From the top of the Sharpridge gallop, 850 feet above sea level, the wintry downs billow across Wiltshire in great grey waves. And here, scuttling out of the valley floor like pebbles in the backwash, come the horses that daily obtain a practical purpose from these uplifting gradients.
Twos and threes, the odd solo, snorting and panting towards their trainer. After nearly 17 years – season by season mastering the capacity of horses over these hills, and fine-tuning the facilities accordingly – Alan King has never felt so at home. The expression is used advisedly. For there is nothing like even the threat of absence to make the heart grow fonder.
No sooner did King permit himself the quiet certainty, last summer, that he had brought the racing stables at Barbury Castle closer than ever to their optimal operation, than he promptly received a call that the whole 1,800-acre estate was going on the market.
Touring a couple of other yards, during the subsequent weeks of uncertainty, served only to confirm him in a helpless conviction. “It made me realise how lucky we are to be here,” he says. “I don’t want to train anywhere else.”
In the event, the transfer to a new landlord in Chris Woodhouse has proved a matter of a gratifying continuity. And as King prepares his team for the Cheltenham Festival, horses and staff alike can benefit from a fortifying sense that the guvnor is in his prime.
Just turned 50, he has become a figure of standing and authority in his profession: a trainer who has earned the respect of those he had in his sights, when he first emerged from the wing of David Nicholson: the Pipes, Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson; and one who meanwhile maintains an exacting standard for the next generation, those fashionable young guns who still have a long way to go before they can match the 15 Festival winners King has sent out from Barbury, not to mention the Royal Ascot breakthrough he made last summer.
That kind of presence in the profession is a matter of quiet accretion, so that when a horse like Yanworth comes along you feel an automatic comfort that he is in safe hands. Trainers come and go, but any newcomer who announces that he wants to be champion would be well advised to get past men like King or Philip Hobbs before he starts worrying about Nicholls. As such, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that King, no less than Hobbs, has forged such strong partnerships with his stable jockeys.
The fact that he has had as many as two, in 17 years, is only a result of Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton’s eventual admission that he had endured one injury too many. Wayne Hutchinson’s seamless succession reflects a broader fidelity, between staff and trainer and patrons.
“Any young trainer that starts well will get flooded with new owners,” King says. “It happened to me, you get that honeymoon period. But it only lasts two or three seasons and then someone else comes along. There’s a group around that seems to love going to someone new. But we’re lucky, the numbers have been very consistent over the years and we’ve a very loyal band of owners. Most of them I’d now class as friends. And you’re a much better trainer because of it, you’d never be frightened of someone screaming down the phone at you.”
King’s own breakthrough, of course, was crowned by a nearly simultaneous flowering in the likes of Voy Por Ustedes, My Way De Solzen, Katchit and Halcon Genelardais. “What I maybe didn’t realise, around 2004 or 2005, was how incredibly spoilt I was to have all those at the same time,” he says.
“Bear in mind we didn’t have big budgets, none of them cost very much. And I probably went through a year or two taking it for granted they’d always be there. Then when they’d gone by the wayside you’re suddenly thinking, ‘Christ, I wish I could find some more from somewhere.’ But then you learn.”
Learn not to force things, that is; and how to delegate, how to place your trust where it has been earned. Yanworth has been ridden every morning for the past three years by one of King’s assistants, Dan Horsford. One morning, shortly before the horse was due to run at Sandown last month, Horsford called out from the string: “Boss, he’s not right.” Yanworth was trotted up and down.
It was very hard to see anything amiss. “I’m telling you, boss, he’s not right.” No chances were taken. Closer investigation disclosed a pulled muscle. A stitch in time, as they say.
With horses, of course, you cannot hope to anticipate every bump in the road; just as a stable jockey can’t sensibly be expected to ride the perfect race every time. “Ninety per cent of the time I pick up the saddle in the weighing room, and one word is said, ‘Normal’,” King remarks. “Which is to say, third or fourth round the inner. Our jockeys get used to the way they’re trained, and how we want them ridden. And nine times out of ten, if they have messed up, they’ll know it and they’ll come in and the first thing they’ll say is, ‘Sorry.’
Which totally defuses any situation. It’s not going to go right all the time, and I have to say sorry as well sometimes. ‘My fault – why did I run him there?’ If anyone comes in from riding a bad race and blames the horse, I wouldn’t be so understanding. But otherwise we’ll move on. Because everything you do, whether you’re a jockey or a trainer, is confidence. And once you start undermining that you’re finished.”
Hutchinson had long established his eligibility, not least during Thornton’s various spells in plaster; and King now hopes that Tom Cannon can stake his own claim for the longer term. Again, it’s about seasoning; about the kind of calm cycles bred into you when raised on a farm. About recognising that you don’t turn up a Yanworth through panic.
“We found him way out the back at Doncaster, [Anthony] Bromley and I,” King says. “Sixteen grand. I remember taking him to Wincanton, still in my colours, and beating a hot favourite Paul had for Graham Wylie. And when we came in afterwards he came up and said, ‘You must be seriously good.’ We sold the horse to JP [McManus] a couple of days later.
“I was surprised he was able to win [the Christmas Hurdle] at Kempton. I just thought that two miles round there, on good ground, it’s going to happen a bit quick for him; that he could run a very good Champion Hurdle trial that day and get beat. So I was thrilled to see him go about it the way he did.”
Everything you do is about confidence. And once you start undermining that you’re finished
Win, lose or draw, King always wants to be looking forward. Having never even seen a video of Katchit’s Champion Hurdle, he is hardly going to dwell on Yanworth’s defeat by Yorkhill at the last Festival. “I don’t think things went particularly well,” he concedes.
“A very good horse just slipped the field a bit, round that bend, when we were trapped wide. But he was still trying to close. And don’t forget it was a time when I couldn’t win an argument. I had two finish second and the rest weren’t sighted all week.”
That aberration was as uncharacteristic as it was untimely, King having always brought his horses to a reliable peak for the big spring meetings. Albeit the single loss of rhythm over two years, Flat or jumps, it was sufficient to prompt a literal raising of the roof. Under the guidance of Alan Creighton, of the Irish Equine Centre, last summer King had a small ventilation gallery incorporated into three barns.
“It’s all very well having doors and windows open,” he explains. “But it’s not just about getting good air in, it’s getting the bad air out. When one of the barns was empty last summer we fired off a smoke bomb and it went about eight feet before going across and dropping into the other stables. We took the top off, raised it three inches, and it has made all the difference. When we tried again the smoke went straight out like a chimney.”
Like everyone else, King is perfectly aware that Colin Tizzard’s new yard is sited at the top of a hill, and of the perceived benefits in ventilation. At the same time, he views Tizzard’s remarkable elevation partly as a result of the kind of happy coincidence of champions he has already noted in reviewing his own career. As Nicholls himself knows, the clustering of top-class talent can be fairly random.
King, for his part, did briefly allow numbers to spiral towards a point where the whole system, not to mention his own supervision of it, came under strain. He has since restored a more disciplined approach, typically culling 30% of his stock at the end of the season. At the first hint of a stalemate with the handicapper, say, or a basic discrepancy between a horse’s problems and its potential, he would sooner his owners moved onto a younger horse, a new project.
For they still have to box clever, in the marketplace. “I’m probably not spending any more than I was ten years ago,” King says.
“It’s very rare for a horse here to have cost £100,000. Luckily Anthony is very good at buying under the radar. When I started it was the Irish pointers that were expensive, and the French horses wouldn’t cost so much, but now it’s nearly gone the other way round.
I find I’m buying more of those pointers, because you can still duck and dive a bit. Godsmejudge, for instance. Several horses that night made 150 grand-plus, but we gave 38 for him and he went on to win the Scottish National. But you’ve got to work at it, you know, got to go and see them all.”
Even King’s noted expertise with three-year-olds off the Flat must come at a premium these days, with the Dubai and Australian market now such that he didn’t even go to the Horses-in-Training Sale at Tattersalls. His last serious punt there was Grumeti, in 2011. “We gave 100 for him, it was absolutely our limit and we’re just lucky he sold on the Monday night,” he recalls.
Grumeti proceeded to win the Grade 1 at Liverpool as a juvenile and ultimately the 2015 Cesarewitch. (At 50-1; King also saddled the runner-up, at the same odds, in last year’s running.)
But King will still be at the breeze-ups, looking for another War Chief, a five-length maiden winner at Salisbury after being picked out for 17,000gns last year. Whatever the trends, the uncertainty of his calling will open as many doors as it closes.
“We had a lovely horse here once, Massac,” King recalls. “He’d won his first two for us, and I adored him. Big black horse, stood in the end box there. Stunning. And he got killed at the December Cheltenham meeting. We were in bits, Bromley and me, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll get you something else with the insurance money’. And three weeks later in walked Voy Por Ustedes.”
So who can ever say how the next day will play out, never mind a full year? This one began catastrophically, when King lost the nicest prospect he has welcomed into his yard for years, Laissez Dire, in a fall at Plumpton on January 2.
He had cost McManus good money in France. For once, King had got his hands on a young horse at the top end. All he could do is return to his hilltop fastness and renew his trust in the people and methods that have passed every such test.
“We’re not into gadgets and such,” he shrugs. “I don’t even weigh them any more. Used to, every Monday morning. But I got so little out of it that when the scales broke I didn’t bother getting them fixed. People have tried to tell me to use heart monitors. But I don’t want too much information in front of me. His heart took 20 minutes to get back? I’d rather just see how they’re blowing, or hear the lads say he was clear by the bottom of the hill. It’s not rocket science, and don’t make it that way – or you will get in a muddle. Just watch. Watch.”
Others can try to re-invent the wheel, if they want, but at the very least everything needs to be held together, kept stable, by the kind of old school axle that is built to last.
King has never shouted from the rooftops that he intends to wrest away anyone’s crown. Far better to look at the rooftop itself, and make the changes he did last summer. Far better to know the difference between complacency and calm. That way, assuming King can maintain the standards he has set in the first half of his career, it will seem fitting – looking back, some distant day – that he should have been the last trainer to hoist AP McCoy onto a Festival winner, Uxizandre in the 2015 Ryanair Chase.
He returns this time back up to sixth in the table, having already banked very nearly as much prize-money as he accumulated all last season, when dipping to ninth with that fallow spring. “I think the competition is stronger than it’s ever been,” King admits.
“But I think I’m far more patient now than I was, certainly with the horses. I don’t mind taking my time. If you don’t get going until October or November, you get so far behind that you can start thinking you need to catch up. But I’m less worried about that now. I think you’re a better trainer, the longer you’re at this.”