22 October 2006
Happiness is a small, hard-to-pronounce spot in the western most corner of Wales. Yet-y-Rhug, just five miles south of Fishguard, is where Peter Bowen trains his horses and smiles a lot. It is the smile of a little man who threatens a big revolution.
“I don’t think any horse is a natural ‘dog’, something has made them that way, something hurts,” he said, his pale blue eyes twinkling with the challenge. “I reckon that in any race, half the horses are hurting and a third of them are bleeders. So what we do is to try to find what hurts, to get them healthy and to train them without strain. We believe a healthy horse is a happy horse.”
Lots of trainers sound as good as this. But there is something about Bowen which sets him apart and that’s not just the fact that his 43-box stable has already amassed a table-topping 41 winners and £380,000 prize-money this jumping season. He and his wife, Karen, have done it their own way, so incorporating it into their lifestyle that, at 48, he has never taken a holiday, never flown in a plane and the nearest thing he has to a break is two days at the Dublin Horse Show. “I have never wanted to do anything else but work with horses,” he said. “I have never had any lessons. I set off with ponies when I was a kid. Had 15 years with point-to-pointers and 10 years training.”
Bowen may live out on a limb but he sucks the heart out of any piece of information he can find. At the end of a two-hour interrogation at The Horse of The Year Show last month, one punch-drunk vet gasped: “I ought to be charging you for this.”
Both Peter and Karen started out in the point-to-point world, she as a skilful rider in her native Herefordshire, he as a straightener out of equine eccentrics in the Pembrokeshire valley which has always been his home. Kilpeck, his very first success, was also the winning debut of future Grand National hero Carl Llewellyn, but the horse which made his name was the cranky Brunico, whom he kidded to no fewer than 23 victories.
“When he came to us,” said Bowen, chuckling at the memory, “he absolutely refused to go anywhere. But he did like his stable. So in the end we got him to work by coaxing him away round the village and then galloping him back home. Over time I learnt all sorts of tricks and we had over 100 winners in our last three years pointing. Now we have our own system and while we may be far away, I would never go anywhere else. Why move when you are happy?”
On Wednesday morning there was plenty of evidence of the latter quality. As training stables go this is an extraordinarily stress-free zone. It even allowed me to ride consecutive sorties on stable stars Take A Stand and Ballycassidy, both of them moving with flowing grace of horses happy in their work. “I don’t believe in shouting,” said Bowen in contradiction of the “bollockings” which were the staple fare of yesteryear. “I want to treat people the way I would like to be treated myself. I think anger is a sign of weakness.”
The system he has devised is quite devastating in its directness. Every day the horses walk out of the yard and down to the end of the four-and-a-half furlong woodchip gallop up whose gentle slope they three times come winging back. Twice a week they sprint in pairs for just two furlongs on the gallop. “Horses are creatures of habit,” Bowen said. “Most of all they have to be healthy and that’s why they are also out in the field as much as possible.”
Bowen’s contention that a large percentage of active racehorses are not right in their lungs means an obsessive emphasis on cleanliness. Every box has a rubber matting, the dust-free bedding is cleaned out three times a day and a fan runs down each of the three lines of stabling to ensure that clean air circulates. To monitor the effect, the trainer himself scopes the lungs of each horse six days before it runs. “The vets used to do theses trachea washes but that was nearly £100 a time,” he said. “So I watched what they were doing, bought the kit and practised on a pony. Now I know what they should look like and I notice if anything odd is coming through from the food or bedding.”
Such unique supervision now faces the challenge of development, how to stick to the declared intent of upping the quality without the quantity. Every one of the five trainers below Bowen in the title race has already run considerably more horses this season and have many more to come. The received wisdom is that the big battalions will now take off leaving Peter Bowen as just a golden summer memory.
The leading trainer is untroubled by such pessimism. “We have had winners right through the year,” he said. “Of course we may have had to do with cheap horses from other stables but they have already gone close in the biggest prizes. After all Take A Stand was a good second in the Gold Cup two years ago and don’t forget Ballycassidy was still six lengths clear when he fell at Valentines (six fences from the finish) in the National in April. We may have been in the low end of the market but that horse there (a superbly elegant grey called Special Envoy) was bought in France for £180,000. I don’t,” he said with sunny simplicity, “feel inferior to anyone.”
This afternoon the most travelled horseboxes in the country will have taken Good Time Willie and McKelvey to Wincanton and Irish Wolf to Aintree in pursuit of a success rate which presently runs at almost 30 per cent. Next Saturday Take A Stand goes for the Charlie Hall at Wetherby and Ballycassidy to the big chase at Ascot. After a serious stomach operation two years ago, Bowen does not always drive the box these days. But back home there is absolutely no let-up in the questing uneducated intelligence as he stands at the kitchen table studying a set of mineral analysis charts on both himself and a dozen of his horses sent back from a clinic in that well known Welsh state of Texas.
The charts are fascinating but in the end it’s all about communication, the age old bond between man and horse, the key to which people have searched for centuries. Out at Yet-y-Rhug, Peter Bowen claims that Welsh is his first language. Watching him with his horses you wouldn’t be so sure.