Robin Oakley

The turf | 16 March 2017

After the excitement of the Cheltenham Festival, here are my top tips for Aintree

The turf | 16 March 2017
Text settings

If the championship for training jumpers went to a set of gallops rather than to a trainer it would not be Paul Nicholls’s Ditcheat precipice nor Nicky Henderson’s historic Seven Barrows facilities outside Lambourn or even Colin Tizzard’s Venn Farm on the Dorset border in the lead: the prize would go to the two stiff gallops, against the collar all the way, at Grange Hill Farm, Naunton, in the heart of the Cotswolds and just 12 miles from the Cheltenham course that has been the focus of the jumping world these past four days.

The gallops are used by both Nigel Twiston-Davies, the proprietor of Grange Hill Farm, and by this season’s fastest-advancing handler Fergal O’Brien, who turns out his horses from the Upper Yard, which is the other side of the road. The famously duffel-coated Twiston-Davies, who is jump racing personified, has sent out 89 winners so far this season. Fergal O’Brien, who spent 16 years as Nigel’s head man before setting up on his own, sent out his 53rd when Cap Soleil delighted her 26 owners by winning the Listed bumper at Sandown Park last Saturday. As I write, that makes a total of 142 between them compared with Paul Nicholls’s 130, Nicky Henderson’s 119 and Colin Tizzard’s 50.

A morning spent at the Upper Yard last week, despite the soaking endured by the first two lots out at exercise, offered plenty of clues as to why Fergal’s tally of winners this season has soared past the 27 and 35 totals achieved over the previous two seasons. The horses were buzzing and clearly relishing their work. Back in the crowded office, in the corner of the main yard, there was much badinage among several sets of owners who had dropped in to see the morning’s work at a yard that clearly keeps open house — an open house seemingly fuelled by regular deliveries of cake, not to mention the excellent bacon sandwiches provided by Caroline Beresford-Wylie, owner of the talented Colin’s Sister, whom I hope will have run well in the Festival mares’ race by the time you read this column.

‘You can always take him home,’ one owner was told. ‘You’ve got a garden, haven’t you? You could ride him to the shops and save on taxi fares.’ Another said to me: ‘It’s just like one big family here — Fergal’s owners’ skills are supreme.’ But behind all the wisecracking there was a trainer’s eye that missed little. Unlike some, Fergal has his horses dismounted and walked up to him after exercise. He gets up close and personal with each one to check their recovery rates.

Despite an early double in 2013, at a big Cheltenham meeting, Fergal didn’t find training under his own banner easy to begin with. He missed the camaraderie of a big yard, the socialising with Twiston-Davies and his fellow head man there, Richard Bevis. ‘I was used to being part of a big team and having someone to talk to. You are meant to be in charge but you’re trying to keep everyone happy — owners, staff, jockeys, family — and it can melt your head.’ Despite the name, he didn’t come from a racing family: Fergal’s father was a Limerick bus driver and he started at the bottom with, among others, Captain Tim Forster and Ginger McCain. He notes, ‘It’s not just about training horses. That’s the easy bit. It’s trying to run a business too. I left school at 15 and I’m not academic. You’re only as good as the people around you.’ But you don’t need a degree to be a good delegator. It is down to more than luck that he is now surrounded by a well-organised stable secretary and an expert who looks after the yard’s social-media presence, not to mention his backer and mentor Chris Coley of the ‘Yes No Wait Sorries’ and his partner and assistant trainer Sally Randell.

Good training operations are often great partnerships — think Fred Winter and John Francome, Nicky Henderson and Mick Fitzgerald, Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson. It is no coincidence that Fergal’s lift-off this season has benefitted from the greater availability of his top-choice jockey and old friend Paddy Brennan, no longer riding as No. 1 to Tom George. Fergal pays unstinting tribute to the jockey who rode Imperial Commander to Gold Cup victory in their Twiston-Davies days together and the feeling is mutual. At Sandown last Saturday Paddy insisted, ‘Fergal was always going to work his way to the top. He’s an extremely good trainer. He’s very good at doing the simple things. He listens to a lot of things but he doesn’t listen to the wrong things. He’s so hungry. He wants it so bad and I think if you want it that bad in life you will get it.’

Hopefully, there has been Cheltenham Festival success this week. If not, look for useful hurdler Lord Of The Island, perhaps travelling to Ireland for soft ground, and for Perfect Candidate in the Grand National. Others who caught the eye were bumper horse Aye Aye Charlie, Imperial Eloquence and Chase The Spud.