The Cheltenham Festival is the Olympics of racing and having my first win there was a feeling like no other.
The way in which Willoughby Court won the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, leading from pillar to post, was impressive. The last horse I remember doing that was Vautour, and, although you shouldn’t make comparisons, it takes a very good horse to do that at Cheltenham.
Harry Fry’s Neon Wolf was much talked-about ahead of the race, but we were very confident about our lad’s chances. He is only six but was a very backward youngster, hence why he spent two years running in bumpers. He used to be on edge all the time and was rather a nutter. However, he’s been injury-free and we had no problems during his Cheltenham preparation.
I wasn’t surprised when he won. We had most his rivals covered, so it was just what Neon Wolf could do, and it turned into a great ding-dong battle up the hill.
We have a very good local pub called The Plough in Cold Aston where we celebrated afterwards, it was rammed and there were plenty of sore heads in the morning.
I’m a farmer’s son and have always been local to the racecourse. I’ve been a member since I was 16 — it’s a special place for our family and it was nice so many friends and family were there on the day.
My wife, Sophie, is seven months pregnant with our second child and she has been brilliant — luckily all the excitement didn’t make her go into early labour!
We’ve grown from eight horses to 60 in three years. It’s a huge team effort, including my assistant, Mary Vestey and head lad Tom David, but all the team are hugely appreciated for their hard work and dedication. Also Greg Walters, who rides Willoughby Court every day and has done a fantastic job.
I’m very fortunate to have Paul and Clare Rooney on board as owners. Willoughby Court was, in fact, the first store horse they purchased, after a bit of convincing. I found him through bloodstock agent Tessa Greatrex at the Goffs Sale in Ireland. It’s been a patient training game with him but it just goes to show how important it is to let horses mature properly.
He was an anxious horse to start with, not nasty, just fractious. However, he’s one of the best jumpers I’ve seen. He’s still maturing and will probably go chasing next year — he’ll get three miles.
David Bass gave him an exceptional ride. I told him beforehand not to go mad quick to start with and keep an even gallop, then let him quicken coming down the hill.
Aside from our Festival victory, the highlights for me were Buveur D’Air’s win in the Champion Hurdle; he’s a seriously smart horse and that was a masterful piece of training by my former boss Nicky Henderson.
During my years working for Henderson I learnt many lessons, but most of all how to train with patience, and how to prep horses for the Festival, and now I’ve managed to pull it off for myself.
You’d take any win at the Festival but to take a Grade One like that one was particularly exciting.
Ref Horse & Hound; 23 March 2017