Can you recall the outstanding or earliest racing memories of your youth?
My first recollections are aged six, watching my father ride in point-to-points. He owned the Marks Tey point-to-point near Colchester and my mother was a member at Cheltenham and she used to take us there regularly.
I can’t remember the actual horses but I was impressed by the big crowds and amazing atmosphere, which got to me then and still does now.
Having the experience of working as an amateur rider and assistant trainer with Gavin Pritchard-Gordon, Arthur Moore and Fred Winter makes for an impressive CV. What did you take from this celebrated trio?
Patience with a young horse and I’d like to think a good eye for a store horse. In those days you very rarely bought horses from France, perhaps just an occasional Flat horse. In the main you went for the untried individual. I think I learnt from them what to look for in a young horse.
My initiation was with Gavin, who trained the odd homebred for Dad. I went there to do my three and ride out and really discover if I liked racing. Gavin’s wife, Coral, got me a job with Arthur Moore, with whom I spent six very happy years. Then gossip got out that Nicky Henderson, Fred Winter’s assistant, was going to start training so I was straight on the phone to Fred to try and get the job.
He insisted that I brought a “bloody good horse” with me. That happened to be Venture To Cognac, and it was as if all my dreams had come true when I won the 1979 Sun Alliance Hurdle and the 1984 Foxhunter at Cheltenham on him.
Fred Winter was a legendary figure, both as a fearless champion jockey and champion trainer. Have any of his old- school habits and methods rubbed off on the modern-day trainer?
Training methods changed through the Pipe era of interval training, but Fred used to stress that routine and attention to detail were important elements. He always said if you’ve had success with what you’ve been doing then don’t change things, even when results aren’t going your way.
By all means tweak a few things each year, but stick to the original routine. That was Fred, day in day out, meticulous in everything he did.
Actually I’ve had a fair few assistants myself: Ben Case, Donald McCain, Tony Martin, Charlie Longsdon, John Durkan, who bought Istabraq, and Warren Greatrex is the latest. Clive Cox was my conditional for several years.
There are times when I’m a touch envious of all their successes, but then I feel proud that they must have learnt something in their time at Rhonehurst.
You have trained six Festival winners, but Many Clouds, at January’s Festival Trials meeting, was your first success at the course for 14 years. Did the winnerless run become a hang-up?
Yes, it was annoying. But hopefully if you keep on throwing enough darts at the board you eventually hit the bullseye. Deputy Dan was second in the Albert Bartlett last year and we’ve had plenty of placed horses, but not winners.
In time it was going to come, and what a way to do it. I certainly don’t want to wait another 14 years!
How does the Cheltenham Festival affect you personally – do you get on edge during the build-up?
I get twitchy, but not on edge. It is important not to be visibly nervous because you then transfer your feelings to your staff and the horses. I am a great believer in the philosophy that if you have happy lads you have happy horses. Even if I am a bit tense underneath it is very important not to show it.
Frankly, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t get a little bit nervy before a meeting like Cheltenham, not so much the day before, more like ten days to a week before during all the build-up.
I suppose I am a little bit superstitious about saluting magpies and walking under ladders and I don’t like wearing green ties or green shirts when I’m going racing.
There’s a wonderful story of you and Alan King making a date to watch the Gold Cup together over a drink in the owners’ and trainers’ bar…
Generally I like to watch my horses run on my own. But this time I happened to go to the bar and was sitting on my own when ‘Kingy’ walked in and bought me a drink as I’d bought him one before racing.
The field got to the top of the hill last time round and we realised we were both in with a squeak, his Smad Place against Many Clouds. In the excitement my vodka started spilling out of my glass and his white wine was shaking all over the place.
It was humbling, it was fun and we decided if both horses make it to Cheltenham we’ll meet there again for the Gold Cup.
How do you view the apparent domination of the Willie Mullins runners at this year’s Festival?
I think domination is too strong a word in this instance, but I take my hat off to Willie. I used to ride against him when I was in Ireland and he is an exceptionally nice man and a top-class trainer. I am not sure how his fellow Irish trainers view the situation over there with him winning so many of the top races.
But I see him coming here with such a strong hand for the Festival as a challenge and we have to step up to the mark and take him on. Anyway, I always believe you should never be frightened of one horse in a race.
Is it good for National Hunt racing that all roads lead to the Festival from day one of each season?
I think it is very healthy and I suspect it is something the Flat folk are a little jealous of. I know there are several individual festivals on the Flat but nothing like Cheltenham. The fact that so many Flat trainers and jockeys go there every year tells you something, doesn’t it? It’s ideal that the Festival is at the end of the season and creating a wonderful climax to the winter.
Having said that, I do think there is more to life than Cheltenham. It is so competitive a horse can run out of its skin to finish fifth or sixth, but realistically you could have waited and possibly picked up a 50-grand race somewhere else the following Saturday.
But everybody is very envious of that unique feeling when the flag goes up for the first race at the Festival; the whole occasion – socially, professionally, every which way – you cannot beat it.
After Many Clouds won the Hennessy you were inundated with congratulations from all sorts of well-wishers. Why did that victory mean so much to you and your team?
It was one of the best days in my professional career. Both my wife, Tarnya, and I found the whole occasion very humbling. After that lull in our career it proved we can still do the business, but you have to remember you’re only as good as the horses you’ve got. It was fantastic that most of my team who were working that weekend were there to lift Leighton [Aspell] aloft with the Gold Cup.
There is great camaraderie in Lambourn, though I do remember immediately after Large Action finished second to Kim Bailey’s Alderbrook in the Champion Hurdle there were about 30 seconds when I could have rung Kim’s neck, because it was so painful finishing second.
But then afterwards we celebrated together and of course it was good for Lambourn – where Kim was training at the time – which had been going through a bit of a lull until the Jockey Club bought the gallops. Now the place is going great guns.
What do you make of Many Clouds’ 38-year-old jockey Leighton Aspell retiring and then coming back better than ever?
It came as a bit of a shock when he said he wanted to take a break from riding. But he’s back and is an exceptional horseman. All right, he’s not a ‘sexy’ jockey like some of them are. But he gets on with the job and is up here every Thursday morning and is a real team player.
With him the horse always comes first. After riding a horse for half an hour he’ll tell you more about it than most people would tell you in six months. He goes under the radar a bit with the press. He just does what it says on the tin and gets on with the job he does so well.
His confidence has grown with his recent success; good horses make good jockeys. If you’re riding winners your confidence grows and with Leighton you can see it in his personality. He used to be quite shy but is much more outgoing now.
Having winners gives anyone confidence. It’s like a cricketer who can’t score runs or a footballer who can’t score goals; once they start scoring they find themselves in a good place. It’s the same for jockeys, trainers, any of us.
In December 2012 you said you “felt like packing up” after being fined following the run of Furrows at Hereford. How disappointed were you at having your appeal dismissed and how serious were you about quitting?
I was very disappointed. The horse hasn’t won since that race and he wouldn’t have won that day, however he had been ridden. I know the stewards have a job to do and maybe it didn’t look very good. We are not a betting yard and would do only what is best for the horse. I was never going to pack in; it was my anger coming out on the spur of the moment. I can’t do anything else, anyway!
You enjoyed plenty of success with Jamie Osborne in the 1990s with horses of the calibre of Large Action and Berude Not To, but the following decade was nowhere near as good for you. Can you put your finger on why?
The quality of the string was a huge factor. We lost a lot of our owners. Christopher Heath, the boss of Barings Securities and owner of The West Awake and Rebel Song, had about 15 horses with me at one stage and they all went within 12 months following the problems with Barings.
It was also the combination of the economic downturn. Having said that, I am not very good at selling myself and sitting around in nightclubs trying to find owners.
What did it mean to you when Financial Climate gave you your 1,000th winner at Chepstow on February 11?
It was a special day. I was delighted for everyone at home; every trainer says it but I’ve got a great team. I don’t think I’ll get the 2,000, though! It’s been a great 30 years and long may it continue.
A keen cricketer, you have captained the Lambourn Trainers XI. Do you still play?
I do play a bit, though Sunday racing has curtailed those activities a bit. But I did love playing against Josh Gifford and William Haggas in Newmarket, both very competitive. I enjoy watching cricket and I’m very lucky that Tarnya loves it too; we’ll be off to Lord’s to watch the Australians this summer.
I have been a Chelsea fan since my schooldays and still go to Stamford Bridge. I shoot, play a bit of golf and am going to some of the Six Nations rugby this year.
What is your biggest complaint about the way racing is run?
One thing that does drive me up the wall is all the arguing amongst everybody. All the different factions are thinking of themselves rather than the good of racing. The press in general bugs me because there is so much negativity, but then that seems to sell papers.
I am not really into the politics of racing, but finance and prize-money will always rear its ugly head.
I am not making money out of training and I struggled big time when we were down in numbers, but racing is like a disease and you can’t shake it off because you love the game so much.
What is your abiding Festival memory, and why was it so special?
Training a double in 1988 when The West Awake and Rebel Song won the Sun Alliance Chase and Sun Alliance Hurdle for Christopher and Maggie Heath and ridden by my brother Simon. That was a very special day, though I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. Two very good horses and not a bad jockey!