For much of the morning they were just phantom figures in the fog but what takes place at Alan King’s Barbury Castle stables every Monday and Thursday is one of the most important and enjoyable realities of the jump racing game. “Schooling” is the training regime’s most crucial phase and how Alan operates links back to the very heartland of the sport.
For whatever happens to the principal King runners, Tarantino and Medermit, in The Paddy Power and The Greatwood this weekend, any Cheltenham racegoer who watches the runners down the backstraight is looking at where 50 years ago Alan King’s late mentor David Nicholson learnt his trade. Others of us also took our early lessons in what was then Frenchy Nicholson’s schooling paddock out beyond the water jump, and the last time I rode there (circa 1968) there was an angel-faced apprentice scurrying around. His name was Pat Eddery. Wonder what happened to him.
There was never any mystery about what David Nicholson was going to do after his riding days, and while it took him some time to fully adapt to the training profession, he was immediately an achieving perfectionist when it came to teaching a racehorse to jump. This week it was a lot more than loyalty that made his two record breaking protégées Peter Scudamore and Richard Dunwoody both attest that “The Duke” was the best schooling operation they everdealt with, and as Alan King and his stable jockey Robert Thornton spun through the morning the Nicholson memories loomed large in the fog.
“The Duke always said that you had to be organized,” said Alan early on Monday as he handed out lists to Nigel Toal and his other assistants detailing the riding arrangements for the seven batches of four horses who would be coming up the six rows of three obstacles set across the railed-in schooling paddock on the shoulder of the hill next to the sand ring where King’s first lot were circling.
True to his word the trainer barked out orders to get his squadron into line. Then, after they had finished a full five minute warm up at the trot, he slowed them to a walk, and greeted every rider by Christian name and accepted the response as a statement of unified intent. “We won’t have as many jumping second lot,” says Alan, “but last Thursday morning we actually schooled 64 horses. It is not just important for them to learn jumping, it also gives them another form of exercise and we keep doing it through the season. We say that the most important school is the first one after they have run. But it’s essential that everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing. ”
It’s all come a long way from the bad old days when Scudamore remembers going to Epsom to school a horse which had never jumped before in its life and then repairing to Fontwell to ride the wretched beast in the afternoon. In those days the Newmarket Links schooling ground was also notorious for wide open spaces where horses made better attempts at the world land speed record than they ever did at crossing hurdles. Barbury Castle schooling grounds are a happily controlled contrast with all the horses first moving across the hill to hack a gentle five circuits of the furlong and a half all-weather oval. By the time “Choc” Thornton and Christian Williams turn in to come up the first line of fences, the mood is not of drama but of expectant purpose.
To stand out there and watch promising horse go through their paces is the moment when jump racing best sells its dream. It can offer a deeper version of the thrill when a two year old first breezes and the rider comes back eyes ablaze saying “this one can motor.” It is 17 years since Peter Scudamore gave up and a full 23 since John Francome had a fall at Chepstow and told the world it was over. But for both of them schooling was the thing. “I just love it,” said Francome on Thursday , “I never had a bad memory schooling. I even rode a couple at Clive Cox’s this morning.” Scudamore is usually driving the car these days but the thrill of the morning still burns in the memory. “To a steeplechasing man,” he says, “there is absolutely nothing like the time when a decent hurdler schools first time over fence and really operates. The hair bristles at the back of your neck and you think, ‘this might be the real thing’.”
Whether Thornton’s first conveyance, the five year old Bormo, can quite deliver such ecstasy is probably being a touch optimistic, his 8 runs since coming over from France being most notable for managing to be placed 6 times without ever actually winning. Nonetheless Bormo goes in and over the obstacles with plenty of zest with Thornton poised calmly above the mane. He and his group trot back down and repeat the process three times effectively enough but it is when “Choc” switches to his next mount that it is impossible not to begin to dream.
“This is Bensalem, he was pretty decent over hurdles,” says Alan King relishing the understatement about the Irish bred six year old who has won 4 of his 5 races and was last seen coming home 8 lengths clear at Cheltenham in April. Bensalem will start at a short price for his chasing debut at Plumpton on Monday but anyone watching him with us on Monday might still think it a case of buying money. For this horse fits exactly into Scudamore’s category of the talented hurdler who could be “anything” when switched to fences. Bensalem has a good size and attitude but what was noticeable about Thornton’s riding was how he allowed his partner to take his time rather than boldly thrusting him forward.
“The ‘Duke’ always said to let the fences come to you not rush out to meet them,” he remembers about his formative years as champion in both the amateur and conditional ranks with Nicholson at Jackdaws Castle. “This horse doesn’t give you a great feel when he goes up the first time. He gave out a sort of groan when he landed over the second as if to say ‘hang on I have only just got out of bed’ but once he warmed up he was terrific. That last time he gave a real feel. I just love that and actually get a bit nervous before schooling a horse like him just before he runs. You know what he can do and are a touch apprehensive that you might mess it up.”
The long blonde locks flopping out from the back of the helmet can suggest a playboy side to Thornton, something which will not be entirely denied by the presentation at Cheltenham of a charity cheque from him and his fellow jockeys in recollection of (or apology for?) some wild adventures on the Thornton stag weekend in Germany this summer. But he is a deep professional at heart and the three hundred plus winners that he and King have had together allow him to be fascinatingly self critical when things have gone wrong.
“I was absolutely gutted with the ride I gave Baksbenscher on Saturday,” he says of the highly regarded hurdler who tried something of a one horse demolition job on the Wincanton fences before finishing a disappointing 8 length second in a field of three. “He just didn’t jump at all and I got no tune out of him. He had been very good at home and perhaps I should have made it more difficult for him, made him learn a bit more. Now we will have to go back to square one.”
For a would-be chaser like Baksbensher that means beginning again over the smallest of the three sets of fences and progressing up until confidence is fully restored. For a flat racer turned hurdler such as 104 rated The Betchworth Kid who is also planned to debut at Plumpton, it starts back in the trotting ring. “We start them off over the poles like the Duke did,” explains Alan King, “we don’t do quite as much as that as he did, ours would all be jumping a little hurdle in the school within 20 minutes. But when they come out here they go up over the plastic hurdles on the all weather strip until they have really got the hang of things. And when they move to the grass we continue until we are pretty sure about them. I guess they will all have jumped at least a hundred hurdles by the time they run. This horse,” he adds indicating The Betchworth Kid skimming easily over the full size hurdles alongside a stable mate, “has really taken to it. Look how quick and careful he is.”
Such dreams are the stuff that schooling mornings are made of, but any discussion always brings out its horror stories. On Wednesday night at the launch of his latest engaging tome “Method in My Madness”, Richard Dunwoody remembered a supposedly sensible chaser called Professor Plum taking off with him at Tim Forster’s gallops and running straight into a five barred gate. On Monday Alan King would only wryly recollect a talented flat racer called Paktolus whom Thornton told him would never learn to jump. “I said to ‘Choc’ that of course he would jump, they all jump in the end. But he couldn’t. We tried everyone on him but he just had no aptitude for it. But he still won on the flat all right.”
Of course a schooling morning would not be a schooling morning unless there was at least one touch of unplanned excitement to test a trainer’s patience. When I rode for Colin Davies his reaction in extremis was to throw his cap on the ground and jump on it. Alan King doesn’t go that far but he is, shall we say, capable of showing his displeasure. His leading band of riders led by Thornton and Williams also include the very capable Gerald Tomelty and Wayne Hutchinson as well as the ultra experienced Jimmy McCarthy. To this he adds a “youth squad” of amateurs and conditionals and it is one of them who crumples on landing over the first fence and sits on the grass with the trainer’s instant curse echoing across the skyline.
But in good stables as the advert says “they don’t make a drama out of a crisis.” The King schooling ground is sensibly railed in. The horse could not go anywhere, the luckless youth was soon re-united and when his second spin was also not error free, “Choc” Thornton was loaded into the saddle and gave a master class in on-saddle reassurance. For a purist he does not ride deep enough for perfection but he is very confident in his method and that confidence spreads down the reins.
“I think the great thing is to turn in towards the fences correctly,” he explains. “You want to be very calm and under control. In some places where it is not organized, the horses’ eyes are out on stalks and there’s pretty good chaos going to the first and you don’t get going properly until you have jumped the last. I like to take hold of them, and let the fences come and allow the horses to sort themselves out.”
In lesser hands this can lead to a lack of impetus but with Thornton in the irons the errant chaser comes up the fences almost with wings on its heels. The McCoy method is to punch the last three strides into take off, Ruby Walsh’s system is to wrap his body close to his partner, but Thornton with a fall rate of only 4.1 per thousand (McCoy is 4.0 and Walsh 4.8), Choc’s technique is clearly as secure as it is stylish.
It’s out on the track where the final judgements are passed. But it’s at the schooling ground where the plans and the pleasure can be clearest.