You have been training for over 25 years but would it be fair to say you have never had a better bunch of horses than now, under both codes?
As a group of horses, it’s the best. The jumpers we’re running at the moment are really good and we have some lovely Flat horses too. I’ve won the Ebor and had runners in the Melbourne Cup so I’ve had some decent individuals in the past, but never such an exciting bunch overall. I think I’m more ambitious than ever; I just love having winners. I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t train my 1,000th winner in 2016. We are approaching 950, so with a bit of luck we should make it.
You are one of the top dual-purpose trainers, following that highly respected pair, Peter Easterby and David Elsworth. Which do you enjoy more and what are the different challenges under each code?
As you’d imagine with the dual-purpose horses we’ve got here, I enjoy both. When we get to January/February time, the yearlings are coming on and we are doing plenty of stalls work. Also we usually have some nice staying types for the Flat so everyone here is looking forward to each new season. Equally, come the autumn, you want to kick on schooling the novice hurdlers and chasers. The change from one discipline to the other is exciting.
I have to admit I have always been a big fan of David Elsworth, who is a fantastic trainer when you consider the top-class horses he has handled on the Flat and over jumps. Peter Easterby is another dual-purpose trainer you wouldn’t mind copying, though everybody has their own methods and we’re all different in practice.
Is one side of your business more profitable than the other or do the finances work the same for each?
They are the same. It all runs into the same pot for the business. We are lucky being able to go full throttle into winter because the jumpers produce the income, which pays the staff, who are then fully occupied through the winter. We are never closed – and I don’t want to be either.
My philosophy for attracting owners is this: get out there, mix with everybody and don’t fall out with anybody!
If someone came to you with £20,000 to spend on a horse, would you advise them to go down the Flat or jumps route?
I always ask prospective owners if they want to go Flat or jumping. Some people want a Flat horse that can go jumping and others prefer to have a two-year-old. Of course, I will help them with any advice but the final word is theirs. My philosophy for attracting owners is this: get out there, mix with everybody and don’t fall out with anybody!
The biggest selling point is having winners – that gets you noticed more than anything. I generally buy my own at the sales, though I do talk to a number of agents. Claude Charlet has bought some for us in France.
You have got to keep reinvesting in the business and two years ago we bought another 30-box yard at Highfield Stables over the road, where we break the yearlings. We have plans for another 24 boxes in the main yard, which will give us 124 stables here plus 30 over the road. There were just 23 boxes when we came here. We have 130 horses in at the moment and we’re comfortable with that.
How big a part does your wife Claire play in the Spring Cottage operation?
Claire plays a massive part in the operation. Not only does she do the early morning feed with me, starting at 5.30 in winter and 5.15 in summer, but she is also in charge of all the office admin. She oversees the whole family right down to the grandkids.
She makes sure I am on top of the job and always reminds me when I should be ringing owners. Claire leaves me to do the entries, while my daughter Jessica is my assistant and in charge of all the staff, which includes Andy, the travelling head lad, and three yard girls. They all answer to Jessica. Claire’s uncle Mike, with Mandy, are in the office and a big help to Claire.
You have come a very long way from a childhood with four brothers and three sisters, a father who was a shipyard worker and mother a hospital cleaner. How tough was it setting out as a trainer?
I started at Harry Blackshaw’s in Middleham when I was 15. I wanted to be a jockey and rode my first winner at 17. When you’re older and look back it appears as if it was a struggle but at the time I didn’t know anything else, we hadn’t any money in the family, so I just worked away and enjoyed what I was doing. I simply wanted to get on in life. I had a livery yard for two years and was also assistant to Don Eddy and Nigel Tinkler. When I got my licence I started with three horses.
It’s been a rollercoaster and I used to go to the bank, tell them I’d got a new owner – which I hadn’t! – so they’d lend me some money, which I had to pay back within a month. One of my best horses early on was Fatehalkhair, who cost £2,000 and won 20 races, and then I bought Latalomne for £8,000. He fell when leading at the second last in two consecutive Champion Chases at Cheltenham.
How much hard work and effort have you put in to train the type of ‘Saturday’ horses you now have in your stable and did you always believe you could do the job at a higher level, given the right tools?
It was a big help when Phil Martin, who has a number of horses with me, came on board and the support of owners like him and Dan Gilbert, who bought our 2011 Ebor winner Moyenne Corniche, have made a big difference as far as the important Saturday races are concerned.
Phil Martin has put a lot of faith in you and has any number of exciting young NH horses in the stable. Can you give us a couple to follow this season?
Phil is a real jumping man and loves the game, while his wife Julie enjoys the Flat and they like having little competitions between the pair of them and their horses. You couldn’t get a better person than Phil, who handles the negative experiences of ownership so well. A classic example was his Seamour, who started favourite and finished last in the November Handicap at Doncaster.
We fancied Seamour that day but he just stopped dead and it turned out he’d swallowed a load of mud, which got stuck in his throat. Phil was very good about such a disappointment and you can ring him up any time with bad news – he is very understanding and never complains. Definitly Red and The Grey Taylor, who is a very promising novice chaser, are two of his horses we have high hopes for this season.
Tex was the best horse I rode and he gave me my biggest moment when we beat the brilliant Tingle Creek at Worcester in 1976
You spent some 20 years as a jump jockey. What was the highlight and also the biggest lesson you learned about working with horses during your time in the saddle?
Tex was the best horse I rode and he gave me my biggest moment when we beat the brilliant Tingle Creek at Worcester in 1976. I quickly learnt how fit you have to be for race-riding; there’s a big difference between riding on the gallops and in races. Also that you have to exercise a lot of patience with horses, be it riding or training them.
Unlike the successful top jockeys, I would always be in the yard working with the horses and familiarising myself with their problems. In contrast, top jockeys dash into the yard, ride work on a couple and then shoot off to the races.
For me, you should be able to walk into a horse’s box and spot a problem without even looking for it – and you can only do that by knowing each horse individually. Training is a whole new ball game when you are dealing with owners, entries and everything else. But the experience of working in small yards, close up and personal with the horses, does teach you about their different, individual quirks.
The Ellison stable has a reputation for rejuvenating and improving horses from other yards, the likes of Top Notch Tonto and Balty Boys. What’s been the key to your success?
The key with Balty Boys was moving him from an ordinary enclosed box to one of our open-air stables. All he ever did was stand, rocking backwards and forwards, and never relax – but give him the freedom of an open-air stable and he is totally switched off. Definitly Red, The Grey Taylor and Smart Talk have all benefited from being in their own open-air stables.
We took on Pea Shooter, who is a box walker, stabled him there and he won on his second run for us. If I find a horse is not eating up in its box I’ll move it until I find a place where it’s happy.
We discovered the open-air stables, heart monitors and the water walkers when we were in Australia. Heart monitors give us an insight into a horse’s recovery rate, which tells us if there is a problem.
The water walker is a massive expense, but a great asset for joints, limbs and horses with sore shins. You have to watch and learn what other people do, whether you agree with their methods or not, and we thought those extra facilities might be a help.
Why is Top Notch Tonto so special and what has he done for the profile of the yard?
Top Notch is special as he was our first Group winner. He is popular with the public due to his unique markings and the fact that he was such a cheap purchase, yet able to compete in top races. He knows he is special and loves the attention he gets in the yard, at the races and on open days.
He is still the horse he was [rated 112] and just wants stepping up in trip. His York form last summer has worked out really well.
The BHA is trying to be proactive in addressing issues surrounding the fixture list, race programmes and NH racing. In your opinion, what areas need improving as a matter of urgency?
As far as the jumping programme is concerned it’s ridiculous that there are hardly any two-mile novice chases up here. I know some might argue that there aren’t enough novice chasers to warrant more races but it is difficult to find the right opportunities for your young chasers.
The prize-money for jumping and on the Flat needs to be looked at very seriously. Take a bumper horse for example, costing anything from £40,000 to £100,000, and you find yourself racing for £3,000. It’s crazy. There are occasions when there’s no racing and then there are two meetings on the same day and close together, say Newcastle and Kelso. That doesn’t make sense.
You are a Geordie and have enjoyed plenty of winners at Newcastle over the years. Will you be sending runners to the new all-weather track?
I’ll definitely be having runners on the all-weather. I think we just have to accept that the turf course has been dug up; the job’s done and dusted. So let’s kick on and use it because it’s going to be the best track of its kind in the country. It won’t be like your sharp Wolverhampton or the ups-and-downs of Lingfield. Newcastle will be a big, open, fair all-weather track and should be brilliant.
I think trainers will support the new course – look how Godolphin have got stuck into the all-weather racing – and so it should be competitive, which would be good news for the north. I just hope they’re not going to expect us to race round there for £1,800.
We have to accept that Newcastle’s turf course has been dug up. So let’s kick on and use it because it’s going to be the best track of its kind in the country
The Melbourne Cup is a race you would love to win. What’s the special appeal of this world-famous contest?
The world is a much smaller place nowadays, enabling us to take horses out there without too much difficulty. As Michelle Payne showed with her victory on Prince Of Penzance, the Melbourne Cup is a race that can be won by the ordinary person.
I don’t think for one minute we’ll ever win a Derby or a Guineas because we don’t have that type of horse, but we’ve all got a chance of winning the Melbourne Cup, given the right animal. Bay Story loved it out there, whereas Saptapadi didn’t enjoy himself.
What racing moment do you treasure most and why?
The day Bay Story was beaten a head in the Perth Cup in Western Australia was a great occasion. Originally we took him over for the Melbourne Cup, but he didn’t get in and finished second in another race on Melbourne Cup day.
He got an invitation to Perth on the strength of that to become the first British-trained horse to run there. After the race we got a bigger reception than the winner, as well as A$80,000 for finishing second. I think we brought home a total of about A$134,000 for those two seconds in Australia.
Danny Cook is back riding for the stable after his drugs ban. You gave him a second chance when many wouldn’t have done. Why?
Danny is a really talented rider, probably as good as any jockey in the north, no question about that. He’s been a silly boy, served his sentence of six months and hopefully he’s learnt his lesson. He’s about 30, should be old and wise enough to keep his head down, put the whole episode behind him and get on with things.
I told him what I thought of him at the time and that what he had done harmed himself more than anyone else. He has had to work hard to come back; he’s done it and good luck to him.
Another of your riders, Dale Swift, has recently been banned for drugs until March. Will you also give him another chance?
I have heard that Dale may not want to come back, but if he did, then yes. I believe everyone deserves a second chance.
If you have a Cheltenham Festival winner in your stable, which is it, and why?
Ex-French hurdler Forest Bihan is another owned by Phil Martin and I think he could be exceptional. In his first race for us at Ayr he came to win but blew up and finished third. He’ll probably be kept hurdling this season and is likely to go for one of the handicaps at Cheltenham. Definitly Red and The Grey Taylor are other Festival prospects.