5 March 2006

Trainer’s big moment at Cheltenham hints at much more to come.

The sky could be the limit. Every day Ben Pollock gallops his horses up to the 600ft top of Crow Hill in deepest Leicestershire with the green fields of the Welland Valley behind him. He could soon be climbing the peaks of the jumping range.

Bare statistics of only six winners this season and a mere 13 in his whole career might suggest wild optimism in making such predictions for a young trainer for whom the talented but fragile A Glass In Thyne becomes a first Cheltenham Festival runner on Tuesday week. But you can warm your hands on the confidence and commitment that beam from the tall figure hustling around his stables – even in the frost of Friday morning.

Pollock is tall and lean and hard and thoughtful; and his 31 years on the planet could have been set up for this Cheltenham hour. He’s a magician’s son from Stratford on Avon who by the time he got himself a scholarship and three A Levels at Rugby School was deeply infected by the riding bug. His 120 winners in point-to-points and under rules included the brilliant hunter-chaser Castle Mane at the 1999 Festival. Too big to turn professional, he did a four-year farrier’s apprenticeship so that he could treat his charges from the foot up when he and his wife Ninga started off with only three horses in her parents’ backyard three summers ago.

They have now moved their operation to a cavernous barn set on a farming lane high in the countryside some six miles north- east of Market Harborough. Inside it was cold, and clean and airy, but underneath their downy rugs the horses glowed with well-being. My partner was a little gelding called Protagonist who six years ago was a Mick Channon Derby entry. Ambitions are much lower now but he, like the rest of our little posse, is very obviously happy in his work. It is a theme that Pollock hammers as we walk past the colonnaded mediaeval splendour of the Nevill Holt Hall.

“We may only be starting out,” he says from the powerful back of A Glass In Thyne, “but we are small enough to treat everything as an individual and to get them to behave as ordinary horses not just racers. There would not be anything here which could not be taken out for a day’s hunting, or could not happily hack around the school doing some basic dressage or show jumping.”

Anyone still convinced that the foxhunting fraternity consists of chinless wonders in pink coats sipping from stirrup cups should heed the preparation of the stable star Glass In Thyme, winner last time of the Grade 1 Skybet Chase, a live contender for Cheltenham’s William Hill Trophy, a Grand National entry and with the Pollock team since his nursery days. “Three weeks before the Skybet Chase,” says Ben, “Glass In Thyme went hunting for four hours with the Fernie, stood at the meet, jumped everything in front of him. If horses fall apart doing that, they will fall apart anyway. You don’t have to be a lunatic and jump four strands of barbed wire but if you can’t go out and canter round on this lovely turf, you are in trouble.”

We thread our way along the frozen headland and down to where the mercifully un-compacted woodchip gallop stretches up the slope of Crow Hill. Up this we spin three times in the classic interval training method pioneered by Martin Pipe and now adapted by trainers throughout the land. Pollock leads the way, still tall and easy in the saddle despite having had a shoulder injury that ended his career. With only 20 horses he will be one of the smallest handlers mixing it at Cheltenham but he knows he has to aim high.

“If you want to train at the top level,” he says firmly, “you need to demonstrate it to people. I was never a number cruncher when I rode and I have no interest in being a number cruncher now. Of course it’s important that little chaps like the one you are riding find their niche and do their job but it’s the big days that matter. I want to fill the yard up with horses that can progress and compete on Saturdays. I want you to come back in four years’ time and find that we have 10 going to Cheltenham.”

Sceptics will rightly say that talk is easy, that hands-on attention with 20 horses is very different even to Pollock’s first aim of 40 and to his intended maximum of a 60-head string. But the way the horses and staff behave, little details like the dipping of the bits in disinfectant and the well oiled suppleness of the tack, big decisions like the one to rest A Glass In Thyne after his seasonal debut, suggest a competence way out of the beginner’s league. “We are confident in our system,” says the trainer, “if a big horse came our way I would not be intimidated.”

Pollock’s mentor in his riding days was the late Dick Saunders, winner of the Grand National on Grittar in 1982 and the quiet but firm mastermind of a family farming and training operation that produced Pollock-ridden stars such as Teeton Mill. Not long before his untimely death Dick spoke to me of his protégé. “Mark my words,” he said quietly, “that young man has got a big future ahead of him.”

Dick’s verdict was echoed last week by Andrew Thornton, who is booked for A Glass In Thyne at Cheltenham just as he is for the talented novice Launde at Newcastle on Tuesday where a victory could make him eligible for a race on Festival Wednesday. “The guy’s got ambitions,” said Andrew, a Gold Cup hero on Cool Dawn in 1998, “and he really knows his horses. He could go right to the top.”

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