Rumour has it that you skipped rugby at school to watch Desert Orchid’s 1989 Gold Cup. What initially fired that interest in racing?
My Dad is a farmer on Dartmoor and we always had point-to-pointers. From a very early age I was always helping him on the farm and messing around with the horses.
That’s what initially got me hooked. I did a bit of pony clubbing and hunting on Dartmoor, which was a great place to grow up with loads of freedom.
After taking my A-levels I was thinking about university and trying to decide which way I should go. I managed to persuade my parents that a racing stable was best. I wrote ten letters to various trainers, got nine replies in three days and David Nicholson’s was the first. I went to see him and he gave me a job on the spot.
You shared a room with Richard Johnson at David Nicholson’s. What did you learn during those early days with ‘The Duke’ and were your aspirations to follow the same route as your roommate?
We had a brilliant team of youngsters there – Richard Johnson, Robert Thornton, Gerry Hogan, now a successful bloodstock agent, and Joe Tizzard. The Duke was a stickler for good manners and how to behave. If you start with the best you learn the right way.
He was the same with everybody, quite hard on us but very fair. It didn’t matter whether it was me or Richard Dunwoody, if The Duke felt you weren’t pulling your weight he’d let you know!
I never really thought I’d take the same route as Richard Johnson. I rode for a bit and wasn’t very good; I didn’t have the killer instinct like Richard, who from the age of 16 wasn’t fussed about anything except riding.
I was different; I liked being with the horses rather than race-riding. I had a fair few rides and my first winner was for Josh Gifford, but I didn’t have many more. It was a good experience and I learnt a lot, but training was what I wanted to do.
Did the fact that you failed to make it as a jockey mean you had to work a lot harder when starting out as a trainer?
When I finished riding I started as head lad to Bryan Smart when he was in Lambourn. I don’t think the fact that I didn’t make it as a jockey forced me to work harder; it’s all about wanting to be the best. That’s what spurs me on. Failure is a ‘no-no’ in my mind.
After assisting Oliver Sherwood you became salaried trainer at Malcolm Denmark’s Weathercock House in Lambourn, following Carl Llewellyn. How difficult a decision was it to leave and set up on your own at Uplands stables?
I did three seasons at Weathercock House and I felt things weren’t going the way I wanted them to go and therefore a decision had to be made. I knew it was a risk, having a young family and leaving a salaried job with 40 horses.
I started at Uplands in 2011 virtually from scratch with only ten horses, but I believed in myself and had some great backing from the owners I had. On reflection, it’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in setting up on your own?
My main concern was people thinking I was just a one trick pony and could train for only one person. In our first season I was mucking out every day, working full weekends and riding out because I couldn’t afford to pay enough staff.
I was very fortunate to have my head lad, Graham Baines, who was with me from the start. He worked his socks off.
Uplands had been empty for three years and we completely did the place up ourselves. Having done the job on our own on a very small budget makes it all the more rewarding. Luckily, we had a bit of success early on, which helped. I had to take a chance buying horses I didn’t have owners for.
But I’m lucky that my wife Tessa is a very good bloodstock agent and if we both like a horse we find we’re more likely to be able to sell it on. Our string is now up to 70 and I get a great buzz from having young horses with bright futures. I couldn’t have imagined it would have gone so well so quickly.
Your wife, Tessa, works for Highflyer Bloodstock. How involved is she in your training business?
We have just had another baby, Nancy, our third, so Tess is very much being a mum at the moment. But before that she rode out every day and she does a bit of work in the office. She has a wealth of experience, having worked in America and for Nicky Henderson.
To get on as a trainer you need a good woman next to you and Tess keeps me on the straight and narrow.
You have enjoyed tremendous success in bumpers, particularly with first-time-out runners. Presumably, Tessa plays a big part in securing the right horses for the job…
Tess has a great eye for a horse and is brilliant on the buying side. You can’t do this job unless you’ve got the ammunition and that means the right engine in the right horse. And Tess obviously has a big influence on that side of the operation.
She does all the buying with me and she also buys for other trainers, like Oliver Sherwood, Charlie Longsdon and Ben Pauling.
It’s no coincidence that they are all doing well. I have a good team of people riding out here and the method seems to be working; it’s about patience and giving horses time.
What’s the secret to winning these races and are you concerned that you will be known as a specialist bumper trainer?
There’s no real secret. I try to prepare them for their first day at the races so that when they get there it is not a big shock to the system. They will be used to a lot of horses around them, will have done a lot of cantering on grass and some will have gone to a racecourse if I think the outing would benefit them. And I take my time with them. But there’s no magic formula.
My biggest problem with training bumper horses is the lack of prize-money. Most of the time they are running for about £1,500, but, for me, the great thing is that they have a future in front of them. I think my stats suggest that I can win with any type, not just bumpers.
You must be thrilled with how the season is going. Is it realistic to think that you can break into the top-ten trainers’ list this term?
It’s a possibility. You just need a couple of horses that can compete on the big days. It’s all about prize-money and if I can produce a couple of Saturday winners and compete in the big races then I have a chance.
I have a young string and some very promising novice hurdlers. It would be a huge achievement if we could finish in the top ten. It might be a season too soon but I’d be chuffed to bits if we could make it this time.
Cole Harden was an impressive winner of the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby, a first Grade 2 success for the stable. What are the plans for him and how far can he go?
He is very close to being competitive in these Grade 1 races. He is still only a five-year-old and I think there’s more improvement. He’s got to keep progressing but I hope he’d be up to competing in the World Hurdle at the Festival.
Eventually he should go over fences; he’s not over big, but he’s very strong and jumps extremely well. He has such a big heart and wants to win. You can’t buy that.
You are the proud father of five children. Do any of them play a part in the yard?
The three girls are too young. They are four, two and a few weeks old. My two boys are 16-year-old twins. When they are at home they ride out a lot.
Tom has gone as an amateur to David Pipe and Ed is apprenticed to Andrew Balding. I wanted to send them away to learn from the best. I think they’ll learn a lot better being away from home.
Are there any trainers you particularly admire and would like to emulate?
Alan King was assistant when I was at David Nicholson’s and he’s always great to talk to and we are good friends. I was with Oliver Sherwood for nine years and I learnt a lot from him, not least how to behave. He is possibly the nicest man you’ll ever meet.
I am chuffed to bits that he’s doing well and I hope I am doing him proud. Vincent O’Brien is the man we all dream of emulating.
He was incredible both on the Flat and over jumps. If you can ever get anywhere near any of his records you’d be doing bloody well.
After winning at Worcester in October with Miss Sophierose, part-owned by QPR footballer Charlie Austin, you said it is your policy to encourage young owners. How do you go about this?
It helps having winners for higher-profile people like Charlie, who are roughly my age, 39. They are on twitter and often have a website, so they are broadcasting the word, which is always helpful. Charlie scored two goals for QPR on the Monday and two days later was saying that winning with Miss Sophierose was the best thing that ever happened to him!
Paul Fisher, a former footballer, is in the horse with Charlie and is currently setting up a racing club.
The older owner/breeders are fantastic, but you do need to keep bringing in new blood, and importantly, people that are going to stick around. You’ve got to give them a good time and ensure they enjoy the experience.
If you were in charge of the sport, what would you do to encourage more people into getting involved in ownership?
Prize-money is not good enough. We have the best racing in the world and probably the worst prize-money. That’s because the bookmakers generally run racing and have such a strong influence.
I worked in France for a bit and the prize-money there is exceptional as a result of their Tote pool betting system. I have had people looking into the possibilities of owning horses and been put off by the paltry prize-money.
You always hope the bumper horses are the stars of the future, but when owners see they are running for £1,500, which barely covers the cost of getting to the races, it’s not very encouraging.
You give the impression of being a well-organised person. Are you, and to what degree?
I never stop thinking about improvements we can make. The little things can make a big difference. I probably drive my secretary mad because I am very rarely in the office.
In my opinion, my biggest asset is being around the horses so I do a lot of work on the mobile. I am planning all the time and like having things to aim at.
If there is one horse you’d like to take to the Cheltenham Festival, which is it and why?
Paint The Clouds, who has won nine races for us and is unbeaten in five over fences. He had a horrendous tendon injury and I was told he would never run again; he came back to run at Cheltenham 2012 but ended up fracturing a pelvis.
I then sent him hunter chasing and his aim will be the Foxhunter. He is the first horse we bought and is quite brilliant to deal with. He always works hard and when he goes out on the track he gives it everything, a real life-lover.
If he were to win at the Cheltenham Festival, I can tell you now, it will be very emotional!