The Welsh National-winning trainer tells Martha Terry about his instinctive approach and why Potters Corner is drawing comparisons with Red Rum
“My favourite thing is horses, not humans,” says Christian Williams, looking out over three large fields at his yard on the South Wales coast, where 20 or so thoroughbreds are roaming through the frosty grass, ears pricked, glistening necks peeping out from their rugs in the winter sun. “I am a lover of horses, I am; I don’t like seeing them shut in stables. They might stand at the back of their box and not move all day. It’s only humans that thought horses should be in stables and can’t cope with rain or snow. I turn them out in herds of eight. They eat well, are less stiff and their lungs are healthy. We have more accidents in the stable than the field.”
Ex-jockey Christian, racing’s latest phenomenon as trainer of one of the Grand National favourites in only his second season with a licence, is happy to go against the established grain. His horses spend as much time as is feasible living in the field. He doesn’t have a horse walker or even a gallops, and his horses don’t do fast work. His conviction to put up 17-year-old local claimer Jack Tudor for the Welsh National when plenty of experts counselled a more experienced jockey paid off as Potters Corner won in front of an ecstatic partisan crowd. This horseman’s instinct is reaping rewards. Last season, he notched 27 winners from around 30 horses, having started with just three in 2018.
Potters Corner is a major player in Christian’s rapid rise up the training ranks. He won a Midlands National last season, the Welsh this season. Now he has a realistic chance in the big one. Not bad for a horse who has had two years off due to a tendon injury.“I’m showing people what I can do, with Potters Corner advertising me well,” Christian says. “It proves I can train good horses, because if you don’t have a good horse — a ‘Saturday winner’ — people say you can only train bad horses. Now I’ve trained a horse with a touch of class to win two big races, people say, ‘Oh, he can train a good horse as well.’”
Training on the beach
The public has latched on to Potters Corner, too. The 10-year-old’s routine includes cantering along the nearby beach at Ogmore-by-Sea, in the Vale of Glamorgan, echoing the most famous Grand National winner of all, Red Rum, who was trained on the sands of Southport. Christian’s breathtaking facilities on the shores of the ocean, where he grew up riding the ponies from his father’s riding stables, and his compelling story are attracting plenty of interest.
He has a refreshingly simple approach to training, which is dictated by his surroundings. He spent a few years training a handful of horses successfully at Dai Walters’, on a three-furlong carpet gallop. But back home at Ogmore, he has miles of sand tracks and dunes, rivers and the beach itself, and he’s making the most of this unique set-up.
There’s no prearranged structure to the week. As Christian rides out each of the six lots, he decides what each horse should do according to how they are. He trains by instinct, doesn’t copy other trainers nor tracks other horses’ form.
“My main attribute is that I’m a good rider, and I like to be on the horses, watching them, not what anyone else’s horses are doing,” he says. “I play it by ear and just keep things simple. It’s much better to work it out when you can see how they are that day and how they’re moving.”
Most days start off riding through the belly-deep River Ewenny, along sand tracks towards the ocean. There are no roads to cross, and the beach itself is virtually deserted because people have to cross the river mouth. The sand never freezes nor floods, meaning there’s no gallops maintenance — bar the twice-daily tidal smoothing — and the sea breeze ensures there are no flies. It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic spot from which to train thoroughbreds. There’s even a ruined castle overlooking the stables to add to the fairy-tale vibe.
After working, Potters Corner spends 20 minutes splashing around in the river. Christian muses on the fact that his two flagship horses, Limited Reserve — who’s won more than £100,000 — and Potters Corner have both made comebacks from leg injuries.
“I think the seawater helps — though I’m not sure if it’s the salt or the water,” he says. “When you think how other trainers have to cold-hose their horses’ legs — the water coming out of the tap is hardly cold compared to the river, which is freezing.”
A successful jockey
There is another facet of these natural facilities that may contribute to a horse’s rehabilitation.
“We have to train the horses quietly, because it’s deep sand so you can’t go fast,” he says. “Perhaps it makes them a bit slower, staying types, but we don’t get the injuries that come from fast work on a quicker surface. It’s also good for their minds, working slow and steady in a relaxed manner. Never mind the physical side, the horse has to be mentally right.”
A successful jockey for eight years, Christian had “no intention” of switching to training when he retired aged 29. Pundits remember him riding for Paul Nicholls and assume the maestro’s training skills have rubbed off on him. But Christian insists his only focus in those days was race-riding.
“I rode 100-odd winners for Nicholls, but I was only thinking about being the best rider at that time,” he says.
Ultimately, this competitive drive is what ended his days in the weighing room.
“I loved every minute, but I stopped racing because I always want to be the best at whatever I do,” he explains. “I was flying at the beginning, but after a few injuries it became hard to get going again as I wanted to.
“I had no idea I’d end up training, but it’s brilliant. I love being with the horses. Like Potters Corner — I rode him on Christmas Day, fed him, drove him to Chepstow races, put him to bed, gave him his night feed, came down the next morning at 6am to check his legs. When you’re riding, you’ve never met the horse before, turn up at the races, jump on, jump off and go home. It’s completely different.”
Christian’s hands-on approach is partly because he simply loves his horses, “all of them, not just the good ones”, but is also impacted by the tiny margins involved in making his business a success.
“If I’m not earning enough money, I can’t feed my kids and I can’t train next year,” he says. “We’ll see over the next couple of years whether we can sustain it.”
He rents the yard, employs 12 staff, and had to invest personally in horse power — albeit cheap horses — to get started. He tries to limit racedays to three a week to spend time with his wife and two young daughters, because the job is all-consuming. He drives to the races, often taking the trailer as well as the 3.5t lorry so he can run as many as possible. He says, out of his 30 horses, a third have little chance of winning a race. With his growing profile, he hopes owners will start to send more quality horses his way, the “ITV horses” as he calls them.
He’s been shrewd in his purchases so far, but it’s entailed some risk. He bought out Dai Walters’ share in Potters Corner when the horse was still recuperating in a field.
Another promising younger horse, Cap Du Nord, a winner the day after H&H’s visit, didn’t even make the sales as he is pigeon-toed.
“A friend advised me to ignore his conformation as he knew he was sound,” he says. “He’s by a good sire in Voix Du Nord, and it’s a lot cheaper that way.”
But despite the wins, Christian doesn’t see his yard growing numerically.
“It wouldn’t suit me, because my skill is in riding, so I can’t delegate that,” he says. “I don’t want to sound unambitious, but that’s the way I do it. Racing is a numbers game in that you need to keep throwing horses at races to win, but I’d prefer to have high quality with small numbers.”
Looking to the Grand National
And so to the National, just eight weeks away. Potters Corner’s target — in so far as Christian sets targets — was the Welsh National. Anything else is a bonus, although Christian rates the horse’s chance on his first attempt over the Aintree spruce.
“He’s not got masses of scope, but the National is not what it was. The fences are much smaller now; I can’t see them being a problem,” he says.
He will have a prep run in a hurdle race at Auteuil, France, to swerve a big-runner handicap in England and keep the horse sweet.
“I made sure he won the race before the Welsh National, so he went into the race confident,” he says. “This sport is all about confidence. You can tell with the horses. When they win a race, the next week riding out they’re like a different horse and might then win two or three races in a row. Potters Corner used to need kicking and slapping along at the back, now he marches out in front.”
Christian talks about the Welsh National win on home ground as a “fairy tale”. He knew the horse should win, but couldn’t believe it would all come together.
It would be the ultimate happy ending to this season if the gallant bay could add a third national to his CV at Aintree. But with the spotlight brightening on this Arcadian patch of Welsh coast, there’s a sense that the next chapter of Christian Williams’ story is only just beginning.
Ref Horse & Hound; 13 February 2020