The Fight Academy Wales, set in an industrial site a couple of miles from the M4 just south of Llantrissant in Mid Glamorgan is not a pretty place but it knows how to ask a question. As Christian Williams battled to the end of his exhausting, 60 minute, 15 round session on Wednesday morning one query rose above all the others. Why do it?
It is one of sport’s oldest questions and the answer is a lot more complicated than the “Train Hard Fight Easy” slogan which sits proudly beneath the “Academy’s” bulldog poster on the walls of the punchbag-packed gym. It is one thing to respond to the goading of a professional sadist like former middleweight champion Gary Lockett, quite another to justify the stresses someone like Williams has endured the last few days not to mention last three years.
He hasn’t ridden a winner for more than a fortnight. In both the Paddy Power at Cheltenham and last Saturday’s Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot the dreaded initials “U.R.” were added to a horse he had partnered for champion trainer Paul Nicholls. On Tuesday he had slogged all the way to Lingfield for one hard-pulling but untalented performer and four more rides at Taunton on Thursday, his 27th birthday, would take his losing sequence on the hated “Cold Jockeys” list to 36 and see his one ride for Nicholls bury him at the 4th. And that’s before Christian takes you through what happened at Worcester on 3rd September 2006 and at Warwick on 9th February 2008.
In the former, he will recall in almost unhealthy detail, his cheek was smashed and his right shoulder damaged so badly that he needed 12 cm of nerve taken out of his leg to get his arm back in motion and required two weeks in intensive care and seven months of rehabilitation. In the latter, a big raw novice called Allistathebarrista dived out through the wing of the last fence at Warwick and it was only when Christian found he couldn’t put his foot in the stirrup on Big Bucks in the next race that he realised that the screaming agony in his leg was actually from three fractures of the tibia. Remedial fitness was clearly important but how far do you take it?
On Wednesday it was to extremis. “Come on, ten more seconds” barked Gary Lockett who only 18 months earlier climbed into the ring against Kelly Pavlik in Atlantic City for the undisputed World Title and took such a beating that Enzo Calzaghe threw in the towel after 1 minute 40 seconds of the third round and Lockett “The Rocket” headed straight for retirement. Crouched jockey-style in front of him on Wednesday, Christian Williams was swinging a 16 kg kettle bell in a figure-of-eight around his long and straining legs. As the clock ticked on, the breath came in painful, gulping gasps and the sweat ran down the long broken- nosed face from that wild mane tucked beneath a scarlet woollen cap.
On the call of “Time” , Gary ‘Lockett reverts to the decent intelligent bloke who used his 32 fight, 30 victory boxing career as “business” rather than “love”, and Christian Williams spits out an expletive and takes his long wracked body away past the boxing ring as the pain courses through. For a six foot man who is set to do 10 stone 6 pounds at Leicester this afternoon, he has got himself to a quite astonishing level of fitness. No other member of the weighing room would have come close to completing the series of two and three minute tortures that Gary Lockett has devised to develop his strength, speed and core fitness and one or two of them might well have suffered serious damage in the attempt.
There had been the medicine ball, the squats, the up-the- staircase sprints, the weights, the press-ups and the all out assault on the boxing pads. Say what you like about Christian Williams, and with that hair some have been tempted, but having seen what he can do to the “Fight Academy’s” punch bag, I advise against saying it to his face. To look at him, tall, loose and warrior-defiant you expect him be ready to declare war on his opponents, his current misfortunes, if not his sport as a whole.
But then he talks and you get the impression that the hair is much more dreamy Druid than raving rock star. “You have got to do it, haven’t you?” he says rhetorically. “This is a challenge, I like a challenge. I teamed up with Gary in the summer and I am definitely fitter than I have ever been.** Some people raise the white flag but I don’t. Of course it is “diff-i-cult” (the welshness stressing the syllables) but that’s what I have in front of me. Of course I want to ride wi-nners but you can only do your best and make yourself as fit as you possibly can. I want to ride in big races (for Paul Nicholls he has been second in the 2006 National and fourth in last season’s Gold Cup)but I have to take what I am given. As much as anything I do it to give pride to the family.”
It would not have been an expected answer if we hadn’t seen the Williams clan, or a mere half dozen of them the night before. It had been a long drive back up the M4 but on the way you began to get a picture of how deep the roots stretch down in the principality. It was well dark when we came off for Bridgend and Porthcawl but there were people to meet before we got back to the little modern house Christian and Charlotte, his physiotherapist girl friend, currently rent in Laleston. First his window contracting, stud-owning landlord down the deepest of country lanes and through the smoothest of sliding front gates . Second to his 10 month old god-daughter in a fairly basic housing estate on the hill. And that was only a preparation for the 4 mile trip to where Robert and Angela Williams and at least two of their five sons still live at Ogmore by the Sea.
“That’s where Lee Byrne, the Welsh full back, lives,” says Christian pointing into the gloom, “and Gavin Henson and Charlotte Church are over there. Gavin Henson was at my school. He was in the year above. Rob Howley and Scott Gibbs were there earlier and Nicole Cook, the world cycling champion was in my class. She used to pedal past our house on the way to school chased by her brother every morning. Last month she came down to my Dad’s for a riding lesson. “
Having a riding school is only one of the many strings Robert Williams has had to his bow. “Just call me a farmer,” may be his watchword but along the way he has built houses, run a milk round, trained point to pointers and fanatically followed Bridgend Rugby from which his brothers Gareth and Owain both got capped for Wales, Gareth’s coming, surely uniquely, after he had been called up for The Lions. “You know what,” he says, a smiling straw haired figure a touch thicker than his oldest son. “down on the beach the other day I saw JPR ( JPR Williams, no relation but Bridgend’s most famous rugby son). He was jogging painfully along just out of a walk. ‘Yes, I am struggling a bit,’ he said, ‘but I only got my new hip 6 days ago.’”
There was much happy shaking of the head around the Ogmore kitchen table to which Robert and Angela’s tribe repair whenever the need for mother’s fabled cooking becomes overwhelming. Christian’s younger brother Nick may work for local trainer Evan Williams (another non-relation) but the talk is more rugby than horses, more family and Wales than anything. Some of it has a tragic undertone. A pile of floral tributes on the fence adjoining the house next door marks the spot where a week ago three teenagers crashed their car with fatal consequences. “Two of my brothers were here and had to hold one of the boys until the ambulance came,” said Christian. It puts things into perspective.”
So too does a trip to Evan Williams next morning. When the former point to point champion began to train winners in the dilapidated buildings and muddy beehive that he had created out of his father’s farm some eight seasons back Christian was very much part of the process. A month ago he rode his 100th winner for the stable but these days his commitment to the Nicholls cause means that the Evan Williams call ups are much rarer. “He had to take it,” Evan said of the wide shouldered, almost vulture-like figure leading a filly down the slope to Williams’ ever widening new training plant, “and he is always welcome here but we don’t put him up as much. He a great character, a bit stubborn and complex at times, and the boys take the mickey when he has a pint of water instead of a pint of beer. But he is great to have around the place especially for schooling.”
Within minutes Christian, his brother Nick and Evan’s assistant Jamie Tudor are trotting half a dozen spooky three year olds up over poles laid flat on the soggy ground. These are first steps along the way to hoped for hurdling success and the posse dart and dab in different directions before the message gets through. But very soon there is a lot to like about the way Christian’s filly responds to his long legged prompting. She is called Halling Gal. She won at Goodwood on the second of her only two races on the flat. “We are in no hurry with them,” says Evan Williams, “I just want to build up her confidence but she is very sweet. If she took to it she will win races.” Always pays to remember.
By the time you read this we will know how much it paid to listen to the enthusiasm Evan and Jamie Tudor where giving out about State of Play’s chance in the Hennessy. “I am not a betting man,” said Jamie of the little hero of 2007 whose chunky hind quarters gleamed with slabs of shining muscle, “but when I saw him at 33-1 I just had to tell people to back him.” But it had been in Christian’s car on Wednesday afternoon that the re-arranged riding plans for the stable’s other Hennessy hope Cappa Bleu had received a jolt. It was agent Dave Roberts on the line. Jamie Moore’s troubled shoulder had slipped out of its socket on the run in at Lingfield. Could Christian ring surgeon Geoff Graham to see if he could make time for Jamie.
Calls were duly made. Pleasantries as well as sympathy passed. The Williams shoulder had needed an 11 hour operation – “obviously I was out all the time,” said Christian, “but what do you think the doctors do for the full eleven hours?” The success of the procedure has meant that Graham is now fast becoming the default shoulder option for all pilots with a wing down and Christian’s interest is as much professional as well as personal.
“After I got going as an amateur,” he explains, “I thought I might end up too heavy so I went back to college to get a HNDA in Sports Science so that I had something to fall back on. When the riding is over I would like to do a two year degree course. There is a hell of a lot of interest in all the latest training techniques and nutrition and all that, and as Charlotte is a physio we might buy a place and see if we can’t set up in business.”
As regards nutrition Christian not only practices what he preaches but cooks it too. “He likes to watch those Rick Stein fish programmes,” says Charlotte, “and then try the recipes out at home.” Having taken them out to the delicious not to mention exotic local Braseria El Prado on Tuesday night our Williams cooking was confined to porridge early on Wednesday. But the care with which that was done, the addition of the honey and the linseed, the insistence on water, all spoke of somebody who is taking their nutrition seriously.
It is an example that should be heeded. Much good work is being done by the British Racing School and the new support teams at the Jockeys Association but it is still scarcely credible that many leading jockeys still fly in the face of all known nutritional science. Even more so that not a single racecourse has something as basic which a warm-up exercise bike which are deemed standard necessity in all other forms of athletic activity and five of which stood ready for action close to the punch bags, one recently used, as Christian Williams went about his business at the Fight Academy.
As we left him he was off to the fish market to buy some Hake to cook that evening before a 4-30 start for a trip back down the motorway for a schooling session at Alan King’s and then on to the races and that pile-driving fall at Taunton. Watching him, tall, proud, tousled and thoughtful was to know that the jump jockeys’ changing room remains the most special of places. And gives you the simplest answer to that original “Why do it” question. It’s a country and western line – “Hey, that’s what livings for.”