Talking to Paul Nicholls earlier this season, I was shaken to hear the ultra-competitive champion trainer say that he wouldn’t want to be starting again now. If younger trainers are to get to the top they need somewhere they can train a hundred horses from, he said. ‘You need to be in the right place with the right opportunity. It’s very, very tough.’
Two young trainers most would back to make it are former Nicholls assistants Harry Fry and Dan Skelton, and the other major figure whose former assistants are making their mark is Nicky Henderson. Those who have graduated in recent years from Nicky’s Seven Barrows equine finishing school include Charlie Longsdon, Tom Symonds, Jamie Snowden and Ben Pauling. Add Lambourn-based Warren Greatrex and you have a Magnificent Seven to keep jump racing exciting for years to come — and a visit to Ben Pauling’s buzzing yard outside Bourton-on-the-Water convinced me that he could be the one to rival Skelton in future title races.
With a grandfather and father who acquired ‘hairy and scary’ ex-hurdlers from the sales, and trained them under permit for their own pleasure, Ben’s youth was the predictably horsey one of ponies, hunting and point-to-points. The point-to-pointing — his main interest while scraping a 2:2 degree in land management at Reading University — was complicated by Pauling’s 6ft 3in frame and then sadly terminated when he pulled a wire from a hedge and was blinded in one eye. Undaunted, he then became a whizz at team chasing. Despite becoming Britain’s Young Engineer of the Year while still at school for designing a pallet-wrapping device that didn’t require a forklift truck, and making useful money at Reading running student entertainments, Ben’s was always going to be a racing career. A year breaking horses and learning pedigrees with bloodstock maestro David Redvers paved the way to six years as assistant to the man whose supreme ability to extract the best from good horses he happily acknowledges. ‘Nicky is not far short of being an absolute master and I learned so much, particularly about not doing too much with a good horse: it is so easy to leave a race at home.’
Ben Pauling, who started training in 2013, is very much his own man but the Henderson influence is obvious. Rattling down in his open-sided jeep to a policeman’s perch beside the shredded-carpet uphill strip through the gorgeous Cotswold hills he acknowledges: ‘Dan and I will be competing for many years but we all train differently. He is very much the Nicholls-esque sort who will keep running them while they are hot. I won’t run my horses too often. I am unlikely to run them under a penalty and I won’t run them seven or eight times a season. Harry Fry is even more careful than I am. His stats are exceptional, but they don’t come out unless they’ve ticked every box. I’m somewhere inbetween.’
Patience in a young man always impresses. So does attention to detail. Ben stops to pick out a dung ball that has fallen into a food tray, reminds yard men to put extra blankets on the horses on a cold morning, takes trouble with the stable secretary over framing an email to an owner whose pride and joy has had to be pulled out of a bumper because of a snotty nose. ‘We work in a leisure industry: people are spending money on things they enjoy. It’s all about owner experience. You’ve got to be open with them. We’ve gone beyond the days when communication wasn’t easy.’
Progress has been swift. ‘When you start with a handful of horses you are trainer, head lad, work rider and lorry driver. Unless you’re fortunate enough to start with 30 to 40 horses, you’ve got to be.’ But there were nine winners in the first year, 20-plus the next and now there is a Nicholls-style team culture at Bourton Hill Farm with assistant trainer Mary Vestey, Tom David as head lad and Maurice Linehan, formerly with Jonjo O’Neill, as stable conditional. ‘We work as a unit and take each other’s advice.’ There could be some opportunities now for Linehan; most of the Pauling horses have so far been ridden by Henderson riders Nico de Boinville and David Bass, but now de Boinville is out with a broken arm and Bass with a smashed cheekbone.
The Pauling stable’s first Grade One winner and outstanding prospect, Barter’s Hill, is sadly out of action, too, with a slipped tendon, but there are plenty of races to be won with the likes of A Hare Breath, unlucky last time at Cheltenham, Le Breuil, Nobuttaboy, Red Indian, impressive novice-chase winner Drumacoo, and Ballyhenry. Watch Silvergrove, a Grand National hope, next time he runs at Aintree. What is really intriguing, though, about this advancing yard is that a quarter of Ben’s horses, 15 of them, are three-year-olds who may not even run this season. ‘Next year,’ he says confidently, ‘I will have 15 good strong gorgeous individuals who haven’t been rushed.’