My first Cheltenham winner

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Paul Webber shares with Leo Powell his memories of a special day, his first Cheltenham Festival winner

THIRTEEN has never been considered unlucky in the Webber family.

I was born on 13th August, my father’s 33rd birthday, not that he was conscious of my arrival until the following day, as he had his two naughty brothers staying to help or hinder him finish the harvest. They celebrated ‘harvest home’ in proper fashion, which was far more important than the arrival of a third child.

Saddling our horses with a 13 number-cloth has never brought on superstitious worries for the safety of our horse and rider. We were very excited with our runners and their preparation had gone well for the Cheltenham Festival, so the fact they were competing on Friday 13th was not a concern; plenty of other disasters might await, but the date would not be blamed.

I’ve attended 25 Cheltenham Festivals as a trainer, but many years we had no bullets to fire. In other years our best shots landed in that irritating ‘near-miss’ outer circle surrounding the golden bullseye. Carlito Brigante just missed out on the Imperial Cup/County Hurdle double, with its very valuable bonus prize, when finishing second to Barna Boy.

On the walk back in to that second spot, our brilliant jockey Jamie Osborne, who is also very good at counting money, was able to tell me exactly how big a percentage we had both missed out on! De Soto and Pressgang both finished second in the bumper, and I made the juvenile error of thinking, just for a few seconds, that the latter had won.

Big lesson learned that day: even if you think you’ve won the photograph, say nothing until hopefully a ‘better judge’ than you confirms the result.

Time For Rupert led and battled so valiantly against Big Buck’s, but had no answer to that horse’s amazing finishing kick. I start growling like Mutley in Wacky Races when I think that, if only Big Bucks had won the Hennessy, he would not have been in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle that day!

Somehow I’m the designated driver for this year’s pilgrimage to Prestbury Park’s amphitheatre beneath Mount Cleeve. Despite the excitement of two “proper, not social” runners, there is still the fear and danger of leaving empty-handed through the North Gate yet again. In olden times there stood an accordion player just inside the gates who, as soon as he saw my parents approach, would always strike into ‘They said we were too young’.

I don’t know the tune well, but a few of those notes would haunt when leaving Cheltenham on every losing day. It is usually a quiet drive home, puzzling over what we can do better to get that Festival winner. Usually, by the time we are through Stow-on-the-Wold we’ve cheered up a bit and have recognised one horse back at home with a legitimate chance for the following March.

Trainers have a usual routine when we get to the races, and it is even the same at ‘Paradise Park’ on Gold Cup day. We meet up with House Island’s owners, The Economic Security Partnership, a truly remarkable ‘Band of National Hunt Brothers’.

These friends have had a horse with us for 23 years, with decent winners and memorable times along that bumpy and winding road. Today their path is smooth asphalt and they are living and loving the dream of owning a serious horse.

House Island endures the big disadvantage of having to make most of his own running in the Albert Bartlett and is still in front in to the straight, before speedier opponents leave him in eighth place, beaten less than 20 lengths behind Monkfish.

The standard trainer’s rallying speech then follows; “great run; thrilled with the horse; so much to look forward to; he’s crying out for fences; and what a chasing prospect he is, very like Time For Rupert, but probably better”.

Excited talk of the future around a table with bottles of Pinot Noir, a mere give away at £50 (!) from Jockey Club catering. Just before we leave the party, my wife Ku makes some gesture that resembles her finest cross-court backhand, which sends the only full glass of white wine on the table all over the trainer’s best tweed suit.

Fortunately, this suit only gets taken out of the cupboard for Cheltenham and is not as valued as those military tweeds only seen at National Hunt meetings that show the scars of having resisted arrows and assegais in many brave campaigns. My wife’s backhand results in an alcoholic aroma surrounding me for the rest of the day – and I’m the designated driver!

Ku and I leave that marquee and walk almost straight into Carol Pipe, and then Martin who seems to be following at a respectful distance. We chatter away for a little while and say just how much we would love our runner Indefatigable to win his race, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Hurdle, the last race of the Festival. As we walked on, we felt that this chance meeting seemed very opportune, and decide it must be a great omen.

The appearance of Indefatigable into our stable is a clear and shining example of friendship bringing good fortune. She was bred and owned by a certain John O’Connor of Ballykelly Stud in Ireland. John is big man, and I presume his heart and Indefatigable’s are about the same size.

My first introduction to John came at a Tattersalls sale about 30 years ago. I sensed a presence, for an instant, before I felt the tap on my shoulder. John introduced himself and stated clearly that we were often bidding on the same horses, and that my actions were costing him money.

He politely suggested that it would be more economic if we became friends. I soon learned that John had been a seriously good rugby player, and would have gone to the very top if he had not been instructed to ‘quieten’ opposition players along the way. This did not help his career as he became the brunt of fierce retaliations.

John describes himself as a commercial diplomat; to me he is a man of international mystery. He has great affection for small African countries and loves their people, but these are not necessarily destinations you will find in holiday brochures.

John has had a horse or two here with me, but in mid-January 2018 he rang to tell me that he thought he had a special filly who had just finished third in a mares’ bumper at Punchestown. He adored this filly and wanted to retain a minority interest in her, if I could find him a partner.

This entire tale is about the stars aligning in perfect celestial order. The most crucial part of this alignment was Philip Rocher entering our orbit. Philip works his heart out in London, but a few years ago he also bought a lovely place four miles away from us. His daughter Kate runs a top-class eventing yard and soon started using our gallops. Philip enjoyed coming to watch her.

After a while Philip took a small share in a horse called Tindaro, who crucially did win and gave everybody plenty of fun, without being a star. The next step was buying an unbroken three-year-old who showed promise in two bumpers but did not improve over hurdles, and so joined Kate’s eventing string.

However, sometime before Christmas 2018, Philip made a remark that most people would not notice, but a trainer with bat-like ears would never miss: “I would sometime like to race a filly.” There can have only been a maximum of five weeks between Philip’s remark and John’s telephone call. There was six inches of snow and ice on the road as I went to broker this idea to Philip, Lesley and Kate.

As in every deal, trust is the key. I trusted John and Philip and his family trusted me. So when Kate and her veterinary surgeon approved Indefatigable, our new constellation was formed.

Thank the gods that the deal was done there and then because Relegate, the filly that had won Indefatigable’s debut race, landed a Grade 2 and then the Grade 1 Cheltenham Bumper within the next six weeks.

If this deal had not been done then, I imagine Indefatigable would have been in Willie Mullins’s yard pretty sharpish!

From this moment onwards Indefatigable’s stable name became “Mary”, after John’s inspirational wife. Mary herself runs a 60-bed care home; a tough task even in quieter times, but right now she is battling at the very front of the line against Covid-19.

How many owners have a runner at Cheltenham, but then at the last minute are unable to attend? This is no normal year though as Covid-19 is stamping its invisible presence on every life in every country. With infection numbers rising daily, and increasing worry and doom circulating around Europe, there were serious doubts whether Cheltenham could, should or would happen at all.

Very helpful

How very helpful to the meeting going ahead was the little-known fact that our health minister, Matt Hancock, had shown fine skills when riding the winner of a charity race at Newmarket?

A member of Philip’s family who is living with them is scheduled imminently to undergo a critical bone marrow operation. The whole Rocher family debate whether to dare risk anybody attending what could be a prime location for the spread of the virus. Philip puts family before sport and calls me during the morning to say that they feel they must stay at home.

Ku and I agree that this is so sensible but a massive shame, and yet could it be another weird twist of fate in the right direction for a change? There is Rocher family representation, however, in the person of Philip’s nephew Robert, who just happens to be on a ‘stag do’ at Cheltenham on the day his uncle has his first ever Festival runner.

Indefatigable marches into the paddock with her typically determined stride, ears flicking straight back if any horse gets within her perceived zone. Her fierce attitude always gives me confidence before her races, as you know she will battle through any inconvenience. To my mind her odds of 33/1 are an insult to both her and me.

Just two days before, Dame De Compagnie, who had beaten “Mary” at Cheltenham in December when in receipt of 6lbs, had won the Coral Cup. Form does not get more solid than that.

We seem to collect a very supportive entourage in the paddock, including our local MP Victoria Prentis and her team, House Island’s owners, Rupert and Vanessa Fairfax who provide our horses with fabulous saddlery at home, and anybody else who we can press gang to join us.

The flying of our aeroplane is in the hands of pilot Rex Dingle, and this is his very first sortie for us. He and “Mary’ met three days previously when they schooled over eight hurdles in perfect harmony at home. Our plan was for Rex to jump off middle to outer, and to get a position with a bit of daylight in the forward half of the pack.

We felt she hit the front too soon at Cheltenham in December and, with such a long run to the last, Rex must wait for as long as he dares and then wait two seconds more! As taught by Jack Ramsden, “don’t worry if you don’t quite get there, but do not get beat because you hit the front too soon.” It is always better to start with Plan A, then resort to B and C if you have too.

Plan A looked to be going really well until there was a false start! Trouble then really started. Instead of listening to Rex’s urgings to line up, “Mary” was totally absorbed in protecting her airspace by snarling and trying to bite her opponents. At the standing start, she is flat-footed, not concentrating and slow into her stride, jumping the first hurdle in plum last.

Flight-plans A to T have just been blown out of the cockpit, but our ace pilot Rex is ice cool, sits quietly, and let things unfold in front of him as the pace is plenty quick. Still last going up the hill with less than a mile to go, they then pass a horse and start to thread their way through the field, as they gallop downhill.

Their bravest moment was at the second last, where neither her pilot nor “Mary” could possibly have seen the flight, but she jumps like a gazelle between two horses. Still 10 lengths off the leaders as she turns into the uphill straight, “Mary” is literally flying, with her Merlin engine in perfect tune.

She’s very quick over the last, dodges a faller, and set her sights on the enemy, Pileon, and that crucial piece of red and white woodwork that means the world, and defines everything we do.

They cross the line together and nobody knows for sure, and we don’t dare to hope. The freeze-frame then gave an inkling of hope, which I immediately banish and refuse to accept.

We know now that Indefatigable got up to win by a short head and, as hoped, we got to meet Martin Pipe again. The closest finish in the last race of the Festival that might not have taken place. We left through the North Gate but there was no accordion player, and now my parents’ tune has left my mind.

I did drive home, sober as the judge who called the result of our race, but intoxicated by the bubbles in the champagne and the wafts of wine emanating from my tweed. It was a much noisier drive home this year.

Racing ceased four days later.

All of us who were so lucky to attend or watch Cheltenham in March owe huge gratitude to the hundreds who managed to make the meeting happen, and I hope that you can understand that I am more grateful than most. My father trained two Festival winners, the last of which was Elfast in 1994, the year before he died.

I feel he may have played a part in aligning the various ‘stars’ in this story into the correct order, which enabled this fairy tale to become reality. To be a dual Royal Ascot and finally a Cheltenham Festival winning trainer feels good, and I send huge gratitude to everybody who made it happen.

I assume lock down is excused in heaven, so I’m now very worried that the celestial pub, The Open Arms, may soon run out of Dad’s favoured brandy and ginger ale.

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