As his star hurdler Melodic Rendezvous stretched up the steep bank away from the lake, Jeremy Scott’s speedometer touched 35 mph. If that’s correct the bookies might as well pay our on their Cheltenham bets now.
Actually we think the speedo is a bit faulty but whatever the pace this is exactly the sort of moment for which the laid back West Country farmer sold his 150 head of dairy cattle five years ago to concentrate on the thrills and disasters of the racing game. The air was clear and sharp 1,000 foot up on a frozen Exmoor, the winter sun glinting on the huge expanse of the man-made Lake Wimbleball below. The two horses were rocketing up the all- weather gallop beside the car with the good one carrying the dizzy hopes of Festival glory. “With the cows,” muttered 51 year old Jeremy in that understated way of his, “There were not many moments to make you ‘whoop.’”
He hated the cows but they had been an economic necessity on the 370 acre farm he took over from his father in the south east of the national park some ten miles up the Exe Valley from Tiverton. What he enjoyed were the point to pointers his wife Camilla and he trained and on whom he even had one or two rides in the early days “just to understand what jockeys were talking about.” They trained around the farm which still harbours 350 sheep and they got quite good at it. In May 2001 he won a hunter chase at Stratford with a horse called County Derry trained under his rather than Camilla’s name. One or two followed over the next six years, then in 2007 he took out a professional trainer’s licence. His first winner was a novice hurdle in May with a pointer called Gone To Lunch who promptly also won his next two. A year later he called Camilla with a simple message: “I have sold the cows.”
She wasn’t sure how it was going to work out but they got on with things in the way they always had whilst trying to develop their facilities to cope with extra horses beyond the pointers. At the top of the farm lane they had already built a 300 metre circumference schooling ring around which they could canter and jump their team. Now they linked it to a three and a half furlong strip up the bank to give themselves a regular work bench. Gone To Lunch won eight races, was twice second in the Scottish National and last season had a tearful comeback victory after nearly dying with pleuropneumonia after his last trip over the border. During that term the Scott stable posted 24 victories with just 34 individual horses. Laid back or not, they looked as if they were making things happen.
In fact they already had. At the end of March, at the first time of asking, Melodic Rendezvous had skated up at Chepstow before going on to run second in the Champion Bumper at Punchestown. It was a start of infinite promise which this season’s graduation to hurdling has continued with his impressive and contrasting style victories at Cheltenham and Sandown giving Festival credentials to die for. Yet Melodic Rendezvous is now seven. He came to Higher Holworthy as a three year old. And he was useless.
“He looked all right in the box,” says Neil Harris who has been a point to point rider for Jeremy and Camilla for some twenty years, “but when I got in the saddle he didn’t seem to have any neck on him and he could hardly walk or trot. Mind you he is still pretty hopeless at those paces.” Melodic Rendezvous is by the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes winner Where Or When and his breeder Wendy Ward had originally hoped he might find a Newmarket future close to their farm in Cambridgeshire. “But he was just a great woolly bear who wanted to pull up the posts in his paddock,” she says. “His back end was higher than his front and his knees got him rejected at the yearling sales. We put him away and then eventually sent him to Jeremy to see if he could make something of him.”
Although the Scott’s had also had Melodic Rendezvous’s half-sister Lyrical Shot, the original connections were family ones with fathers being best friends. Yet the decision to go to Exmoor was to prove a crucially correct one because it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that in many less patient hands Melodic Rendezvous’ career would have been over before it had begun. But Exmoor is not a place synonymous with rush. Early morning in Exford had seen a tractor slowly lifting a giant bale next to the bridge while an eager beaver in his plus fours exercised his black Labrador in preparation for that morning’s shooting party. Up on the moor there was an achingly beautiful rose-tinted dawn and the sense that time stood still. With Melodic Rendezvous it had to.
“Of course he was very weak and awkward,” says Neil whose early ambition to enter Hunt Service was rejected for “being too small” and who at 45 has clocked up 245 winners under rules and “between the flags”(pointing) as well as working with local trainers Victor Dartnall and Nick Williams and a stage as travelling head lad at Lambourn for Noel Chance when the stable star was the Gold Cup winner Looks Like Trouble. “But for all his backwardness Melodic Rendezvous had a nice attitude and gradually began to get the hang of it. Yet at Christmas last season we still planned to start him off in point to points to find a suitable level. Then he suddenly started to thrive and one morning this time last year I came up the gallop alongside a horse who is a really good worker and realised I was cruising over it. I said to Jeremy we had better revise our plans.”
What follows is something of an intrusion into private grief as far as Wendy Ward and her husband Nick are concerned. “Needs must,” she says with the lack of self-pity essential in someone who is locked into organizing her local point to point in Eskimo weather, “We had decided we needed to sell and the funny thing is that Jeremy didn’t find a buyer until three weeks before the horse first ran. I am not saying what we got except that it is much, much less than he would be worth now.” That is a statement which is agreed, probably to a thirty or even forty times multiple, by Paul Govier who heads up a redoubtable West Country quintet with the much more Westminster title of the Cash For Honours Syndicate, named for no better reason than that their first horse was called Lord Shark.
“We did have a definite offer of £200k after Punchestown,” says Paul, “and there have been all sorts of rumours this season. But we are all racing fans. We realise how lucky we are and really believe there is more to come. It’s been amazing for us and this season he has won the best races in the best style. What with the weather and that, we are not sure where he goes next. Before Cheltenham he might even go to Leopardstown and if he was to win there over two and a quarter we might have to think of the Neptune rather than the Supreme Novices. And of course things might change and he could miss the Festival and go to Aintree, but all in all there is nothing like Cheltenham.”
The trainer smiles wryly at the warmth of the owner’s enthusiasm but damps his own by recognizing the query that Melodic Rendezvous’ two latest exploits have been on going that was officially “heavy” and conditions could be very different by the time we all get to Cheltenham in March. “Of course you can never be sure,” he says, “but it was good going at Chepstow and we actually delayed running him for a while because we thought the heavy ground would not suit him.”
What is clear is the amount of collective thought that has gone into the horse’s preparation led by Camilla whom he first met in the local pony club and then tempted back from job in a London insurance office to her present role where he says “she does all the work.” She certainly does not spare herself getting up to do the first of four feeds at 6 am; the others being at lunch, tea time and “whenever Jeremy wakes up from watching TV.” It is Camilla who is up watching first lot with Neil Harris and jockeys Nick Scholfield and Ian Popham in the saddle while Jeremy does the rounds with the sheep. It is she who pulls out the padded fences for the next day’s runners to school over and who later tours the boxes with all the affectionate rationality which separates the sensitive trainer from the merely sentimental one.
But the latest of those boxes; big, basic, 15 x 15 metre breeze block pens with wooden sleeper sides set up within the confines of the huge open sided barns which used to house the dairy herd, were built by Jeremy and Neil during the summer and collective input is very evident in everything they do. So too is the simplicity of their system: the feed is the standard Spillers racehorse mix, the horses all have as much haylage as they can eat, are fully rugged against the cold but have open air ventilation in total contrast to the closed in “coaching stables” which were the default design of yesteryear.
“I think it has probably helped that we have just felt our way”, says Jeremy. “The feeding was originally planned to stop some mares we had ‘tying up’ (kidney cramps) but it seems to work. So too do the gallops although I would still like to put another flatter one in to allow them to stretch a little more. It took some time to find the best way to use this one and we even put heart monitors on the horses to test the severity and the recovery rate. But I think we are getting the hang of it now and it is a huge help to have riders like Neil and the jockeys around.”
Neil Harris’ integral role is obvious not least from the siting of the lakeside bungalow which he shares with his wife and daughter just by the bottom of the gallop. “I was thinking the other day that Neil and I have been doing things together for 20 years,” remember Jeremy, “and we have had a lot of pleasure out of it. We get on well and know how each other I think.” But if Harris has been a long term part of the machinery, the arrival of Nick Scholfield over the last four years has been a crucial development as the yard begins to measure itself against the big battalions.
For at 23 and heading for his best ever season, Scholfield is the leader of the group who will one day step into the mighty boots of Walsh and McCoy. The son of the 1989 National point to point champion and himself first victorious as a 16 year old on a mare called Sea Snipe at the Cornish track of Trebudannon, Nick was champion amateur, second leading conditional when attached to the Paul Nicholls stable and is rapidly maturing into the real thing. Tall and lean he has learnt to coil his body down into almost McCoy type compression, and through a race he has the much coveted knack of letting a horse take its time in the way in which Walsh has so long been the master.
That was never more evident than in Melodic Rendezvous’ race at Cheltenham where some ten runners were fanned across the course after the last bend but Scholfield still kept his cool. “I knew I had a lot of horse under me,” says Nick, “and I did not want to move too soon because he can look around a little. He’s a horse who took a long while but then suddenly blossomed last season. It’s easy to get carried along but I couldn’t speak highly enough of how Jeremy and Camilla have handled him and me. Jeremy is much more involved than he seems. He drives the box and walks the course every day before racing. He deserves a good horse and Empiracle could go all the way.”
So too, albeit on the strength of just one run, could the stable’s other would be Cheltenham star Empiracle on whom Scholfield was equally patient with even more “horse” beneath him, when the chestnut made what was for the stable his much awaited racecourse debut at Huntingdon in October. But few races all season will be won with more in hand than the seven hard held lengths by which he finally eased home that day and this time the owner had not sold out before the race. Which was good for High Holworthy because that owner was Jeremy Scott.
When he had got Empiracle in Dublin two years earlier he had been the most expensive horse he had ever bought even if, at just E22k, he was a tenth of the price some other trainers spend. But he was an eye catcher. “When we were breaking him in,” says Neil Harris, “ I just could not wait to sit on him, and when I did the feeling was tremendous. He has such a presence about him.” Jeremy claims to be the world’s worst salesman but this time there was understandable six figure interest before a deal was finally struck with an enthusiastic group which included Gone To Lunch’s owner Gary Lever, tipster Mark Howard, and Racing Post’s Andrew Barr, and which is run by Sarah Wragg who has already had good experiences at the stable.
“I have had some awkward times with other trainers,” says Sarah diplomatically, “but Jeremy and Camilla and Neil and the whole team are so straightforward that it is a joy to work with them. I have thought the world of Empiracle for ages but even at the stable open day in the summer I could not get people interested to come into a syndicate to buy him. Now we have had to pay a bit more but everyone can see what we have got.”
So could we as Jeremy drove us up to see Neil Harris and Empiracle leading the string with the winter sun glinting on his horse’s bright chestnut coat and flaxen mane. Looking at the quiet demeanour and lean purposeful shape of the others was to think of how much has changed in the training game since the days of long, long, slow canters, big, over fleshed horses always “needing a run” and contempt at training benches like Scott’s which, unwittingly, almost exactly mirrors that used up in Cheshire by Donald McCain.
It is twenty three years this month since I wrote an article for the Sunday Times about the then seemingly revolutionary “interval training” methods with which Martin Pipe was breaking records and stirring unworthy enmity. Just for once the first line was a good one. It was: “When will the losers learn.” The Scotts are not losers and they have certainly learnt. At Cheltenham they may also have something worth whooping for.