During your amateur career you rode ten winners, then you were knocked unconscious at Becher’s in the 1988 Grand National and two weeks later broke your neck in a fall at Worcester. How did those setbacks affect your outlook on life?
I was carted off to hospital in an ambulance after my fall at Becher’s. I came round in the ambulance and was signed off with concussion. Then a fortnight later in my very next ride – a hurdle race at Worcester – I was all set to win on a 33-1 chance when I had a really nasty fall at the last flight. I broke the hangman’s bone in my neck and am very lucky to still be around.
For a period it does make you re-evaluate your life, but then the immediacy of that memory tends to fade a bit over time. I am sure anyone who has experienced a near- miss like that would agree that it makes you appreciate everything.
The moment jockeys start questioning the fragility of what they’re doing is probably the time to start looking for a different way of making a living.
You were only the second woman (Sue Smith has since become the third) to train a Grand National winner, Mon Mome at 100-1 in 2009, and there is still only a small percentage of women among the top 100 trainers. Is training still a man’s world?
As women we probably bring a slightly different approach to the challenges of the profession. I think there is the possibility of men perhaps having more of a rhinoceros skin when it comes to taking on the inevitable knocks and downs [of training] – I do think they might be better at handling certain situations.
I remember Philip Hobbs’s wife, Sarah saying to me, ‘The trouble with you is that you’re on your own. Philip comes to bed at night, tells me all the troubles of the day, rolls over, goes to sleep and then I lie awake all night worrying.’ Although I am on my own I have a number of great people around me who have worked for me for a long time.
My head lad Philip Turner, who has been with me since I started, and my travelling head lad Jerry Roberts, who deals with everything at the races, head up a very good team.
Mon Mome and Emperors Choice, winner of the 2014 Welsh National, epitomise Venetia Williams’s training – top staying chasers. Do they excite you more than two-mile hurdlers?
Any big winner is equally exciting, for sure. We all appreciate winning the good races, whether chases or hurdles, over two or three miles, though over the years chasers have been the bulk of our winners. I don’t think you can train speed into a horse but sometimes perhaps you can train stamina into them.
If you have a horse that’s not particularly quick, with a bit of luck you can get it to stay. If it doesn’t stay and it’s not quick it won’t win anything! I also really enjoy seeing early signs of potential in the youngsters and bringing that through.
Your runners appear to relish testing ground. Is it to do with the type of horse you buy or how you train them in Kings Caple, Herefordshire?
I won’t run horses during the summer because the risk of tendon injury is massively increased by drier ground. When owners buy horses they expect them to be racing up to the age of 12 – running them on drier ground is asking for trouble. So if they can’t win on the soft in the winter, that’s the only chance they’re going to get.
Those opportunities come during the months of the best races, which is when the ground is softer and safer for them.
Would winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup mean more than your Grand National victory with Mon Mome?
I’ll answer that when it’s happened! Of course, we’d all love to win the Gold Cup. But at the same time we have to remember the National is the race that is known the world over. The word Grand National has its own meaning, in the same way the Derby does. When you see some of those unusual titles like the ‘Pigs Derby’ or ‘Cockroaches Grand National’, thoughts spring immediately to Epsom and Aintree.
The Grand National has a meaning worldwide, but if you mention the Gold Cup people would not necessarily know what you’re talking about. I’m hugely thrilled and honoured to have won it.
Teeton Mill, who had won the Hennessy and the King George, was among the favourites for the 1999 Gold Cup but sadly slipped a tendon off his hock at the ditch at the top of the hill. His jockey Norman Williamson said he couldn’t see him being beaten. Although we’ve had a couple of placed in the race since, that looked our best chance at the time.
How do you go about reading the minds and freshening up horses that lose their way?
Sometimes people say, ‘If only horses could talk’, but I think, on the contrary, it’s a good job they can’t because they speak to us much more truthfully than some people we might know! They speak loudly through their actions and in the way they handle situations. It is very important to instil that confidence into them and not spoil it.
Everything we do in training horses and the questions we ask them is aimed at buoying them up and not risking damaging their belief in themselves, not frightening them. We have to try to read their minds.
You also have to give the horse’s body sufficient time to heal itself or give it the necessary therapy to help. And you train them bearing in mind any shortcomings. Our swimming pool is a great help. You also have to decide whether the horse has lost its form or has had its limitations exposed on the racecourse.
I’m hugely thrilled and honoured to have won the Grand National, which has a worldwide meaning
Your 100-horse yard attracts a broad spectrum of owners. Is part of your secret to email new owners with information about the handicapping system and veterinary matters for example, as well as making sure they keep up to date with their horses?
We do that only for syndicate members new to ownership. We have three Venetia Williams Syndicates, two of which are fully subscribed and the third we are looking to fill. A lot of people who join our syndicates are relatively new to ownership and we try to provide more information on racing; we all know that more knowledge helps to provide more interest, appreciation and enjoyment.
We have two horses in each syndicate and members pay a lump sum, which buys a share in both horses and includes training fees for two years. So they know exactly what it’s going to cost. We find it’s a way to bring new people into the sport.
Including our partnerships, which have three to six people, I’d say about a third of our yard is made up of syndicate and partnership-owned horses. If people are coming in at the syndicate nd, only a few of those would ultimately become sole owners.
Apart from increasing prize-money, what would be your top item to address in the sport?
There has been a lot of whinging about the size of fields for betting purposes. In the summer a lot of fields are small as people don’t want to risk horses on quicker ground. When conditions are suitable most of the small fields are the non-handicap beginners’/novice chases. I’d say a fairer distribution in prize-money between first, second and third would attract more runners.
Also, prize-money down to sixth for all races would give a token gesture and reward commendable performance, which owners would appreciate. At the moment win money is far bigger than that for placed horses.
In many of these races there is a hot favourite you have little chance of beating, but more money for the places would make it worthwhile running. In France prize-money is more evenly distributed, which gives people much more incentive to run in a race where often there is a hot favourite.
In addition, there should be no entry fee for these races. Say I’ve a hurdler rated 122 in an £8,000 novice chase, chances are we’ll face horses rated 140 and 136 – I’m likely to finish third and collect about £700. By the time the owner has paid the jockey, transport and £60 to enter, he or she is out of pocket and would be entitled to ask why I wasted £60 on entry for that sort of race.
If there’s no entry fee the owner would be happy to at least ‘have a look’ at the race and might consider running, particularly if the prize-money is spread out a bit more evenly.
All racecourses should provide owners with a private box, or a similar facility, where they can watch without a restricted view. Some tracks do provide this, but some do not.
In your opinion, is the National Hunt season geared too much around the Cheltenham Festival, at the expense of other races and meetings?
The press play a big part in promoting Cheltenham at the expense of other big fixtures. The Festival is four days and the biggest meeting of the season, so understandably people focus on it and book their week accordingly. I have owners that would love a Cheltenham winner more than anything else. But I have other owners for whom the Festival is not the be all and end all. There are other big events that are far less attritional than those at the two festivals, where the races are run invariably these days on good or quicker ground. And they take no prisoners.
Teeton Mill, winner of the 1998 Hennessy and 1999 King George VI Chase, and Lady Rebecca, three-time winner of the Cleeve Hurdle, were among early successes. What impact did they have on your training career?
I was very lucky that in my fourth season I finished fourth with 75 winners, which was a fantastic start. I have managed to keep up in the top ten pretty much ever since and that makes for a challenge every May 1 when we have to start again. Getting Teeton Mill and Lady Rebecca certainly helped to attract owners at an important stage of my career.
Your training facilities are noted for some 50 turn-out paddocks, which is quite rare. What’s the thinking there?
We have enough paddocks to have all the horses turned out for two hours at any one time. They are turned out on their own or with one good friend. No athlete should be stabled 23 hours a day.
Fifty turn-out paddocks cover a lot of acreage and I have an army of yard staff, who don’t ride out but spend a lot of time turning horses out. They put on turn-out bandages and New Zealand rugs, and record their paddock numbers and the time each horse is turned out.
Can you explain what you look for in a prospective jumper?
With a horse that’s run before the obvious question is how good does his form look. With a store horse, you are looking for athleticism and encouragement in the pedigree. Equally, if the pedigree is emblazoned with black type it will probably be too expensive. These horses haven’t had a saddle on, so it is a gamble.
They don’t want to have any glaring conformation defects that are likely to flag up future unsoundness. I have been working for many years in France with Guy Petit, who bought Mon Mome, and more recently with Matt Coleman of Stroud Coleman Bloodstock. I like the two Arqana sales in Deauville in July and November, and I buy stores myself at the Derby Sale at Fairyhouse.
Your local track, Hereford, reopened on October 6 after being closed for four years. Was it badly missed?
It was badly missed by the locals. I know there’s Ludlow, Chepstow and Cheltenham within 45 minutes, but a lot of my local friends, who wouldn’t be racing-oriented people, would like to meet up at the races for a social gathering. Hereford is a good course for viewing as it is square-shaped so horses are never far away, and it’s a thrill seeing them jump down the back.
You are passionate about fast cars. Is this a follow-on from your riding days?
It is purely me needing to get things done and getting to the races during the shortened days of winter. Flat trainers are lucky. They can have first lot out at 6am and don’t have to leave for racing until about midday. Whereas in the thick of winter we can’t have first lot out until 8am as it’s pitch dark and furthermore I’ve got to leave at 10.15 as the first race is midday.
There aren’t enough hours in the day and I need to get to the races quickly. I’m driving an Aston Martin DB9, a two-seater, and also have an Audi S7, which is a good beast of a car and can carry four people.
Fashion is another of your loves and you are known for being very elegant. How important is looking good on the racecourse?
Thank you for that! As a matter of respect at the races it is important for all of us to make an effort. Part of it is the occasion and we should dress for it. I suppose there is more scope for me than there is for my fellow male trainers.
One day I ran upstairs to change to go racing and in a hurry grabbed a jacket I hadn’t worn for about seven years – as I was going downstairs I received a text message from David Redvers with the sad news Lady Rebecca had been put down.
As I walked through the hall there was a photo of Lady Rebecca coming in after her third Cleeve Hurdle win with Norman Williamson raising three fingers and me standing there in the very same jacket. Quite bizarre, and I can’t believe there wasn’t something that made me wear the jacket again.
Give us a hurdler and chaser to follow…
Tara Flow did well over hurdles last season and we’re looking forward to sending her chasing. Bennys King took some time to get into gear last season and had one or two near-misses. Hopefully he will put that right over hurdles.