Success in any area of endeavour depends firstly on talent, writes Tony Stafford. But then again there have been very many gifted people who didn’t have the resolution or determination to project that natural ability into the ultimate result. Above all, even given those important requirements, you still need a little luck.
Take Sam Thomas. When he started out as a jockey in the early 2000’s his first two seasons yielded no wins from three rides in 2001/2 and one from 24 the following winter. Then came the fortuitous connection with Venetia Williams and an instant upsurge. The next three campaigns brought 47 and 55 twice, a momentum that only accelerated further when Paul Nicholls took notice of his qualities.
In 2006/7 73 wins from 462 rides took his winners’ prizemoney to more than £750k, in great part thanks to Kauto Star’s Betfair Chase score at Haydock Park. The next year, now firmly established as Denman’s rider, Thomas had 88 wins from a career-high 563 rides and an almost doubled figure of earnings at a sliver under £1.5 million. He went close to maintaining that level with 78 in the following season but, from that point, the peak had passed.
So, like Covid-19 in the summer, down went the numbers. Twenty-seven, a slight rally to 36 and then 30 told the tale over the next three years, but 10 from 201 mounts and then three from 65 in 2013/4 signalled the end. Sam had been in the company of two of the country’s most accomplished trainers and ridden some great horses so the wish to have a shot at the conditioning side of the business was understandable.
He clearly had talent and certainly the good fortune to ally himself where he had done for the ten years of the middle and most productive part of his 15-year riding career.
Now came the difficult part. All the expense and organisation that go with setting up stables were the obvious obstacles to overcome. But by the 2015/6 season as he quietly, rather anonymously, finished riding, he had gathered together a team of horses. Eleven of them got to the track, but none of their collective 30 runs yielded that elusive first win. The next year, a quartet of successes came from 59 appearances and 16 active horses. The steady increase followed with 79 runs and seven wins from 28 individuals in 2017/8 and Sam must have been delighted when Dai Walters, initially often with partners, sent a number of horses to him for the following campaign.
From little acorns they say, great oaks can grow but it would have been understandable if the owner of Ffos Las racecourse had thought again when those eight horses appeared a collective 16 times for no wins. Therefore, it might have been a great relief for Sam when, in his second season training for the businessman, eight Walters horses won two races from 23 runs.
The figure may well have been improved had the latest jumps season not ended abruptly in mid-March with his score on six. By that time the Horses In Training annual had already been published. Sam Thomas, from his base near Cardiff, had 38 horses listed, 15 with the Walters Plant Hire name affixed. One or two of these remained in partnership but this was clearly a case of Dai’s putting most of his ownership eggs in an upwardly-mobile Welsh-based basket.
Thirteen of the Walters horses have run so far this season and, until recently, progress was steady rather than spectacular. But this month the transformation has been astonishing: since November 5th, that’s 11 racing days, Sam Thomas has had nine runners, eight in the dark blue and white of his principal owner. Six have won, five of them for Dai, one more finished second and a further two were third; the biggest losing margin was just one and a half lengths.
It’s never a guarantee that one major owner can propel a trainer into the top division, although not just trainers but jockeys, as the saying goes, can’t go without the horse; and so many capable people in the sport are never destined to hit the heights as the chance of getting a good animal is so remote.
In those 11 days Sam Thomas has won with bumper horses, hurdlers and chasers. The biggest win was yesterday’s Cheltenham Listed bumper success with Good Risk At All, a son of No Risk At All – bet it took a while to think of that one, Dai? Like the Thomas training career, Good Risk At All has been a slow burner. Bought at Arqana three years ago he didn’t make the track until last month when he finished second at Newton Abbot. Despite going up in grade at Cheltenham he saw off a recent Oliver Sherwood Fontwell winner with a good display of stamina on the heavy ground.
Thomas, with nine wins from 33 runners, is already well past his previous best score of seven, but the brilliant form of his horses makes him the most strikingly in-form trainer around.
The rapidity with which the ground at our top jumping tracks can go from good to heavy after rain is going to be a cause for concern among trainers who have good-ground horses in their care. For much of last winter, indeed until a few days before Cheltenham’s ill-starred Festival, abandonments and/or heavy ground were the order of the day for months with barely an oasis of good going to be found. Looking out of the window recently it seems we might be having more of the same.
Cheltenham’s three-day November fixture started on good to soft on Friday but by yesterday the ground had become as near to heavy as makes no difference when times and the class of horses on show were considered. There were, as ever, fine performances on all three days with Put The Kettle On yesterday showing once again that she has the talent to beat the boys at close to the highest class when winning the Shloer Chase. Henry de Bromhead’s mare’s task was made easier of course with the defection of Harry Whittington’s much-fancied Rouge Vif, the trainer having previously stated that he’d try to avoid deep winter turf with the polished top of the ground performer.
On The Blind Side was regarded as a potential Gold Cup horse as he went impressively through his novice hurdle season but the Nicky Henderson inmate did not take to chasing. Returned to hurdles and in pretty strong company too on Saturday, he showed he retains all his courage and a fair portion of his ability by staying on strongly to win a competitive three-mile handicap.
On The Blind Side won only one of his seven chases but a characteristically sharp bit of race planning by Henderson took the gelding to Newcastle for a jumpers’ bumper three weeks before Cheltenham. He won it and then missed the Festival which in retrospect looks like a good decision. Saturday was his first appearance since and had he never run over fences, his career record would have been six wins from eight starts, all bar his point-to-point debut in Alan Spence’s year-round-successful colours.
Gordon Elliott has been dominating the juvenile hurdles in Ireland and won two with Duffle Coat, at 16-1 on debut having never raced anywhere beforehand, and then at 1-6 with his penalty. Leaving his lesser lights to continue to mop up at home, Elliott sent Duffle Coat recently to Wetherby for a Listed race where he outstayed and outclassed some capable home-trained previous winners and on Saturday employed that stamina again to give weight away all round impressively in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial, in receipt of an outstanding waiting ride from Robbie ‘Puppy’ Power. It’s a bit early to be talking of the Triumph Hurdle itself but it will take a good one to wrest him off the top spot.
Two more impressive performances had come on Friday when Kim Bailey’s Does He Know (Grade 2 Ballymore Novice Hurdle), and the Skeltons’ Protektorat in a small-field but high-class novice chase, also gave notice that there is plenty more to expect from them in their respective divisions.
I was saddened on Sunday evening to learn of the death of Des O’Connor, the all-round entertainer and all-encompassing nice bloke at the age of 88. I met him only once, when I was sent by the Press Association to Ludlow – my first visit there, or was it Hereford: why did I chuck away those old form books? I had to go into the winner’s enclosure to interview him after his horse Bermondsey – unplaced earlier in his career in the Derby - won a novice hurdle. I can clearly picture him sporting a black leather coat, not exactly jumping garb in the age of tweeds. He was one of the old-style performers who could do everything quite well and never minded being ridiculed on his guest TV appearances by such as Morecambe and Wise. Goodbye Des and I’m delighted that racing gave you so much pleasure. I can certainly vouch for one enjoyable day all those years ago when he seemed totally unaffected by his fame.