H&H interview: Racehorse trainer Harry Whittington on his first Cheltenham Festival win *H&H Plus*

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  • The trainer bagged his first Cheltenham winner before the lockdown. Catherine Austen discovers his unique prep and how he’s reliving the memories

    It’s 10 days after the Cheltenham Festival. Lockdown has been in place for 24 hours when H&H catches up with Harry Whittington. The “pause” button has been pressed, and all action is frozen.

    But the trainer’s head is still in the clouds and the cheers are ringing in his ears. He took three horses to Cheltenham, and all three made it into the winner’s enclosure. The first, Rouge Vif, finished third in the Arkle on Tuesday. Then, on Thursday, Saint Calvados was second – by a neck – in the Ryanair, and just over an hour later Simply The Betts won the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, giving Harry and his team that so-significant first Festival victory.

    “It was amazing; we were incredibly lucky the horses showed what we can do,” says Harry. “It was a big sigh of relief the first one had got into the frame and finished third. After that, we thought we could try to enjoy the rest of the week. The team WhatsApp group was buzzing; we were all bouncing off each other like, ‘Right, come on, two to go!’ It just takes a bit of the pressure off.”

    The 39-year-old’s approach to training racehorses is both carefully detailed and boldly imaginative, as illustrated by his tactics on that Thursday at Prestbury Park.

    He took both Saint Calvados and Simply The Betts, a pair of seven-year-olds owned by Kate and Andrew Brooks, to Laura Collett’s yard for the event rider to give them a pop in the school on the way to the racecourse.

    He explains: “When Simply The Betts ran on Boxing Day, his jumping was just nowhere near up to scratch – it was appalling, to be honest. He was getting lower and lower at the fences and jumping left. He just didn’t know what to do when he was short to a fence; he was losing a length and a half every time and knocking the stuffing out of himself.

    “So I sent him up to Laura’s, and she made a big difference to his jumping. He went up every week and he got more confident.

    “The second time he went there, he was more forward-going. The third time, he was swinging on the bridle like, ‘I really want to do this!’ The fourth time he went was on the way to Cheltenham at the end of January – I said to my assistant trainer, ‘Do you think it’s a mad idea to take him to Laura’s on the morning of the race and give him a pop?’ Because he was loving it – he couldn’t get enough of it. He just wants to go and attack the jumps. He said, ‘I think it’s a great idea.’ We spoke to the owner, and he was on board with it.”

    Simply The Betts won a £25,000 handicap chase that day in Gloucestershire.

    “After two fences, I turned to my wife and said, ‘He’s going to run a monster here,’” remembers Harry. “The difference, the sure-footedness – he was just pricking his ears and looking for the next fence. If he was on the wrong stride he was shortening himself into it; he was in and out and gone.”

    Harry also thought Saint Calvados would have won on New Year’s Day had his jumping not let him down.

    “The first time we took him to Laura’s, he wouldn’t even go into the school – I had to lead him in there, and he was snorting. But he picked it up very quickly, and Laura said, ‘I’ve never had a horse as intelligent as this, that picks it up so quickly.’ He’s a very clever horse.”

    It required planning – Harry didn’t want either horse to be standing in the box, so they were taken separately and turned up at Laura’s Salperton yard half an hour apart with two members of each staff with each horse. From there they were driven to Cheltenham.

    He admits: “I actually had a panic about five days before, because I thought, ‘Oh God, one of them’s going to get injured, or they’re both going to get injured – we can’t do it!’

    “I said to my assistant trainer, ‘We need to cancel Laura. We can’t do it; there’s no way we can do it. It’s madness, doing it at the Cheltenham Festival.’”

    Luckily his assistant, Joe Quintin, calmed him down and urged him to the stick to the plan, saying it would be the edge that made the difference between winning and losing.

    After Simply The Betts had battled past Happy Diva and stormed across the line under Gavin Sheehan, Harry – whose black-framed, round glasses lend a touch of the Harry Potters to his appearance, if that remarkable teenager wore a trilby and tweed covert coat – gave a series of rapid, voluble post-race interviews.

    It means so much to prove oneself at National Hunt racing’s Olympics, and joy and relief were evident.

    The team celebrated “hard” in the Queen’s Arms in East Garston that night – “The landlord and the lads made me do my own commentary on the race on a microphone over the pub’s speakers – I won’t repeat it!” And on Friday night, Harry and Joe ended up in the local nightclub in Wantage until 3am.

    “Why not? It was an amazing week. You’ve got to make sure you enjoy it as much as possible,” says Harry.

    National Hunt pedigree

    He has been training at Hill Barn since 2012, but his National Hunt pedigree stretches back much further. Harry’s grandfather, Colin Nash, bred, owned and trained point-to-pointers and hunter chasers – he gave Richard Dunwoody his first winner – and hunted the Old Berks for 25 years.

    “He’d hunt hounds on his four-year-old pointers,” says Harry, whose uncle Chris Nash also trained, while his mother was a joint-master of the Old Berks for 15 years, and Harry and his brother and sister all grew up in the hunting field.

    “The other two were very academic, but I wasn’t – I just wanted to be a jockey,” he says.

    Polo was another love, and took him to Australia, where he ended up working on cattle stations and breaking-in horses. When he came back, Harry went to work for sales consignor Malcolm Bastard. He continues: “I must have broken in 200 or 300 horses at Malcolm’s in the space of three years. It was fantastic – he took the skills to another level. We had about 180 horses by the time I left. He’d let me get on with my 40 horses; he’d have a look round with me every other night. You had to be sharp and on the ball. It was a great grounding.”

    In 2007 he set up on his own, starting with four horses sent to him by Tom Dascombe. He rang up Nicky Henderson, who had been his next-door neighbour when Harry was growing up, and Nicky filled up his yard. He says: “We became a satellite yard for two years. There was no better way to learn how to do the job and see how he was placing his horses.”

    Harry caught the training bug, and in 2012 decided to take out his own licence.

    “I went from having a fledgling pre-training business of 20 to 25 horses, to having five horses and having to do them on my own,” he explains. “I did everything myself and lost two stone that winter.”

    It was tough, and Harry was struggling to pay his bills but, in the nick of time, a horse called Dubai Kiss saved the day.

    Harry had bought him for £2,800 and had managed to sell some shares in him for £100 each, but still owned half of the Dubai Destination gelding himself. He won a mile-and-a-half Newbury bumper on 2 March 2013 at 50-1 – and Harry had managed to get £60 on him at 100-1.

    “I was in debt, and I was going to have to go crawling back to Nicky if it didn’t work out, but that day was the turning point,” he says.

    A big break

    The next big break was when Arzal, whom Harry bought in France, won the Grade One Merseyrail Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree in April 2016.

    “We’ve managed to pick the right horses. The good horses are the ones that take you to the next level, and we’ve been lucky to have those horses at every stage,” he says.

    Sadly they lost Arzal to an infection shortly after that Aintree win, but then Harry met Andrew Brooks through Arzal’s owner Tony Holt. Andrew and his wife Kate have “eight or nine” horses with Harry, while Tony has “six or seven”. Last season Harry and his wife Alice, who is an integral part of the operation, had around 45 horses in training, and scored 30 winners – their best tally to date.

    “Alice came on board about two years ago and gave me a bit of a kicking because we weren’t running the business properly – she has a business degree,” says Harry. “She’s turned that side of things on its head – she does all our social media and marketing, too. I wouldn’t know how to use Facebook, let alone Instagram – I’m better on the back of a horse.”

    He’s keen to give great credit to all the members of the team – Joe, whom he raves about, travelling head lad Stuart Baker, acting head girl Fredrika Sommarlund, conditional jockey Jamie Neild and so on.

    He says: “We have a bunch of staff who’ve been here a long time; they’re part of the furniture and they’re all fantastic. If I go away for a week I never worry; it just operates without me. Trust is key.”

    No one has any idea of when racing might resume and in what form, but at least Harry and his team have those Cheltenham memories to carry with them. He concludes: “I just wish the best for everyone – it’s going to be tough for all of us. We’re lucky to have some great memories and some replays to watch that will keep us positive.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 April 2020