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Trevor Hemmings – working-class hero who never forgot his roots

Trevor Hemmings’ love of horses was born when, as a child, he was entrusted with the Chorley greengrocer’s cob – to whom he attached a cart of potatoes, dampened to increase their weight as they were sold by the pound.

There was something prophetic about his early memory, a young Hemmings delighting in horses while sharpening the business acumen that would earn him a future somehow foretold by the name of his first equine love – the cob called Klondike.

It is certainly accurate to depict Hemming’s adult years as a ‘gold rush’ – but the circumstances of his early life were a world away from the billionaire businessman and three-time Grand National-winning owner he was to become.

Born in Woolwich in 1935, Hemmings was the working-class son of a Royal Ordnance factory worker, with the company’s World War II relocation to Lancashire necessitating a family move to Leyland when he was five.

Trevor Hemmings with Donald McCain and Ballabriggs, one of his three Grand National winners
Trevor Hemmings with Donald McCain and Ballabriggs, one of his three Grand National winners (Martin Rickett/PA)

Hemmings witnessed his parents’ struggle to balance financial stresses with a determination to avoid debt – something which perhaps shaped his own principles.

On leaving Leyland Secondary Modern School at 15, Hemmings was faced with four employment options – Leyland Motors, working alongside his parents at the Royal Ordnance factory, the declining weaving mills or the police force.

Instead, he went to Lancashire College night school to study business – alongside a variety of daytime roles, such as cleaning diesel trains and boiler-making, before beginning an apprenticeship in building.

From there, he forged a lucrative path in the construction trade – first profiting from house-building before forming an alliance with Fred Pontin and the expansion of Pontins Holiday Parks.

Gaining a seat on the Pontins board, Hemmings negotiated the partial sale of the company to bookmakers Coral – in return for 500,000 shares in their business.

Coral lost casino gaming licences and the value of those shares plummeted.

Blackpool Tower was a famous acquisition for Hemmings
Blackpool Tower was a famous acquisition for Hemmings (Peter Byrne/PA)

But in 2000, Hemmings bought the company back from brewer Scottish and Newcastle, then sold it on a second time at a price of £46million.

That business acumen was serving him well, including as a one-time majority shareholder in Center Parcs, introduced to Britain by S&N.

Also in the millennial year, Hemmings spent £100m on 361 pubs previously owned by S&N and acquired the leisure division of retailer Littlewoods for £161m.

The portfolio was not done yet, though – because Hemmings had big plans for Blackpool, buying town-centre land including the famous tower and Winter Gardens.

His hopes to build a Las Vegas-style ‘supercasino’ at the tower foundered on the absence of Government approval – but in 2010, the sport-loving Hemmings bought the financially-troubled Preston North End Football Club.

Hedgehunter on his way to Grand National glory
Hedgehunter on his way to Grand National glory (David Davies/PA)

After decades of investment and trading, at the age of 85 in 2020, Hemmings’ wealth was reported to total £1.025 billion by the Sunday Times – shortly before his October acquisition of Cork City FC.

Throughout, alongside the mammoth work ethic, his love of horseracing took hold.

“That’s why I went into horses – to have another interest,” he said.

Hemmings’ first National triumph came in 2005, when the Willie Mullins-trained 7-1 favourite Hedgehunter surged clear by 14 lengths under Ruby Walsh.

Hemmings described it as “the happiest day of my life with the horses” – and one he felt would never be repeated.

On the last count, however, he was wrong – because in 2011, the Donald McCain-trained Ballabriggs gave him his second National success.

Having won the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup at the Cheltenham Festival the previous year, Ballabriggs was well-fancied and won at 14-1 under Jason Maguire.

Ballabriggs was a second National hero for Hemmings
Ballabriggs was a second National hero for Hemmings (David Davies/PA)

Hemmings’ third win over the famous Aintree fences was provided by one of his classiest performers, Many Clouds, trained in Lambourn by Oliver Sherwood.

A winner on his bumper and chase debuts, Many Clouds landed the Listed Colin Parker Chase at Carlisle – following up with a three-and-a-quarter-length success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.

In January 2015 the Grade Two BetBright Cup followed at Cheltenham – and after a distant sixth behind Coneygree in the Gold Cup at the Festival, Many Clouds claimed the National under Leighton Aspell at odds of 25-1.

Leighton Aspell celebrates on board Many Clouds
Leighton Aspell celebrates on board Many Clouds (Mike Egerton/PA)

Many Clouds could finish only 16th in the 2016 National, but tenaciously recovered his form to win again at Aintree the following December, this time on the Mildmay Course.

Then came a January day at Cheltenham which presented the triumph and tragedy of National Hunt racing in the space of seconds as Many Clouds produced a remarkable performance to beat previously unbeaten top-class chaser Thistlecrack by a head.

Yet then, after the most gruelling of uphill finishes to the Cotswold Chase, the 10-year-old tragically collapsed on the Cheltenham turf and died with what was subsequently identified as a severe pulmonary haemorrhage.

At his peak, Many Clouds held a rating of 167, just a pound below the rating achieved by Hemmings’ three-time Cheltenham Festival winner Albertas Run.

Hemmings with Jonjo O'Neill, Tony McCoy and Albertas Run after victory at the 2011 Festival
Hemmings with Jonjo O’Neill, Tony McCoy and Albertas Run after victory at the 2011 Festival (David Davies/PA)

Jonjo O’Neill’s middle-distance specialist Albertas Run, hero of Cheltenham’s Ryanair Chase in 2010 and 2011, also won both the Melling Chase and Old Roan at Aintree.

Albertas Run stayed three miles to win the 2008 Royal & SunAlliance Chase – a race Nicky Henderson’s Trabolgan took for Hemmings in 2005, before going on to Hennessy Gold Cup glory that same year.

Cloth Cap flew the flag for his owner more recently and was an impressive 10-length winner of the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase, previously the Hennessy, in 2020.

The success came after Hemmings announced he would be dialling down his investment in the sport, as the coronavirus pandemic took its toll on leisure-industry finances.

He vowed to keep around 25 horses in training, a relative handful compared to previous years when he would have a team of more than 100 in his famous yellow-and-green quarters.

Zara Phillips on High Kingdom at the London Olympics
Zara Phillips on High Kingdom at the London Olympics (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Hemmings provided some context to that outlay in a 2000 Guardian interview, when he said: “It’s an expensive hobby, and I don’t know how much I’m writing off exactly. Perhaps I wouldn’t want to do it if I knew.

“But I measure it another way. I probably give about eight – or 10 – times more to charities in a year than I would spend on horses. So I think my perspective is fairly good.”

His philanthropic contributions were never made public, save for his funding of Preston’s SAFE centre for victims of sexual violence, but there were hints of a silent largesse at work.

Zara Phillips’ event horse High Kingdom, on whom she won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games, was owned by Hemmings and given the stable name ‘Trev’ – a hint at the rider’s fondness for the man himself.

Nor did he ever forget where he came from, his business interests always mirroring working class roots.

Hemmings’ investments in pubs, British holiday parks, football clubs and neglected northern towns suggested his attention never strayed too far from erstwhile peers.

Beginning with so little, his sound investments and industry accrued massive wealth – yet he remained unknown to the average person.

Something of an affable enigma, Hemmings said little and let his success, generosity and enormous contribution to sport speak volumes instead.