Racing for me is all about hope, although the Irish training wizard Mick O’Toole did once declare, ‘Racing is a game of make-believe. If people didn’t have horses they thought were better than they really were, National Hunt racing would collapse.’
Two weeks ago, on a snowy morning in Stow-on-the-Wold, I was trying to keep up with David Bridgwater, as much of an action man as a trainer as he was when pumping home winners in the saddle. We bumped up to the gallops with a group of owners to watch wife Lucy, jockey Tommy Phelan and conditional Jake Hodson put a few of the inmates of Wyck Hill Farm through their paces up the stiff all-weather gallop. ‘This used to be a dirty old farm,’ said Bridgy typically. ‘Now it’s a dirty old farm with gallops. It’s only four furlongs but it’s an effing long way when you fall off at the bottom and have to chase the bastards home.’ Then it was back to the yard to snatch a few words as the trainer fielded calls on his mobile, put a couple of horses on the walker and hosed down the legs of two others as hens scuttled around the stone farmyard and hopeful sparrows fought for scraps in the barn.
‘He’s always the same,’ said his mother Mary, the stable secretary, as we warmed our hands around a much-needed cup of coffee. ‘I can ring him at eight o’clock at night and he’ll sound really happy. I’ll say, “Where are you?” and he’ll say, “I’m out on the gallops with the tractor.”’ She remembers, too, a pre-teen Bridgy building a huge steeplechase fence to tackle with his grey pony. As he approached it they couldn’t see pony or rider and, sure enough, it was Bridgy who came soaring over the fence, his mount remaining on the other side. But back he went and within half an hour pony and rider were clearing the fence in style. He has that kind of determination, and when he became a jockey, working first for Lester Piggott, then as a David Nicholson conditional and eventually for the Martin Pipe winner factory before a bad arm injury forced him to retire at only 27, Bridgy had made it to the top. His very first ride at Cheltenham, Winnie The Witch, trained by his father, was a winner of the County Hurdle at 33–1. ‘They slated us for putting up a conditional,’ says Mary contentedly, ‘but I got 66–1.’
As a trainer it hasn’t been quite so easy. Although he wisely started to acquire cottages in his conditional days and bought his current 132 acres ten years ago, Bridgy hasn’t often been handling horses of the quality he used to ride. Some years winners have been hard to find and he doesn’t soft-soap owners. An alternative career in the diplomatic service was never a possibility. But that day, as we gazed at the well-formed Wyck Hill, he could not contain his pride. ‘He’s 17.2 hands. Look at the lovely Roman nose. If you wanted people to see a proper National Hunt horse you’d have to bring them to him. Every time I tack him up I smile.’ Indicating him and the Giant Bolster he said, ‘They’re my Kauto and my Denman. It’s incredible to think that in a small yard like this we’ve got a horse with a good each-way chance in the Gold Cup and another with a good each-way chance in the Grand National.’
It was them I had come to see. Like most in racing I had been delighted to see success starting to come to a genuine grafter who radiates enthusiasm through good times and bad. But was he being realistic in assessing his stable stars? J.P. McManus, jump racing’s most prolific and sporting owner, didn’t think so because two days later he swooped to buy Wyck Hill, the favourite for last Saturday’s Racing Plus chase on the basis of his early season defeat of the impressive Katenko. (After his purchase of two of my Twelve to Follow does JP now have a tail on me?) But any fairytale ending is yet to come. In the hands of Tony McCoy, Wyck Hill finished only 11th of 12 in the big race. No doubt some will be saying that this was a case from the O’Toole school — a small trainer getting overexcited. I refuse to believe that for a very simple reason. When two years ago the Giant Bolster started showing potential, Bridgy told everybody prepared to listen that he had a top-quality horse. The racing intelligentsia scoffed but this column did not, and last March the Giant Bolster was first over the last fence in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and eventually finished second. Horses are not machines and whatever went wrong at Kempton we will hear more of Wyck Hill. What was good to hear in the Kempton parade ring was JP’s pre-race comment to his new trainer: ‘We don’t do pressure.’ He won’t need to. Bridgy will put quite enough on himself.