Trainer Evan Williams has gone from strength to strength this winter, clinching the Welsh Grand National title and a third Grade One victory. Catherine Austen chats to the Welshman
It would be easy to assume that Evan Williams is a laid-back, happy-go-lucky sort of chap. We speak in the build-up to any National Hunt trainer’s most intense week of the year – the Cheltenham Festival – yet he is easy to get hold of, he chats merrily away, and says that the thing that would give him most pleasure at the Festival would be for his daughter, Isabel, to have a nice first ride there in the conditionals’ race and to come home safely.
The statistics, however, show the skull beneath the skin. He won his first Grade One just months after taking out a full licence in 2003, appropriately enough for a Welshman at Chepstow, and within two years was training 50-plus winners a season. Horses such as State Of Play, Deep Purple and Cappa Bleu let him mix it with far bigger operations, and at the time of writing he was seventh in the trainers’ table, sandwiched between Nigel Twiston-Davies and Alan King. Pretty good for a farmer from the Vale of Glamorgan.
“Every step of the way – first riding and training point-to-pointers, then when we stepped into the professional world – we have been very fortunate that there’s always been a flagship horse to win a big race somewhere,” he says. “Without them you stagnate.”
This winter those “very nice horses” have given him a Paddy Power Gold Cup (Coole Cody), Boxing Day’s Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle (Silver Streak) and the Coral Welsh Grand National (Secret Reprieve).
Silver Streak’s Kempton win was Evan’s third Grade One triumph of his career to date. In doing so, he beat the 2020 Champion Hurdle winner Epatante. The grey likes everything to be “like clockwork”.
“He is very much a creature of habit and doesn’t like changes to his very strict regime,” Evan says. “He is ridden seven days a week – he could be quite keen in his work when he came to us. He has his food at the same time, gets his bedding at the same time, he rolls at the same time… he even drinks the same amount of water at the same time. If the lad who looks after him went to dress him over an hour too soon, he would be in bad old form. He doesn’t like a fuss; he just wants things to be the same every day.”
He finished a decent sixth in Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last week, having led the field until three out.
“I was very relaxed about Cheltenham because winning at Kempton was almost everything I wanted to do with him; I really felt he deserved a Grade One given his placed efforts [sixth and third in the two previous Champion Hurdles]. The Cheltenham field was very tough and I just wanted him to run well again.”
Secret Reprieve is among the favourites for the Grand National itself next month; a race to which Evan has most of the keys, having trained State Of Play and then Cappa Bleu to finish in the frame in five consecutive years from 2009 to 2013.
“It’s an interesting one; the Grand National means such a lot to me and always has done,” he reflects. “People say I’ve got a good record in it, but actually it’s an absolutely abysmal record because I’ve never won it. I’ve had that many goes at it that I’m probably the worst trainer of a Grand National horse in history!”
His entries this year, Secret Reprieve and Prime Venture, are “two smashing horses, two proper National-type horses.”
“Secret Reprieve is a young, up-and-coming horse who’s definitely very progressive but lacks experience. The other boy has run some great races for us in defeat and is one I really do feel could run a big race,” he says.
“Look, they are both in there but whether we will run, I haven’t decided yet.”
Secret Reprieve gave him his first Welsh National win in January.
“It has always been something of a mythical race to me, probably because my family were always talking about it,” he says. “Norther [the 1965 winner, whom Evan’s father Rhys rode in point-to-points] and Limonali [who won in 1959 and 1961] were trained in this part of the world. Haydn Lewis, who used to work for me and who was a great inspiration and help to me, finished second on Billy Budd in 1956. It was always ingrained in my psyche, and it meant an awful lot to win it.”
Like State Of Play and Cappa Bleu, Secret Reprieve is owned by William and Angela Rucker, who have been with Evan since his point-to-pointing days.
“Without the support of people like them, we would never have tipped away in the way that we have,” he says.
A stockman through-and-through, Evan says he “never really set out to be a trainer”, but horses have wound themselves through his family’s history. His parents both rode in point-to-points and under Rules as amateurs, as did his great-uncles.
“Hunting, farming and point-to-pointing were just what we did. Horses have always been part of my life,” he says.
He never moved further than a few miles from Llancarfan, and started point-to-pointing as a teenager on horses his family had bred.
“One thing led to another and I started to have a few more rides; point-to-pointing was a massive part of my life and something I got an awful lot of enjoyment from,” he says.
Evan became national champion and rode just over 200 winners in point-to-points and under Rules. He started training while he was still riding.
“I was approached by a lovely man called Bob Mason, who bought a farm not far from here and had this idea of having his own point-to-pointers trained from there,” he explains. “I went there to train his horses and, as we got more successful and I moved back home to the farm opposite where we are now, it became evident that we had to go professional and take it forwards.
“I was very fortunate that I had a lot of very good young lads who came to work for me – James Tudor [who rode Evan’s first Festival winner, High Chimes, in the 2008 Kim Muir], Christian Williams, Nicky Williams – and they were all far better riders than me. I started to feel a bit old, and thought I’d better concentrate on the training. It wasn’t a plan, it was just the way it all panned out.”
He makes it all sound almost accidental, but he also admits he is very competitive.
“I always have been, but against that I have never been one to set goals,” he says. “We have got where we are by wanting to survive. I think if you set goals with animals you perhaps press too hard; rather than doing the right thing for the horse and letting him set the agenda, you are doing what a human wants for himself. I never do that. But no doubting that the more nice horses you have, the more you want. The problem is that I enjoy what I do a bit too much!”
Evan gets a great deal of pleasure from the fact that his training operation is a proper family business.
“I couldn’t do it without them,” he says. “My wife Catherine is far more business-orientated than me, and she’s got her finger on the pulse in the office with William, our boy, while our girls, Isabel and Eleanor, are in the yard with me. I would say that the place has gone forward since they’ve come back home, because they’ve made me look at the bigger picture. I think it is a far more rounded place now. It takes you a long time to appreciate family members; I’m nearly 50 and it’s now dawning on me that this lot probably know more about the business than I do, and that’s nice.”
Isabel, 24, has scored 28 winners under Rules so far, while Eleanor, 23, has also had some rides.
“It was bad enough teaching them to drive; watching your daughters ride in steeplechases and over hurdles is a quick way to make you go greyer,” he jokes. “But it’s nice they have an interest and want to be part of it, and they are driving me forward.”
What else would he like to achieve? More Festival winners, Gold Cups, obviously the Grand National?
“Those big races are just the icing on the cake – we get an awful lot of pleasure out of training a little horse to win around Ludlow. As a family, there’s a great deal of joy in winning a very poor race, because sometimes you put a lot of effort and heartache into doing that,” says Evan. “The big races are great but I’ve been in this game long enough to realise that, as the trainer Arthur Stephenson said, little fish are sweet and sometimes very sweet.
“There are times when you think about where we’ve come from and the things we’ve had to go through to get there and it does frighten you a bit, but I just think we are starting.”
This feature is also available to read in the Thursday 25 March issue of Horse & Hound magazine
You may also be interested in…
Tickets are on sale for the Goodwood and York Ebor Flat racing festivals as hopes abound that fans will be
Jockey Davy Russell reflects on Ireland’s dominance at this year’s Cheltenham Festival
Now is the time to show transparency if we are to survive, says racehorse trainer Kim Bailey