24 February 2008
Sometimes it’s good to let the politeness break. Down the years Alan King has been such a model of good manners and public affability that you could wonder if he had the hardness that champions require. One tiny huff at Newbury two weeks ago revealed what the statistics suggest and an early morning visit confirms. For the man who trained Katchit, My Way De Solzen and Voy Por Ustedes to the big Cheltenham treble last year, it really matters.
If he had been a football manager no one would have noticed. But when his Champion Chase winner Voy Por Ustedes was brushed almost casually aside by Master Minded, yet another super-expensive, super-good French import trained by the mighty Paul Nicholls, King let his resentment show. Shock, horror! He cared. It is a bit more obvious in the early morning.
Not the enmity with Nicholls – that does not exist, he even trained a two-year-old for his big rival some three summers back – but the challenge of ensuring everything is tested to the limit. It was still almost dark when we walked down to the collecting ring at the beginning of the month and cold enough for even 41-year-old Lanarkshire-bred King to need a woolly hat. But the mind was already warmed up and the eyes sharp enough to see a lot more than the magnificent facilities he has built at Barbury Castle high on the ancient Wiltshire downs just north of Marlborough.
There are a lot of horses to look at for a start – almost 150 all told, the largest yard in the country and some 130 more than when he and his wife Rachel set up here eight years back. Ten of them are already circling, un-ridden in the huge carousel of a horse-walker like a live but slower version of a fun fair ride. Thirty more are gathered with grooms and jockeys aboard in the sand ring where King collects his team before filing a mile across the valley to where the five-furlong work bench of the ‘Eco Track’ gallop rises up the shoulder of the downs.
He barks out an order and the horses break into a trot. There is not the explosive, hungover aggression with which some trainers begin the morning but there is no brooking the command nor the ferocious concentration as he lists each of his equine athletes as they go limbering past. It is not just the Scottish accent and the woolly hat that makes you think of a certain racing-mad football manager staring hard at the Manchester United team in training.
For these are players who have to be fit, hard and 100 per cent if they are to make the yard’s 18-strong squad for Cheltenham. There is no chance of King forgetting that amidst all the anthropomorphic guff that will swirl around over the next two weeks and he is absolutely set on reminding everyone at Barbury Castle of it too. His method is disarmingly simple – dominance of detail, clarity of judgment and unity of will.
“We don’t do anything clever,” he says breaking off for a moment and looking very directly, “just make sure they are fit and healthy, properly schooled and in the best shape we can possibly have them.” King does not have the tall, finger-prodding swagger that sometimes made his long-time mentor David Nicholson a bit hard to handle. But his years at the other castle, Jackdaws Castle, now occupied by Jonjo O’Neill in the Cotswolds, have absorbed the central tenet of ‘The Duke’s’ virtues. Time was when jumping trainers liked to have their horses carry the bulk and gleam of a top-class hunter, but as King barks another order and the string circle in the other direction you see much more whipcord than weight. The Cheltenham track is one of the toughest rings in sport. These are ready for it.
So is King. Almost all his life has led him to this. When he was about six his dairy farmer father asked him to switch Petal from one milking bay to another. “That’s not Petal, Dad,” he said of the cow almost identical to all the others, “that’s Daisy”. About that time the young King came back from school to see Fred Winter interviewed in TV after training a big winner at Cheltenham. Here was animal involvement and competition perfectly linked. The target was set.
Nicholson’s shoes were a big pair to fill and in hindsight it was a benefit to both that the attempt to continue at Jackdaws Castle foundered, as did the first ownership structure at Barbury Castle. It meant that by March 2003 when telecommunications entrepreneur Nigel Bunter finally bought the 2,000-acre estate that takes its name from the Stone Age fort up by the Ridgeway, King already had a clear vision of how he would like to operate, the jockey he wanted in Robert Thornton and the full backroom staff that he would like to keep.
“I am a great believer in having a five-year plan,” says Bunter, who has built himself a modern farmhouse next to the open ventilated barns whose 75-head complement the similar size operation slightly higher up the hill. In Bunter’s case this is to move towards the creation of the finest equestrian estate in the country.
Looking around you can see he is already on his way. There is the point-to-point course, in whose paddock the King horses did their pre-Cheltenham parade last week; there is the eventing course, home to the three-star Barbury Trials and base this summer for the American Olympic team, and there is Alan King. That plan is definitely on course.
In 2003 the stable had 40 winners and £400,000 in prize-money. Last season the figure had risen to 92 and £1.5 million, this term it has already reached 88 and £1.2 m. “The great thing about Alan,” says his landlord, “is that he is extremely professional, we have a direct business relationship – full rent for him, full training fees for my horses – but extremely friendly too. We cheer each other’s horses on. We really enjoy being part of the Barbury team.”
Politeness has paid off. But trust the hard edge that lies beneath.