RACING POST SUNDAY
On the 27th July last year the burgeoning training career of young Michael Scudamore hit an all time low. No matter that Monbeg Dude had won the Welsh National seven months earlier, hardly anything else in the stable had done anything, the winning percentage was down at 7% and here was his high achieving brother Tom trailing in last on a Michael trained runner at Uttoxeter. Tom pulled the saddle off in disgust. “That was just embarrassing”, he said.
“Harsh words were spoken,” 30 year old Michael added ruefully last week. “He said the horse was not fit, didn’t know its job and unless I turned things around I would not be training in six months. We didn’t speak for a couple of hours and then one of us rang the other and said let’s not argue, let’s go forwards, and next morning I sat down with Tess, my girl friend, went through everything we did and set about making changes. We cut the staff down to two, extended the gallop, increased the intensity of the work and had the horses on the walker for half an hour before and afterwards. It’s still early days but the figures show that in our own little way we are making a difference.”
There is a quiet, unprepossessing modesty about this youngest of the Scudamores that cloaks the personal and family pride that lies beneath. The clan go right back to pre-Norman times, the 15th century Sir John Scudamor achieved the big double of defending the royal castles in Wales whilst secretly marrying Alys, the daughter of the Welsh leader Owen Glendower. Michael’s father Peter was 8 times champion jockey as he and trainer Martin Pipe broke the mould of British jumping. His grandfather Michael was one of the great Grand National winning riders of his post war era and, with 89 winners already on the board, his two years older brother Tom Scudamore is well set to make this 17th season his best one yet.
Michael junior’s figures can look quite kindergarten by comparison. There were just eight winners last jumping season, nine so far this time. But the win percentage has lifted from 7% to 18% and now runs at 23% and that is with just twelve jumpers, while on the flat this year nine horses have won nine races between them lifting that percentage from 2% to 18% in two seasons. Monbeg Dude may be the stable’s royally connected flag carrier but a trip down to Michael’s Herefordshire base is to see the graft that made him a record breaker in his own right long before he got a training licence. For no one has ever graduated from the privileged public school playing fields of Cheltenham College to the Welsh Valley earthiness of professional rugby in Ebbw Vale and then three years later weighed out at 10 stone 2lbs for a hurdle race at Plumpton nine months after being “Player of The Season” as a 14 stone 7lbs wing forward.
Mind you that 30% loss of body weight could not, did not last. A month later at Newton Abbot a skeletal Michael tipped the scales at 10 stone 1lb, got towed to the front after two hurdles and was then utterly helpless after five. His father was furious at his incompetence but an hour into a long silent drive home turned into a Macdonalds, force fed his son chicken nuggets and insisted that he should never starve like that again. Michael has no regrets, he had realised he was never going to make the big time in rugby, wanted to get involved in racehorse training and felt he needed to experience something of what it was like to be a jockey. In a couple of seasons he did just that, getting placed under rules and logging up four winners in point to points. “If I was going to give Tom a rollicking,” he chuckles, “I would need to have some idea of what it all entailed.”
Experience is certainly “hands on” down at the old barns and modern horse walker at Eccleswall Court four miles east of Ross on Wye. In Michael and Tessa’s re think, they added a two and a half furlong chute to the three furlong uphill woodchip gallop and shared all the riding between themselves and amateur Byron Ambrose. “All the sports science I did in the rugby training did come in useful in trying to better understand our gallops,” says Michael. “We put heart monitors on the horses on the woodchip and on the grass bank over the hill and we found that their heart rate was not going high enough, that’s why they weren’t fit. Now they may only be ridden for ten minutes and spend the rest of the time on the walker but this way we know exactly where we are with each horse. It’s a bit different from gran dad’s day when the horses would be out for nearly two hours a time but this works and, with only one extra person in the yard, we can afford it.”
The contrast between new and old is caught perfectly as the three riders spin up the woodchip gallop against the timeless Herefordshire country backdrop. Across the valley the 13th century church spire rises out of the village of Linton where stands the oldest Yew tree in the country and where a former rector was the Reverend Edward Palin great grandfather of the Monty Python polymath. No joking here, this is racehorse training at its most frill free and functional. Some of the horses’ tails may still have shavings in them and some of the muddy turn-out paddocks look as if the Ebbw Vale XV had used them for scrummage practice, but there is a purpose about the horses and riders drumming up the woodchip that now translates to the track.
Alongside Michael and Monbeg Dude, Tessa Champion rides the three mile chaser No Through Road winner of his last four races this season and whose 74 – 105 climb up the ratings even matches the 105 – 145 hike achieved last term by two mile chaser Next Sensation whose owner Mark Blandford also owns the promising bumper horse Corner Creek that completes the working trio in front of us. “Whether they are four mile chasers or 6 furlong flat horses we do two canters up here on normal days, three on work days,” says Michael, “we try and keep it simple.”
“Looking back,” he continues, “I didn’t really have a clue. My dream was to play rugby, have 100 caps for Wales, retire at 34 and train racehorses. It turned out a bit more complicated than that for while Ebbw Vale was the most wonderful experience reality eventually kicked in that you were not going up to a higher level. One week we beat Pontypridd but I was one on one with Kevin Morgan who played on the wing for Wales and he went round me as if I was a statue. Three weeks later we went down to Llanelli, Welsh and Lions star Mike Phillips was their scrum half and he made us look like dummies.”
Once again the modesty masks some rare achievements, not least in overcoming the early set back of being born with the deformity of a cleft palate now all but erased by operations and maturity. “Michael was always the quieter of the two boys,” remembers Peter Scudamore, “but he’s got there by deeds rather than words. He was a good rugby player, Ist XV captain at school and got a Welsh cap for the Under 19s. At the real top level he wasn’t fast enough for the three quarters or big enough for the scrum yet this public school boy went off to Ebbw Vale, never missed a tackle and they absolutely loved him.”
In truth Michael’s assumption of the training role started earlier than ideal on a needs must basis when Peter moved north to live with Lucinda Russell in Scotland at the same time as Michael senior was committed to nursing his wife Mary. “I suppose it was more turmoil than you gave credit for at the time as I was rather thrown in at the deep end,” says Michael. “Most would be trainers would have spent their summer holidays doing hard graft in stables whilst mine were on a rugby tour or somewhere else. So when I actually started training it was a case of ticking along and because one or two kept winning or running well you kept thinking you were doing the right thing and believing it was just a matter of time before you got a good horses.”
“Then one or two people got disappointed, one or two horses left and you suddenly saw them doing better elsewhere and you take a long look at yourself in the mirror and you aren’t doing it right. Your horses aren’t fit enough you need to change what you are doing. We had got ourselves into such a hole it took a bit of time to get a bit of quality back. In the last two years we have had some new owners which is good but the numbers are much lower than we want them We have stables for 40 horses but only 17 in at the moment and that is as busy as we have been for a couple of years.”
One horse that has not moved is Monbeg Dude although soon after Mike Tindall’s famously tipsy purchase of him that Cheltenham evening five years ago it looked as if he would not be going to the race track either. Turned out in the sand ring the day before he was due to run for his proud new owners the horse suddenly and most unwisely tried to jump out of the sand ring, caught his hip on the right hand upright, turned a somersault and broke his pelvis. “It was the 24th February, my birthday,” says Michael with a smile, “not a great birthday present nor a good phone call to make to the boys.”
Thankfully time was the healer and eleven months later the diminutive Monbeg Dude finally appeared and ran a most promising second at Uttoxeter only to face another lengthy lay off with a knee problem after his next race. “He was not the easiest to keep sound for those first two seasons,” says Michael, “so we had to have very careful campaign with him with lots of swimming and help from the vets. The boys were new owners and so learning on the job but they were very good and very patient.”
Two years ago next month that patience was heroically rewarded when Monbeg Dude came from a mile behind and a string of jumping errors to win the Welsh National under an inspired ride from Paul Carberry. “To be fair to the horse it was only his 6th run over fences and it was his first time in a field with that number of runners. Now he has got experience and has strengthened up a lot but he has still got his own method. Paul said it took him a circuit of Chepstow to work out how to ride him and the other jockeys have to accept that he does it his own way.”
The subject of the discussion is now standing beside his trainer next to the old fish pond put in by the monks some centuries back. Monbeg Dude’s size and demeanour are in stark contrast to his high profile as a major contender at Chepstow and Aintree. “He is only a little chap,” says Michael as a sextet of geese swim serenely across the picture, “and he is the nicest, most laid back horse you could ever deal with on the gallops but he does rev up a bit on the track. For the Welsh National we do need the top ones to run to keep his weight down but he ran a great race there first time out this season, was a good fourth in the Hennessy and is now stronger than he has ever been.”
Last spring Monbeg Dude attracted plenty of money and masses of media attention as a major fancy for the Grand National only to fade back to finish 7th at the line. Aintree is likely to be the plan again next April and his trainer believes he can go closer. “He was too buzzy with the occasion last year,” says Michael, “Paul (Carberry) said he couldn’t get him to switch off as he likes to but even jumping the third last he thought he could win it. Then he just got tired.”
Talk of big days and great races is addictive stuff but the real test is moving the stable forward day to day. No Through Road should be back next week to try and extend his winning sequence to five. The Hexham winner Streets of Promise is nearly ready to go again as is the promising Line D’Aois while Next Sensation is likely to be wait for the better ground and another blaze at the Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival. It’s only a small string and flat racers like Eastern Dragon and Shades of Silver will need to try and add to the three races they each won last year and the newly bought Dan Emmett has shown jumping promise for his new role over hurdles.
There’s a long climb ahead for Michael Scudamore but one thing that won’t bug him is filial rivalry or family pressure. “Tom and I have always been very close and we speak every day,” says Michael. “He was always going to be a jockey and I was going to be a rugby player and all the time I was playing I was thinking how could I adapt this for horses. But the family thing is a driving force not an intimidating factor. When you see what everyone else has achieved you don’t want to be the one who has let the side down. If you have had a bad day, it is what makes you get up early next morning.”
“Of course he is my brother and everyone can say I am biased,” concludes Tom Scudamore. “But he put his hands up and set about making things better and he has. It takes a real man to do that.”