It is minus two and the paddock behind Epsom’s famous South Hatch stables, still dusted with snow, is bone-hard as the horses circle for inspection by trainer Jim Boyle. Come off on this ground and you could easily snap a collarbone. But there is not a whisper of apprehension.
When Wunder Strike, who scored his fourth consecutive win only the previous Saturday, bucks and kicks with the energy of a horse who wants to take on allcomers again today, sending others skittering, there are only smiles all round. ‘He’s always like that,’ says his proud trainer.
It is a stable of youthful happy grafters bustling their way to increasing success. Jim Boyle’s total for the 2009 season was 61 winners and his horses are leading a long-due Epsom revival. As the horses — Lady Kent, Party In The Park, Ocean’s Edge — file across the racecourse in the snow, Simon Dow’s string is visible, too — the total from nine or ten small yards using Epsom’s excellent facilities now backs up to 170 a month.
Backed by yard-owner John Hopkins, Jim Boyle came to Epsom after three years as assistant to the Derby-winning trainer Paul Cole. A qualified vet, he started with nine horses. Now, ably assisted by wife Pippa, who runs a separate foals, mares and equine holiday centre in Brockham, he has 45, seemingly defying the recessionary squeeze. The pair live and breathe racing. Despite the rising winning totals, they have lived five years in a mobile home. Other women might receive jewellery for their anniversaries: Pippa generally gets a horse.
South Hatch exudes racing history. Walter Nightingall trained winners there for Sir Winston Churchill. Then came the Australian ex-jockey Scobie Breasley. In the days when a slimmer Turf correspondent used to jog over Epsom Downs, Reg Akehurst was rejuvenating cast-offs from famous Newmarket yards there to land regular touches in major handicaps.
The grand races are yet to come for Jim Boyle, whose first holiday job was in Sir Michael Stoute’s yard. But he has already won a Shergar Cup race with Press The Button and a decent Goodwood sprint with Idle Power. He won 13 races with Emotion in 100 outings. Significantly, 47 of his victories last season were on the all-weather tracks, especially Lingfield. He doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as an all-weather trainer but argues that you can plan a campaign better on such tracks.
‘So often you have a horse lined up for a Turf race and then the ground goes.’ Many of his successes have come with second-hand horses and the all-weather tracks are kinder to problem horses. ‘They don’t always come back so well off the Turf.’
Britain’s prize-money levels are poor. The 33 South Hatch winners listed currently have brought their connections just £193,000 in winnings and 10 per cent of that hasn’t earned the 36-year-old trainer a fortune. ‘It’s still bloody tough. The margins are very tight and of course I don’t charge what Newmarket trainers do.’ But Jim’s training as a vet pays dividends. ‘I don’t test bloods every week but I catch problems early on and I can do routine treatments, helping to keep bills down.’ And there is no stinting on the horses. Those turned out in the fields in rugs to toughen up both mentally and physically are well fed (‘They’re fine as long as you keep up the grub,’ says Pippa. ‘They all have another horse for company and they come back as kingpins.’) And the South Hatch runners enjoy an equine spa to cool their legs before and after races.
Thanks to the efforts of the Boyles, of Simon Dow, who recently trained his 500th winner, and of Jon Akehurst, Roger Teal and Roger Ingram, Epsom is back on the racing map. As it should be. As Jim says, ‘The Downs are beautiful and it’s only a stone’s throw from the centre of London.’ City owners mindful of the petrol levels in their Mercs might remember that….