It’s turning into a season to remember for Venetia Williams, buoyed by her first Grade 1 winner in 20 years and a thriving partnership with stable jockey Charlie Deutsch. Could the campaign reach new heights at the Cheltenham Festival this month?
Given her yard’s recent run of form, Venetia Williams could be forgiven for shouting from the rooftops of her idyllic Aramstone stables. However, the tranquillity at her Herefordshire base seems unlikely to be interrupted any time soon, as not only has she mastered the art of training winners but the art of understatement too.
As she discusses the likes of Funambule Sivola, L’Homme Presse and Royale Pagaille, a series of measured responses is only momentarily broken at the suggestion her recent purple patch might reflect a change in her well-honed methods.
“Goodness gracious no!” she replies before slipping back into her self-effacing ways. “It’s nature; I’m not doing anything to make that happen, I’m just allowing that to happen. I try to train the horses by doing as little work with them as I think I can get away with and I’m not making any more of a concerted effort than I have in the last 20-odd years.”
While Williams is accomplished and assured enough to eschew any semblance of a self- congratulatory outburst, her results of late speak of a trainer operating at the peak of her powers.
Since January 1 she has saddled L’Homme Presse to win the Dipper and the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chases; Royale Pagaille landed a second Peter Marsh Handicap from an official mark of 163; Pink Legend claimed the Listed Lady Protectress Mares’ Chase; Green Book scooped the Grade 3 Heroes Handicap Hurdle; and – take a deep breath – Funambule Sivola continued his upward trajectory with a decisive victory in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase.
The earlier stages of the season weren’t without high points either, as Cloudy Glen provided a poignant success for the late Trevor Hemmings in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and Commodore registered an impressive 15-length score in a Cheltenham Grade 3.
Williams’ horses have already amassed over £1,000,000 in prize-money earnings in 2021-22.
These results have contributed to the stable operating at a strike-rate of 25 per cent having passed the half century of winners for the season, while Williams’ horses have already amassed over £1,000,000 in prize-money earnings in 2021-22.
“Obviously we’re very pleased though,” she continues. “We had a bit of a heads up because our stats were pretty good last season too and we’ve picked up where we left off. I’ve been training for long enough now to know how the swings and roundabouts go though, so I really do appreciate it. If we’ve had a good winner it still puts a spring in everybody’s step.”
Williams is into her 27th season with a trainer’s licence and has been operating at the upper echelons of her profession for the vast majority of those years. She sent out her first runner in 1995 and it was not long before the likes of Teeton Mill, winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup and the King George, and Lady Rebecca, a 400gns buy who won three Cleeve Hurdles on the bounce, put her firmly on the map.
With a career tally now well beyond 1,500 winners, a number that includes the Grand National hero Mon Mome, Williams is the most prolific female trainer in National Hunt history. Not that you will find her declaring she has smashed through the glass ceiling though, as she is adamant that racing is an equal opportunities environment. Instead, she suggests her gender was a help rather than a hindrance in her early days with a trainer’s licence.
“I think actually it’s the other way,” she says when the subject of gender bias arises. “I think as a female, certainly when I was in my early days, it wasn’t equal; I think we had an added advantage because there were less of us ladies, so one got more publicity.”
Williams still seems as hungry and single-minded in her pursuit of winners as any rookie out there, and this year’s exploits have certainly whetted the appetite for the four biggest days in the jump racing calendar.
We’ve got one or two chances this year who might be better than we’ve had in days gone by
“I’ve not won a Grade 1 at the Cheltenham Festival before,” she says. “I’ve won handicaps there and come close with Aso twice being placed in the Ryanair and Mon Mome, who was third in the Gold Cup. But we’ve got one or two chances this year who might be better than we’ve had in days gone by.”
Step forward L’Homme Presse, who has looked something out of the ordinary when sauntering his way through an unbeaten novice chase campaign. His four victories, that have yielded an aggregate winning margin of 50 lengths, have been characterised by some laserguided jumping and a likeable attitude, none more so than his bloodless success in the Scilly Isles on his latest outing.
The son of Diamond Boy is a single figure price for both the Turners and the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, and although connections are yet to settle on his intended target, he will be a force to be reckoned with wherever he turns up.
“He’s in the two-and-a-half mile race and the three-miler,” says Williams. “Andy [Edwards, co-owner] has views on that but the plan is to keep options open until much nearer the time. I’m sure at some point he will step up to three miles, whether it’s now or later on in his career I don’t know. He’s always looked like he’d be a chaser as he’s a big, rangy horse, and as with every horse you just hope they’ll progress as far as they possibly can.”
While this season has seen L’Homme Presse emerge as a serious Cheltenham contender, the first name on Williams’ Festival team sheet will likely have been Royale Pagaille, who heads for a second crack at the Gold Cup on the back of a valiant runner-up effort behind Eldorado Allen in the Grade 2 Denman Chase at Newbury.
Royale Pagaille is a rare Rich and Susannah Ricci-owned runner not trained by Willie Mullins, and Williams explains that the 166-rated chaser could so easily have ended up carrying less familiar colours had others not sat on their hands at precisely the wrong moment.
“I’d met Rich Ricci a number of years earlier and he’d said to me that if I could find a nice horse then he’d like to have one with me,” she says. “Prior to Royale Pagaille I’d offered him two others that were turned down, so I’d slightly lost my confidence in putting horses up to him. I’d bought Royale Pagaille at Arqana the previous November and had offered him to everybody and anybody, but he’d constantly been turned down.
I offered him to Rich and to my surprise he said yes.
“I didn’t get him in training for the first season but got him going in the second season as I thought he can’t sit out in the field for another year. When I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the horse and he was only half fit, I offered him to Rich and to my surprise he said yes.”
The owner has been well rewarded as Royale Pagaille has won four races and Williams says it is not out of the question that he could progress further still, particularly if the rain arrives at Cheltenham. “He hasn’t necessarily been campaigned in a classic way that others might have with his rating but there’s only three horses rated above him in the country so obviously that brings a big smile to your face,” she says.
“You have to be very pleased with how he ran at Newbury. It was a fast race and he was beaten by the speed horse. Cheltenham and taking on the Irish is going to be a whole different ball game but he’ll head there and do his best.”
Around 30 minutes after Royale Pagaille ran at Newbury, Funambule Sivola registered a two-length success over Sceau Royal in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase. That career-best effort entitles the diminutive son of Noroit to a crack at the Champion Chase, although his trainer says she will be guided by the handicapper as to whether they go down the Grade 1 route or aim towards the Grand Annual instead.
“I was really pleased with him at Newbury as I’d been hopeful he’d do what he did,” she says. “You don’t often get a horse rated in the 150s winning a Champion Chase but, equally, carrying 11st 12lb in the Grand Annual isn’t particularly attractive either. But it’s not all about Cheltenham, he’s won a smashing race which we need to appreciate in its own right. If they’re as small as he is, they need to be brave and intelligent and he’s both of those things.”
Other plans are still being finalised but Williams expects to run around a dozen horses at the Festival. The likes of Brave Seasca, Fanion D’Estruval and Green Book also head to Prestbury Park on an upward curve, and as such will warrant serious respect whatever target they end up being pointed towards.
Although this year’s team may have increased the anticipation ahead of Cheltenham, Williams isn’t the type of trainer to get wrapped up in grand plans or far-fetched aims. “What’s the point?” she asks when the subject of setting seasonal targets comes up. Instead her ambitions are firmly rooted in the here and now. “You’re constantly busting a gut to do the best you can and setting a target or a goal can’t possibly help increase your success,” she says. “If you do that, you’re almost making the suggestion that prior to doing so you weren’t really stretching yourself.”
What can help increase your success, however, is being immersed in the details on which success is founded. Williams puts a particular emphasis on placing her horses to maximum advantage, and it speaks of her skill in this area that not only is she one of just six British trainers to reach a seven-figure sum of win and place money, but because she has done so with less than 200 runners – less than half of some of those above her in the rankings.
“I spend a lot of time in my office looking at entries and the form of the opposition,” she says. “I don’t particularly enjoy it because it’s so flipping time consuming. But it’s important if you want to have your horses where they have the best chance of winning.”
Williams has continued to mine a rich seam of French talent
Similarly, sourcing the raw materials can make or break a trainer and Williams has shown herself to be equally as adept at spotting talent at the sales as she is at training and placing the horses under her care. While the Irish point-to-point graduate has never been more in vogue, and consequently more expensive, Williams has continued to mine a rich seam of French talent at more sensible money.
“By and large I think there’s better value to be had in France so why change a winning formula?” she says. A trio of her current stars offer an illustration of not only the talent Williams has unearthed on her French forays but the value she has secured too. Royale Pagaille was picked up for €70,000 and has since earned over £173,000 in prizemoney; Funambule Sivola cost €50,000 and has now won £129,500; while Green Book, a mere €30,000 buy, has netted nearly £95,000 in ten starts for the yard.
“Of course, it’s satisfying sourcing these horses as well as training them, but once they’ve started running, good or bad, and as long as the person can afford them in the first place, then what they cost is soon long forgotten about,” she says.
As if buying, placing and training her string wasn’t enough, she also curates the yard’s social media output, although admits that telling the world about her every winner hasn’t come naturally.
“It started around five years ago,” she says. “I was talking to a friend and he gave me a right flea in my ear when I said I didn’t do social media. He told me I had to and every time I have a winner I have to shout about it, because that’s what everybody does.
“When we were younger, we were all told nobody likes a show-off but the world’s a different place now. It doesn’t come naturally but it’s not very difficult to put a pretty picture up every now and again so I’m sort of getting used to it.”
While there have been plenty of sacrifices along the way, it not only seems as though Williams remains consumed by the challenge of training winners, but that she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I just enjoy being in the winner’s enclosure and I’m quite happy to do whatever is necessary to get there,” she says. “That’s my reward.”
Deutsch delivering on big stage
It is not just a team of progressive horses Venetia Williams has at her disposal, as she can also rely upon the services of some up-and-coming riders too. Claimers Lucy Turner, Ned Fox and Hugh Nugent have all shown distinct promise aboard Williams trained runners, but the stable’s number one, Charlie Deutsch, has been nothing short of a revelation this season.
The 25-year-old landed a deserved Grade 1 breakthrough aboard L’Homme Presse and has regularly displayed an abundance of sharpness and maturity both in and out of the saddle. Williams stood firmly in Deutsch’s corner as he set about rebuilding his career after a well-documented prison sentence for dangerous driving, and has had her loyalty repaid by a rider who is looking more accomplished by the day.
She says: “I’ve been friends with Charlie’s parents for a very long time and have always regarded him as a talented rider. If we have success then he has success and vice versa. He’s in here most days and he’s a great guy and a great jockey and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s working out for both of us.”
Deutsch is the latest talent to emerge while under Williams’ tutelage, joining the likes of Sam Thomas, Aidan Coleman and the late Liam Treadwell in having benefited from the trainer’s support. However, she admits that nurturing the careers of young riders is not something she necessarily set out to do.
“It’s not that I particularly look to bring younger jockeys along but I’m quite fussy about how my jockeys ride,” she says. “That’s partly tactics, although obviously they can be discussed, but mainly how they ride into, over and away from obstacles. When Ned Fox started riding out here I think he wondered what I was talking about!
“Aidan Coleman came to us when he’d only had around five rides and Sam Thomas came here six months after he’d finished school. Both were our stable jockey and both went on to other yards. It’s great having Charlie with us and hopefully he’ll be here for the long term.”