Your first season is going from strength to strength, particularly on Saturdays. Can you say what has made it click and what your targets are for the remainder of the campaign?
I am very lucky to have taken over a strong stable. My father had 29 years with a licence and there were three spells when he trained a particularly talented group of horses and this is arguably the best of them. When you consider one of the great gripes of the industry is trying to find good staff, I have an excellent team here.
It all amounts to equine strength, personnel and we are also very fortunate to have a group of owners who are adventurous, loyal, a lot of fun and in many ways very tolerant. We have made mistakes along the way and yet the owners have greeted any errors with good humour, enabling us to get on and do the job.
My remit as a trainer is to present owners with the best possible opportunity to win with their horse on any given day. Initially my real targets were to win with every horse in the yard – not achieved yet – and to hit a 20% or better strike- rate, which we are on course to do. And finally, to try to have a winner at one of the spring festivals, Cheltenham, Aintree or Punchestown.
You always say your winners “have been enjoying themselves”. How do you keep your horses happy? Do they benefit from the great variety of orchards and woods in the beautiful countryside on the Shropshire-Herefordshire border?
I know it sounds corny, but happy horses win races. Variety is very important in their training schedules and we could go somewhere different around here 20 days on the trot if we wanted. They go stale if they do the same thing every day; horses are very curious animals and we are in the middle of thousands of acres of hill and down dale countryside where there is no noise or pollution.
If a horse gallops one day it could walk through an orchard or wander round any one of hundreds of different forestry paths the next.
You have never seen a happier horse in water than Bishops Road, who is the beach-loving dude personified and in his element when we take him to the ‘Byton Splash’, a fast- flowing part of the River Lugg in our village. Basically, we try to mix it up for them all as much as possible.
Your father Richard, steeped in National Hunt racing, trained successfully for nigh on three decades. What did you learn from him and how does he help you now?
Even now he is focused on the job; I can’t get rid of him! I go out to feed at six in the morning and there he is, already pushing the trolley on the rounds, retaining his great attention to detail. At about nine at night the horses are checked and when Dad has been round the yard he’ll talk you through all 30 horses with an unnerving degree of accuracy, telling us: ‘He was standing, she was lying down, he was asleep, she hasn’t eaten.’
He is my sounding board to the world because every decision I don’t have to make on my own; I have him alongside me planning the logistics, choosing the races, dealing with the owners, the staff and being a big help on the veterinary side. I am able to share his knowledge and expertise every day. I know I am biased, but I have to ask: is there a better assistant in the country? I doubt it.
My Mum is also indispensable, running the office. She does a lot of liaising with the vets and helping them with the horses. In another walk of life I think she would have made an excellent vet.
Possibly most important of all, she is a great calming influence on us all. Brother Tom maps out schedules for the horses and we put our heads together, in particular trying to tailor the season individually for every horse; it’s not just about the Saturday horses. We are equally happy finding a winning opportunity for the 0-100s. When Tom isn’t committed elsewhere he also rides out.
You came through the Pony Club route – do you still enjoy riding horses?
I ride out every day, usually three or four lots, and I’d be lost without it because I get the physical feel transmitted down the reins to the wellbeing of the horse. I think it’s a vital part of the job and don’t intend giving up any time soon.
In my Pony Club days my chief rival in my age group was none other than Richard Johnson. He lives only five miles down the road and is a great asset, coming in regularly to school and suggesting where we might run horses.
You studied computer sciences at university. Did your qualifications ever look like steering you away from racing?
I must have done something to upset somebody because I washed up on the shores of Channel 4 Racing in the graphics department, where they tolerated me for about 15 years. But the end-game has always been to take over the mantle when Dad was ready to share it with me.
Even when I was with Channel 4, I managed time off to lead up, help with the horses and even wangle a trip to somewhere like Punchestown. The computer science manual was shunted to one side for the Racing Post and my time at university was never going to help me as a trainer. I knew where my heart was taking me even from an early stage.
Dad was never going to go on forever. It means we can share the business instead of him being flat out all the time. There is pressure to get it right on behalf of the owners; it’s not a cheap hobby. The pressure I feel is to the horses and to the owners on their behalf, trying to find the right races and agonising over those decisions. Overall, this job provides much more of a buzz than pressure because I am around those beautiful creatures all the time.
I am very mindful of the fact that too much expansion could put at risk individual care and attention. I think 40 horses would be just about the right number
How many horses do you train and are there plans to expand?
We have 31 boxes and we’re full. The winter horses will be going on their holidays in a few weeks’ time and there will be a few summer horses to come in. The natural evolution of things means that some of the older horses like Victory Gunner, who won when he was 15, will be coming to the end. At the moment we’ve got Incentivise, 13 years young, and we’re looking forward to running him again.
As far as a bigger string is concerned, we’ll take stock at the end of the season. I am very mindful of the fact that too much expansion could put at risk individual care and attention. I think 40 would be just about the right number.
How have Grand National plans been going for Bishops Road and Mountainous?
It’s been all systems go, keeping them both sweet and fresh, enjoying the Herefordshire countryside and schooling over our big Aintree-type fences. Bishops Road was very good when he won the Grand National Trial at Haydock. He’s gone up 10lb for that to a mark of 154 and runs off 144 so we’ll be looking for something exciting at Aintree, as long as he gets in.
Mountainous just had an off-day at Haydock and we have been wanting to see how he bounced back after disappointing behind Bishops Road. Perhaps we were a little bit hasty running him so soon after his monster victory in the Welsh National. But he has a massive heart and huge appetite for racing and Aintree could suit him beautifully because he has those two vital assets, jumping and stamina.
You and Alan Halsall bought Bishops Road from Ireland. What’s the key to sourcing high-class jumpers?
I don’t think there is any one defining characteristic, though I do rely very heavily on my father, who has proved adept at unearthing a few diamonds down the years. Alan and I were lucky spotting what we thought was potentially a very good horse in Bishops Road and were delighted with his performances when we set him two very different challenges at Sandown and then Haydock. Alan has been a huge supporter and has also had the useful Knock A Hand with us.
The progressive novice chaser Kylemore Lough and Top Gamble, winner of the Game Spirit Chase, are exciting prospects. What are their immediate programmes?
You couldn’t fail to be impressed with the way Top Gamble saw off Dodging Bullets at Newbury and hopefully it’s onwards and upwards with him. Kylemore Lough, by Revoque out of a Supreme Leader mare, was bred by his joint owner Mick McMahon and proved handy over hurdles, but we hoped he’d be better over fences and so it’s proved. We’ll be putting a lot of thought into his programme.
At 38, you are young and yet steeped in the traditions of National Hunt racing. Is the sport in a good place and what improvements would you like to see?
Racing is in a wonderful place at many levels. But there are two ills that need resolving. We need to address the shortage of stable staff, who by and large can be difficult to come by. We have a quality team at Bell House but it is hard to find extra bodies and if we put up additional boxes finding more manpower would not be easy.
I would also love to see my owners competing for better prize-money, particularly in the lower rating bands on Mondays to Fridays when they are racing for peanuts. Whether running in a Grade 1 at Aintree or in 0-100 on a smaller track, the horses’ training fees don’t alter.
Racing needs young, enthusiastic followers; how do we attract them?
We can market the sport better. Many young people probably regard horses with the same awe and wonder that they see in the animals they watch on a safari TV programme. Racing is about accessibility and opportunity. Things have improved but more could be done in schools and colleges to market working within racing, which must be one of the most enjoyable careers with people working outside in the fresh air with these majestic animals.
If more people could sample the experience I’m sure they’d stay in the sport for life. Getting the message out there is tough, but more could be done to roll it out.
Does the general lack of finance in racing frighten you?
I do wonder where racing goes to attract sponsorship away from the betting companies. I’m very grateful to Betfred, who sponsored Warwick’s Classic Chase and Haydock’s Grand National Trial, both of which we were lucky to win. But what if they weren’t there, who comes in to fill that gap?
That has to be a concern, though it is encouraging that Aintree has just secured a five-year sponsorship deal from 2017 with Randox Health, a global healthcare company. I appreciate we are very much in the midst of a changing picture with the prospect of the government’s new funding plan to replace the levy system. So we are all eagerly watching this space.
Women can’t be introduced to the sport just because they’re women; they have got to be good enough and prove themselves if they want to be treated equally
So far Lizzie Kelly and Lucy Alexander are the only two British women making a breakthrough in the saddle over jumps. Why is this?
They are the first two ladies to step forward and prove they are as strong, as fit and as talented as the boys. Give Lizzie and Lucy the opportunity in any race and they are a match for anyone – as Lizzie Kelly has proved by winning a Grade 1 and one of the toughest handicaps. Why is that? I don’t know. But long may they flourish.
Women can’t be introduced to the sport just because they’re women; they have got to be good enough and prove themselves if they want to be treated equally.
The race programme is being extended to support NH fillies and mares. Do you train many mares and are you a supporter of this big push by the TBA?
I train three mares and particularly enjoy having them in the yard, though as a family we are not involved in the breeding side. We have an owner who is keen to find a good filly to race and then breed from, so hopefully long term he would then enjoy the experience of breeding to race.
Other owners also like to have a view to the future with a mare that has a career after racing. Any concept that enlarges owners’ opportunities is very welcome. Another series, of which I am a huge fan, is the veterans’ series for the older horses, who have given so much enjoyment and continue to do so.
Are there any particular NH sires that you like?
Any stallion with a Flat influence appeals like Presenting, Heron Island, Revoque. I’d love to train a good one by Flemensfirth, who can produce a really enduring three-miler suited by soft ground.
Can you explain what drives you on?
Quite simply, I have been brought up to thrive on racing; I love the competition, I love the mental stimulus trying to work out the right race to encourage a horse to progress. I adore being with horses; I’m sure friends and family would tell you I prefer horses to people.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years’ time?
I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but hopefully I might have trained a Cheltenham winner or two by then and have 40 horses under my care. I hope I’ll be improving the quality and standard of the string and doing well for my owners.