Earlier this year you saddled Pineau De Re to win the Grand National. How long did your achievement take to sink in properly?
Of course, you watch the video numerous times, keep pinching yourself and eventually you get your head round what you’ve done and realise, ‘My God, it’s happened!’
Away from the races there were people who recognised me and wanted to shake my hand and I didn’t know who they were at all, while in the racing world people wanted me to sign autographs.
Someone at the races said to me recently that you can win a Gold Cup and a Champion Hurdle but you’ll always be the ‘Grand National-winning trainer’.
The National does seem to transcend any other race and when you consider 600 million people watch it there must be some who know nothing about racing but have heard of the Grand National.
Did your Aintree success attract queues of prospective owners outside the gates of your 12-horse Worcestershire yard?
No, the floodgates haven’t opened. It’s bizarre because our operation is exactly the same as it was before we won. Perhaps we give out the wrong signals and everyone thinks we are small and private.
I am always very happy to look for new owners and to improve the quality of the yard. We may be expanding, but only on a very small scale.
I work full-time and am Chief Executive of a growing business, which takes up a lot of my time. I enjoy the stable at this level with 12 horses; it’s manageable with a small team of people doing all the work. As soon as it becomes 25-30 horses in training it will be too much with my other work.
How is Pineau De Re and what is the plan for him?
He took the National extremely well. Afterwards, when I was parading him before the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown, he was bouncing. He could have run in the race without a penalty and hosed up, he was in such good form.
He’s had a nice long break and did so well out in the field he was getting fatter and fatter. He’s been doing road work for over two months and the plan is to have him in top shape for another crack at the National.
He’ll go handicap hurdling and hopefully run in the Pertemps Final like he did last year, and then Aintree. These older horses can go wrong very easily, so my job is to deliver him there for that one big day.
Your policy has been to find cheaper horses that have lost their way and bring them back to form. How do you go about finding the type of horse that will recover its old sparkle?
I do like buying a horse that’s proved it’s got an engine. I have a theory that you can’t fluke good form. If a horse has run to a high level of ability it means that it is genetically capable of doing that. Then the only question is: can you bring it back?
What I tend to do is try to focus on buying from yards where I think we’ve got a chance, where perhaps the stable has been out of form and the horses have not been firing. If a horse is coming from Willie Mullins it’s unlikely I will improve it.
It would be unusual for us to consider horses from somewhere like that. There’s no magic to our policy but I do like a horse to have shown some ability.
What is it about the way you train that enables your horses to relive past glories?
We have a bit of a joke because when the horses walk through the door here I say: “Welcome to holiday camp, lads!” And when they’re not doing very well we have a word in their ear: “Listen lad, buck your ideas up otherwise you’re going back to a proper yard!”
We’re very small with just 12 horses at a time based at the house, but we rotate them and have a total of 25 around the place. The 12 in training are turned out in paddocks all day long as soon as they’ve completed their interval training, which totals three miles a day.
Our horses spend at least eight hours a day walking round the fields. We call it free range training.
Can you ever see yourself changing your strategy and buying stores or unraced horses to train?
No. I could see myself buying better horses, but what we do is not dissimilar to what Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls do. The only difference is that they go off to France and write a cheque for four or five hundred thousand euros for a Grade 1 winner!
They are still buying form, like a Kauto Star or a Long Run. I buy quite a few in Ireland that hopefully will improve and win something in England where it is less competitive.
The stat I’m most proud of is our winners to runners ratio: in each of the last five years we have had the highest percentage of horses in a yard that win a race. They might be winning only a seller, but they are winning.
My analysis is that you don’t get a very good return on stores. So many have the breeding and look the part but can’t stand racing. You might be buying a champion, but it’s more likely to be a cart horse.
You are the co-founder of Birmingham’s first private GP surgery and also manage specialist services in prostate cancer, anorexia nervosa and foot and ankle surgery. How do you find time for the horses?
With difficulty! I am Chief Executive of CSH Healthcare and Newbridge, which is an anorexia treatment centre, and my role is commercial. I haven’t actually treated a patient for 18 months.
In a sense, I run the horses like a small business and do like it to wash its face; I charge training fees and have five key staff, two grooms and three work riders.
I feed the horses in the morning, harrow the gallops and put a list up on the board of what I want doing. I start feeding at seven, then after watching a couple of lots and chatting to the staff I can be in my office by 9.15.
I keep a busy diary but I keep it myself so I can juggle it to suit my own arrangements.
In your first season training you saddled Overstrand to win two big handicap hurdles and Burntoakboy captured the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival. That must have given you so much confidence…
It definitely did. And, to be quite honest, at the time I didn’t know what to expect as we only had four horses and it was our first season. Overstrand and Burntoakboy’s successes did come as a shock but made me realise I must have been doing something right.
A lot of family and friends were shocked at my winning the Grand National, but I wasn’t. Of course I was massively thrilled with the result and overwhelmed by the impact it had. But I always thought Pineau had a fantastic chance and it wasn’t a surprise.
Did you encounter any hostility from professionals who were jealous that a GP who trained for a hobby was enjoying so much success?
I have always felt very comfortable and had good relations with lots of trainers. I am aware of the fact there are a lot of people who are not in my fortunate position of training almost as a hobby.
But I have never felt anyone had been put out by any success I have had. All trainers understand the pressure and I think we all have respect for one another.
What is tough for trainers is that everything is so open and measurable. I could do my other job and have a bad day at the office and no one except me and very few others would know.
But every Tom, Dick and Harry knows if a trainer is out of form and the horses are running badly.
When it’s going well you’re a hero, but when you’re having a bad run you feel the pressure, particularly if you’re a trainer paying big prices for wealthy owners who think they can just buy success.
How did your racing interest start and when did you begin to study the art of training racehorses?
I am not from a horse background but started following racing at 18. My cousin Chris Stedman, who still has horses with me, invited me to the Cheltenham Festival and I started having small bets.
I am a bit of an anorak and enjoyed analytically working out the form, delving into the breeding and was captivated by the majesty of the horses themselves.
I started getting interested in the possibility of training in 2000 and actually started in 2006. I moved here in 1999 and my wife Laura was into horses and my three daughters, aged six, four and one at the time, were learning to ride ponies. I learnt with them, and rode well enough to hunt and do some showjumping.
I can ride up the gallops but I’m no great horseman! I used to visit different yards and was fascinated by the science of training. I became a permit holder first and got my full licence in 2007.
In your view, what is the most important aspect of training racehorses?
Selecting good horses, having the right facilities to get them fit and knowing where to place them. A lot of trainers are very good horse people, but some aren’t the cleverest at assessing form and knowing which horses to run against and which ones to avoid.
Also being able to keep horses mentally right. My motto is: ‘If in doubt treat a racehorse like a horse’. In other words don’t keep them in stables all day long.
I like to train some horses from the field; that’s why they spend most of the time outside.
Have you worked in any yards and have you modelled yourself on anyone in particular?
No. I think it is an advantage not to have a pre-set formula. A lot of people who have worked in a yard try and follow that particular trainer’s system when they start out. We have had nothing to go on and tried to do what we thought was instinctively right.
The chap I respect a lot is Martin Pipe, who came from no racing stables, did it differently and did terribly well. He was innovative, creative, an intelligent business guy and would have been successful in whatever he did.
You have to surround yourself with the people who have the skills you haven’t got and I have some very good horsey people in the yard, but they wouldn’t know what I know in terms of buying horses and placing them. It’s a team effort.
Is it healthy for jump racing that all roads lead to the Cheltenham Festival from day one of the season?
I like it as it is and wouldn’t change a lot. There are other races to go for; I do a bit of summer jumping and there are numerous options as well. You could argue that we are a bit ‘Cheltenham-centric’, but I do think having the one Festival with all the lead-ups creates fantastic interest.
I’m not a great follower of Flat racing but the way it is all staggered through your Ascots and Yorks, etc, is inclined to dilute things. I like all the champions turning up on the big day at Cheltenham. There’s something magical about the all-important decider.
As a Cambridge University undergraduate, did you ever visit Newmarket or consider venturing into Flat racing?
I used to go to Newmarket and Huntingdon and remember watching El Gran Senor beat Chief Singer and Lear Fan in the 1984 2,000 Guineas.
About four years ago I thought I’d have a go at training sprinters, instead of summer jumping. But I didn’t have any success and didn’t really enjoy it.
Do you have much time for any other interests or hobbies apart from your medical businesses and training?
I love all sports, my favourite being Test cricket. I used to be a keen golfer and watched this year’s Ryder Cup. I used to do quite a bit of running but now I go cycling. At weekends I’ll bike 30-40 miles.
You obviously have a good business brain. Do you have any thoughts on how to improve racing’s finances or attract more participants?
My biggest bugbear in racing is the cost of the administration for an owner. To register as an owner costs about £1,000. That’s to get set up before you have a horse; you get flooded with a variety of paperwork from authority to act to registering colours and buying silks.
It shouldn’t be that expensive, but there is a culture of thinking that if you’re wealthy enough to own a horse you can afford to pay these fees.
That’s why there are more and more syndicates and racing clubs, which of course can be great fun.
What’s the best bet you’ve ever had?
When Silver Adonis won the 2010 Fox Hunters’ at Aintree he was 50-1, and as big as 100-1 on Betfair. I kept banging on about him in the bar beforehand and all my family and friends backed him.
John Provan, Pineau De Re’s owner, had £50 on at 66-1. When he came into our hotel room that evening he emptied £3,000 in readies from his pockets! I had a bit on, too.
If you could chose any rider from this period or previous generations to be your stable jockey, who would it be?
I was always a big Johnny Francome fan. He was the supremo, just a great rider. I remember on my 21st birthday I drank too much, had a stinking hangover and couldn’t cope with medical school at St Mary’s Hospital the next morning.
But I suddenly felt well enough to go to Ascot, where I put £15 on Townley Stone, winner of the first, and proceeded to back five winners. Come the last race there was thick fog on the far side of the course and Francome went into the fog three lengths last and emerged from it three lengths clear of the field.
I don’t know what happened in the fog, but from that day John has been my hero. I just loved his riding.
Can you give us a horse to follow through the winter?
Rock Gone, a nice big staying chase type, who will go novice hurdling this season. He is the most expensive I’ve ever bought, £58,000 at Brightwells.
He was second in a maiden hurdle in Ireland and should be able to win a hurdle or two, though really he is a future chaser.