Owner Phil Simmonds from Rochdale was 17 when he first went racing, joining a friend’s stag party at Haydock Park. For years he dreamed of owning a racehorse and finally took the plunge. He bought a bumper horse called Burns Cross and placed it with Neil Mulholland, whose response appealed to him when he wrote to three trainers. A software developer, he doesn’t pretend, like some owners do, to know everything about the sport, acknowledging: ‘I love racing but I realise you can’t solve it with a computer programme.’
Last year Phil was driving to Chester races when Neil phoned. It was the kind of call every trainer hates having to make and which every owner dreads receiving. Having suffered a minor foot injury, Burns Cross had been sent to a top veterinary surgery in Newmarket for a routine operation. Anaesthetising half a ton of horse always carries risks and as poor Burns Cross came round from the operation he broke his neck and died. Says Phil: ‘It was one of those 5,000–1 chances. Nobody was at fault, nobody was to blame but when you’ve not been brought up in racing you can’t comprehend it.’ Phil and wife Lisa briefly considered giving up their dream but, impressed with Neil’s frankness and honesty, they carried on.
Last Saturday at Kempton, an impassioned Phil Simmonds was there to cheer home Walt, his second horse, when he waltzed away with the £100,000 888Sport Handicap Chase in the hands of jockey Sam Twiston-Davies at 14–1. It was an important win for all the team. For Phil it was due reward for sticking with ownership after such a cruel blow and for Twiston-Davies it was just the kind of Saturday winner he needs now that he is riding as a freelance and no longer as stable jockey to the all-conquering Paul Nicholls. For trainer Neil, one of those middle-rankers who are the backbone of the sport, it was an all-important reminder of his excellent record with staying chasers: he had won the race before with Pilgrim’s Bay and saw Walt as the same type. Fitting him with a visor and riding him aggressively has done the trick. What was heartening was that in his own moment of glory Phil Simmonds was quick to remind the media that ‘from an owner’s point of view we need to support the Neil Mulhollands of this world’.
As usual, champion trainer Nicky Henderson and former champion Paul Nicholls dominated the Kempton card with three winners between them and Neil candidly admits he simply cannot compete with the big boys. Neil served a six-year apprenticeship with Aidan O’Brien, rode 120 winners as a jockey and has trained for ten years. With the likes of Carole’s Destrier and Cheltenham Festival winner The Druids Nephew he has demonstrated his ability to handle top-class staying chasers, but the biggest trophy cupboards attract more than a fair proportion of the richest owners: those willing to spend upwards of £100,000 a horse won’t queue to fill yards like Neil’s purpose-built establishment near Bath so long as the Hendersons and Nichollses keep churning out the big Saturday winners. You can’t break through to the top level without plenty of quality livestock on the premises.
Kempton’s prizes were better spread than they sometimes are. Harry Fry’s Bags Groove, one of our Twelve to Follow, won the novice chase at 7–4 with his trainer confessing afterwards that it was his error that had got him beaten there on Boxing Day. He had left too short a gap after his previous race: ‘He wasn’t at his best and looked like it so we gave him a break and pinpointed this race.’ Watch out for Bags Groove at Aintree: he has class and Harry believes there is more to come.
This column was a founder member of the Lizzie Kelly fan club but she is not the only quality rider in the Devon stables of her mother Jane and stepfather Nick Williams. Lizzie was the first female to ride a Grade One winner in Britain but her brother Chester, a 7lb-claiming ‘conditional’, rode an accomplished race on Erick Le Rouge for Jane to win the handicap hurdle. Forced by a slow pace to go on and make the running much of the way, he got Erick Le Rouge up by a neck from the experienced Nico de Boinville after being headed on the run-in, completing a four-timer for the horse. ‘It was a very game performance to be headed and come back after missing the last hurdle,’ said Jane, who endearingly couldn’t remember how many winners she has trained in her own right. Lizzie, hailed by her mother as a genuinely brave jockey with the nerve for big occasions, is Nick’s stable jockey and gets the pick of his rides but the younger Chester is proving no mean substitute. He is, though, a good six foot, so it will ironically be something of a relief when his 7lb claim reduces, even if he has done 9st 12lb on occasion.