27 October 2002
The National Hunt harvest at spacious Sandhill just keeps getting better and better as the seasons roll on
The view stretches down across fields to the Bristol Channel. Exmoor is to the south of us, the Quantocks to the east but the focus is on the horses winging up the hill. It is a new harvest from old farmland.
It was 40 years ago that Philip Hobbs’s father came with his wife and two young sons to tenant Sandhill’s 400 acres of Crown Estate land which stretch up from the village of Bilbrook, five miles to the east of Minehead. Everyone knows the hassles that have happened to farming, but this place is now such a beehive of 100-winner-a-season racehorse activity that last year Philip and his wife, Sarah, were officially honoured as the outstanding example of agriculture diversification on all the Crown Estates in the country. Jump racing is the crop that counts here.
It was agriculture that Philip read at Reading University but almost 200 rides in his last year showed that it was racing that he would major in. Ten honourable but unspectacular seasons as a professional jockey were always only going to be a prelude to a training career which began by Hobbs fitting his first six horses into an old cowshed and winning on the very first runner himself at Devon and Exeter back in 1985. What has happened since is a conversion on the grandest scale.
On the face of things, Sandhill remains a farmyard with its timbered 17th century house still weathering the seasons. But every nook and cranny of the original stone buildings boasts another horse looking up from its manger. The old dairy is the tack room, the three big corrugated barns are packed with more horses, and the far one has the pens of two horse-walking machines circling in its centre. From the field beyond the house comes the snort and splashes of equine athletes doing their turn in the swimming pool, but down on the gallops there is no time for reflection. I am actually on a horse. For a few golden minutes, I can again be part of the training machine.
Before the Martin Pipe revolution in the Seventies, racehorse exercise involved long treks up to huge swathes of grassland where the gallops would be up to two miles of arm-stretching slog. Now we turn round at the end of the railed track of woodchip and spin back up the first part of its dog-leg five furlongs before swinging right handed and letting the horses hit full stride as they take the last quarter mile on the hard collar of the hill.
“It’s interval training,” says Hobbs, with that crisp countryman’s laugh as he rides down with us to repeat the trick. “This gives us our training benchmark. We try to keep them healthy and enter them in races that they can win. Not very complicated really.”
He never was into boasting but today the statistics speak for themselves. A stable record of 119 wins and more than £1 million in prize money last season, another 59 successes already on the board this term, whose big days are only just beginning with Cheltenham’s first meeting and the return of jumping to Kempton and Ascot. But something much more significant than numbers happened to Hobbs last season. He was sent a champion – and handled it.
Flagship Uberalles is the best two-mile chaser in the land. He is amazingly talented, fragile and travelled – his owners choosing to move him from trainers as good as Paul Nicholls and Noel Chance despite continued success. When `Flagship’ pitched up at Sandhill, Philip Hobbs knew the score. For years he had been giving good returns off modest investment but had lacked a superstar. Now he had one. He groomed it and burnished it and took it to the racecourse just twice – for the two prime targets of the two-mile chasing scene, the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham. It was bull’s-eye both times.
Not that the trainer will linger much in the telling. He is too busy checking out the well-being of almost 100 horses buzzing around the hive, pointing out the long sweep of green fields on the other side of the farm which can be used as gallops when wanted, and relishing the opportunities provided by the wide new strip of Polytrack coming up the hill beside the original woodchip. “It’s a fantastic surface,” says Hobbs. “Horses who don’t stretch out on the woodchip seem to come alive on the Polytrack. What’s more we have got our portable fences we can wheel on to it and Richard Johnson says that jumping on it is every bit as good as on grass.”
Once again you are struck by modern technology in what, to an outsider, might still seem an almost clod-hoppingly rural setting. Hobbs may keep the clothes and accent of his earthy background but the management structure his staff so smoothly operate and the decisions he has to make on the run almost 24 hours a day would dazzle them in business school. A hundred horses and almost as many owners take some organising. You need a Pelmanism-style memory and an understanding, not just of your four-legged athlete, but of the
racing programme in which you have to discover the right opportunity for him to win.
Of all the things we talked of late into the claret on Wednesday night, few stimulated Hobbs more than the daily telephone game of bluff he plays with other trainers as final decisions are made as to where to run their horses next day. “Getting horses fit is important,” he says, “but you don’t win if you are in the wrong race.”
Getting it right has become a Hobbs trademark, be it in big races or small. Last Thursday What’s Up Boys, the Hennessy Gold Cup winner and Grand National second, was as much a
picture of health as Flagship Uberalles. Note also Supreme Prince, who was hugely impressive on his hurdling debut last week and I must declare an interest in Under The Sand, who reappears at Ascot on Saturday with the hopes of a distinguished owning team.
All these winners, all this activity and it might be opportune to stress, not a whiff of the so called “institutionalised corruption” of which Panorama made so much. To spend a Somerset morning with Philip Hobbs is, for a race fan, rather more than a stable visit. It is a renewal of faith best summed up by the name of the big horse whose raking stride flew me to the top of the gallops on Thursday. It was Ever Blessed.