s icy, so we form an unofficial gritting team,” Fry explains. “The residents love it – we keep the roads open!” Ten of the staff are also undertaking a 52-mile cycle ride in the spring for the local air ambulance team, which has been called three times to the Seaborough gallops after rider mishaps.
“We try to keep the riders on the same horses each day, so they build up relationships and give us decent feedback,” Fry adds. The ride on Rock On Ruby, though, is never available. Unless Noel Fehily, another of Fry’s assets, is in for a schooling morning, he will be ridden by Ciara, described by the trainer as “one of those good things that can happen in life.”
He explains: “The first I knew of her was a CV she had sent to Paul, Jonjo O’Neill and Philip Hobbs when she wanted to come over from Ireland. Clifford [Baker, Nicholls’s head man] said she might help me get Seaborough up and running. She came over for an interview but drove away saying she would never come here, because it was too far out in the sticks.
“She must have had a bad day, however, because a week later she rang back and said she would come. Ciara started as head girl within two months of me moving in here, Ruby was one of the first horses she rode and she’s never been off his back since. Our relationship grew with time. She had a boyfriend when she arrived, so I wasn’t too popular with her family, but I think we’ve smoothed that over now!”
Most parents would surely be delighted with Fry as a prospective son-in-law. The progress he has made already is startling and his focus is strongly reminiscent of the young Nicholls.
In another two years I might look back on how I am now and think I was a bit of a loose cannon, but I don’t beat myself up so much when things go wrong, as I did right at the start
“It’s very full-on but that’s what I saw at Ditcheat,” he says. “Paul would go off to Barbados most Januarys and, after day two, he couldn’t wait to get back. When my brother and sister go off skiing, I can’t do it – we just don’t get a break – but at this stage I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.
“Ciara and I live in a flat. It’s attached to the stable office and not much bigger, so most evenings we spend our time in the office. Sometimes I’m still at the desk at 9.30pm, having started at 5.30am, and I wonder if the day will ever end. But this isn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle.”
It may sound a spartan, unglamorous regime for a young couple but both give off the strong impression that they have signed up to it through desire and ambition. Plainly, they are also learning to cope with setbacks, such as the unexpected loss of three nurtured horses – including the highly-rated Oscar Rock and Urban Hymn, at the start of this season.
“Richard and I had bought Oscar Rock unraced and owned him ourselves for 18 months before selling him to Mr and Mrs Calder,” Fry says. “We’d looked after him for his hurdling career, and Urban Hymn will make a lovely three-mile chaser, but they decided they wanted their horses closer to home, so they were sent to Malcolm Jefferson in Yorkshire.
“It was a big blow to us but the very next week I had a call out of the blue asking us to train Vukovar. He’d already won four races in France, beating Dell’ Arca in his last race there. He’s a very exciting horse and he will go for the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.”
That old cliché about one door closing and another opening is easily applied to training, and Fry is fast adapting to its demands on his temperament. Superficially he seems assured and icy cool, but he admits there is much beneath the surface.
“I’m getting better,” he says. “In another two years I might look back on how I am now and think I was a bit of a loose cannon, but I don’t beat myself up so much when things go wrong, as I did right at the start.
“By the nature of this business, there will always be setbacks. You can’t get too frustrated or you simply won’t make the correct decisions. I try to step back and always look at the bigger picture.”
Fry on Nicholls…
“I think he probably reckoned I was a waste of space in my first year, and he’d be right – I was just in awe of it all, not just the wonderful horses but the way he did the job.
Attention to detail, focus and complete dedication are the main things I took from him. Every race and every runner mattered.
“I remember being in the office one summer afternoon and he was jumping up and down watching a little race at Stratford. You could be at Paul’s place for supper and he would be talking about what we should school the next day. His mind never switched off. It opened my eyes to what was needed, to be at that level. But it didn’t put me off, it just made me aspire to do the same. Everyone needs targets and Paul gave me mine.”
Nicholls on Fry…
“He was like a wet weekend to start with. If there was a piece of ice in the yard, you could be sure Harry would slip over on it. He was clumsy and nervous and accident-prone, but Dan [Skelton] was a bit the same when he came. You have to give them time and, if they’re going to be any good, they soon respond.
“Harry has learned to do things properly and he is very patient with his horses. I tease him that he’s too worried about his strike-rate and should get on and run them, but he has done very well in his first couple of years and he will only get better.
“Lots of people call him mini-me, because he approaches the job in a similar way. The gallop at Seaborough is a big asset to him and so is the wisdom of Richard Barber.”