It is hard to think of many small businesses that have thrived rather than floundered during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but Powys racehorse trainer Sheila Lewis has done exactly that.
Lewis juggles running her small racing stable with owning and managing her own salon, The Beauty Mill, both located near the same Welsh minster town of Brecon.
At the beginning of the season the yard housed six horses, but four new recruits have joined the team after a lucrative run that has seen Lewis enjoy 11 wins from just 40 runners – an impressive strike-rate of 27.5 per cent.
The trainer had previously split her time between the two ventures – rising at 6.30am to muck out and ride, then spending her afternoons in the salon before returning to the stables to settle the horses for the night.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the closure of all businesses deemed non-essential has provided Lewis with a surge of time and energy to dedicate to her string of horses, with the resulting 11 successes completely surpassing her usual expectations of two winners a season.
“Obviously the salon had to close because of Covid, so I’ve been able to give all of my energy to the horses,” she explained.
“Before I used to juggle the two, because with a small amount of horses you don’t make the money, so it’s just been topped up with the salon.”
Lewis’ increased focus on her horses came to fruition in spectacular fashion when the trainer enjoyed a remarkable 1,182-1 treble at Hereford in October, with Straw Fan Jack, Knight Commander and Cotton End all triumphant in their respective races.
Despite this notable change of fortunes, Lewis has no immediate plans to cease trading at The Beauty Mill once lockdown is lifted.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go, but all of a sudden I’ve had a lot of success,” she said.
“I can’t say I’ll give it up just yet as it’s easy to get carried away. I’ll keep my feet on the ground and just keep enjoying having some nice horses on the yard, like my darling Volcano.”
Volcano was Lewis’ most recent runner when emerging victorious in a handicap chase on February 3, a race he dominated with a commanding 13-length victory.
“He’s won three races for us now – three chases – and the handicapper has put him up 11lb, so he’s gone up to (a rating of) 125,” the trainer said of the gelding.
“He’s a really super, balanced little horse who likes everything to be kept quite exciting, he’s quite intelligent.
“My dream would be to take him to the cross-country chase at Cheltenham next season in November. It’s a handicap so he might get in off 125, but that’s really looking long term, short-term we thought we’d run him at Ludlow in two weeks’ time in a 0-130 race.”
The French-bred seven-year-old joined Lewis from Nigel Twiston-Davies in 2019 and refuses to jump a single obstacle at home, despite fencing with complete enthusiasm on the racecourse.
“He’s really naughty, you can’t get him to jump a fence at home. You’d never think it, would you?” said Lewis.
“He’s probably the best jumper I’ve had and we can’t get him over a fence. He’s got a real French tantrum about him, that fella!”
The characterful grey is owned by Lewis’ father and made his debut for his new handler at Cheltenham in November 2019.
She explained: “When he came to us, we took him to Cheltenham for his first run, just because we’re small-time people and we thought it might be our one and only chance, ever.
“We took him without a prep run and I think it probably just bottomed him, and from then on he just didn’t want to know.
“Consequently his handicap mark came right down and we started chasing with him at a low mark, he’s come right up now. He’s got his confidence back and you can see how happy he is, he’s definitely been revitalised.”
Straw Fan Jack, the horse responsible for the first leg of the Hereford treble, also displayed his potential when winning a novice hurdle at Aintree by 30 lengths on his last appearance.
The six-year-old holds a duo of Grade One entries for the Cheltenham Festival in March, but Lewis is more likely to take aim at the Grand National meeting at Aintree instead.
“He wouldn’t want the heavy ground and he’s had a slight injury – nothing bad – that has held us back a little bit,” she said.
“We’ve entered him in the novice hurdles at Cheltenham, I think the Supreme and the Ballymore, but I don’t think he’ll go there.
“It’s going to be doubtful we’ll get him there in time, so I think he’ll more than likely go to Aintree, because that’s where he won. That just gives us a bit longer and I’d be able to get a prep run in.”
With Cheltenham runners and graded races on the horizon, Lewis’ recent successes on the racecourse have been something of a welcome side effect of the unwelcome havoc wreaked by the pandemic.
“It’s kind of turned a negative into a positive, really,” she said.
“I’ve had quite a bit of prize-money this year because I own a third share in Cotton End and I think she’s won about £4,000, and then there’s my little percentage in the other wins.
“The horses have now propped up the salon, and it was always the other way round!”