The jumps trainer is proving a maestro at reinvigorating jaded racehorses. Julian Muscat finds out how his rugby background influences his training plan
Sandy Thomson still basks in the afterglow of a five-week episode that put his Scottish stable firmly on the map. It is nearly 10 years since he was obliged to upgrade his permit to a full trainer’s license. A pair of high-profile races either side of Christmas made it well worth the wait.
The first of them saw Yorkhill, a shadow of his youthful pomp under Willie Mullins’ wing, turn back time to win the Betfair Exchange Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle. His game, front-running display contrasted sharply with the moody insolence that saw him fail to complete on four of his previous five starts.
Then came another joyous blast from the past. On 2 January, Seeyouatmidnight, once the Thomson stable star, defied his 13 years to win the Unibet Veterans’ Chase Final at Sandown. He galloped home on a wave of nostalgic euphoria.
Although the brace was worth more than £70,000 in earnings, the feeling was one that money couldn’t buy. Thomson made his reputation in 2018 when he revived Harry The Viking, another refugee from a big stable, to win the Scottish Border National. Here was further evidence of the restorative rhythm of his Lambden stables, in Berwickshire.
Thomson’s voice goes up an octave when Yorkhill or Seeyouatmidnight arise in conversation. He is proud of them; proud also of his role in reversing their declines. Yet their deeds generated so much interest that he’s a little wary of being typecast as modern-day Dr Dolittle. Thomson has 50 other horses in training, many of them youngsters he is bringing on slowly. He is upwardly mobile, yet he recognises the debt he owes these old heroes in his ascent of the ladder.
“It’s brilliant to have horses that are well known to the public,” he says. “They generate a lot of interest on social media, but when they come to us, usually from big stables, I am aware that they have lost their way. If you just batter away at them, you won’t reap any reward.”
Yorkhill is a case in point. Now 11, and retired three weeks ago due to a tendon injury, the chestnut son of Presenting was the pin-up boy of jumps racing when he won the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. He then augmented those gains when he won the JLT Novices’ Chase 12 months later.
At that stage the gelding, owned by Graham Wylie, had won nine of his 10 starts under Rules. He had the world at his feet, yet he’d win just once more in 15 starts for Mullins – in an insignificant chase at Galway in 2019. He had become a renegade: a frustrating horse with very little sincerity to match his natural talent.
Mullins cried enough when the horse was pulled up at Leopardstown two years ago, whereupon Wylie was left in a quandary. How do you solve a problem like Yorkhill?
Wylie owns Close House golf course near Newcastle, where renowned golfer Lee Westwood is the professional and Dave Armstrong the club captain. Wylie resolved his dilemma by gifting Yorkhill and Bellshill, another declining talent trained by Mullins, to Westwood and Armstrong. They in turn sent the two horses to Thomson last summer.
Sadly, the Punchestown Gold Cup and Irish Gold Cup winner, Bellshill, suffered a fatal injury on the gallops on Monday 8 March, 2021.
About Yorkhill, Thomson says: “He doesn’t like anybody going into his box but is happy to speak to you outside it.
“He hasn’t bitten me yet, though it’s not for the want of trying. He’s not the sort of horse you’d leave loose in his box while you ran a hand down his legs.
“There are some days when he says, ‘I am not doing that’. When we took him away for a canter, he did two but refused to do a third. We just have to live with these things but you do enjoy the challenge with a horse like him. It’s been brilliant to have had him about the place.”
Following recuperation, Yorkhill is set to join Ben Hastie, the head of ground staff and estates at Cheltenham, with his retirement paddock overlooking the racecourse. He could well enjoy an active retirement with Ben’s partner Racheal Kneller, in the form of arena eventing and fun rides. Whatever happens next, Yorkhill has gone out on a high, which looked very unlikely a few months ago.
When Yorkhill and Bellshill arrived, Thomson had something of a head start. He’d seen the way Mullins trains his horses around his four-furlong, oval gallop. It is not to every horse’s taste.
Thomson, for his part, has all-weather and grass gallops at home, together with the option of trips to the nearby seaside and racecourse gallops at Newcastle. He can vary his routines; both horses would have been sent hunting with the Berwickshire but for the blight of Covid.
More than that, however, Thomson’s philosophy on jaded horses stems from his time playing rugby. He was in the South of Scotland team that memorably beat the touring Australia side in 1984, and was capped by Scotland B. Even though it pre-dated the advent of professionalism in rugby union, it was still a tough school.
“I trained with British Lions and Scotland internationals and there were times when it was pretty brutal,” he recalls. “I know what it’s like to be told what to do by a coach, and you did it – and racehorses go through a similar experience [of hitting the pain barrier].”
When Thomson stopped playing, he coached emerging rugby players at a lower level. He soon realised the training sessions he endured could not be imposed on today’s youth.
“You have to be more circumspect in what you ask them to do,” he says. “At the same time, you needed to get quality work out of them. You had to approach it in different ways.”
The alternative approach has overtures in his training regimen.
“We don’t overwork our horses at home,” he says. “That’s probably why most of ours don’t run great races the first time out, but you have to be careful not to take horses to the limit.”
Thomson believes this can leave a mark on some. He thinks he saw it in Seeyouatmidnight, who disappointed after he ran Bristol De Mai ragged in a two-horse race in 2016.
“It was an amazing performance,” he reflects, “but maybe it took its toll as it was his first race of the season.”
It was a similar story in October, when Elf De Re locked horns with Protektorat in what should have been a humdrum novices’ chase at Carlisle on his seasonal comeback.
“He chased Protektorat hard all the way and he hasn’t fired since,” Thomson says of Elf De Re. “You can’t be absolutely sure about it, but it’s something I am very aware of.”
Thomson’s considerate approach paid off with Yorkhill and Seeyouatmidnight, whose recent Sandown triumph was particularly stirring under Ryan Mania, since both horse and jockey had rebounded from retirement.
Mania hung up his saddle in 2014, 18 months after he won the Grand National with Auroras Encore. Seeyouatmidnight’s exertions in the 2018 Grand National saw him return home with damage to suspensory ligaments that had plagued him throughout his career. There appeared to be no way back – until Thomson’s patient husbandry revived him.
Mania spent five years in retirement as Thomson’s assistant until he returned to the fray. He is married to Annie, Thomson’s stepdaughter-in-law, and his daily presence around the yard, latterly as Thomson’s stable jockey, serves to spur on the staff. Thomson is also indebted to his wife, Quona, who is an integral part of the set-up.
“It’s wonderful to have their experience to hand,” he says. “Quona used to hunt and ride in point-to-points. She gave it up while her family grew up, then she started hunting again.”
Mania, too, has resumed in the saddle. He rode both Yorkhill and Seeyouatmidnight in their recent triumphs, which lent them a distinctly familial slant.
Talking of family, Thomson spent part of last year reflecting on the centenary of his grandfather’s purchase of the farmland around his stables. Moffat was into horses too: he rode in the Grand National and trained at home – as did Thomson’s father David, who was also chairman of Kelso racecourse. All three hunted the Berwickshire hounds over a 30-year period, although Sandy was the first of them to take out a full trainer’s licence eight years ago.
“It has been very hard work to get this far but we have loved every minute of it,” he says.
It would be unwise to rule out further eye-catching victories from the old warriors, whose exploits have helped to attract a herd of younger horses to the stables.
“It’s great to have the youngsters but you become fond of the old characters,” Thomson says. “There’s a lot of effort with them, but they can give you some great days.”
Also published in H&H 4 March 2021
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