Richard Fahey is not usually one for great statements, but he makes one now. “Six years ago,” he says, “I did a five year plan. What we were trying to do was to design the best yard in the north of England, the best yard in the country if we could. Everything has gone right and just about all we have to do now is to put a posh office up. But I do love my Portakabin.”
He speaks so quietly, cuts so unflashy a figure – small, compact, shaven headed, dark glasses – that at first you think you have misheard him or that he was saying something into his mobile via the white headphones that hang stethoscope-like round his neck. But then you look out across the slopes of Musley Bank, just to the southwest of `Malton, 20 miles north of York and you know that Fahey’s words, like the statistics, do not lie.
For by the end of the week his establishment will have turned out more than 140 winners, gained over £2million in prize money for the fourth consecutive season and become the first in the country to send out 1,000 runners in this calendar year. Last Saturday alone, 29 horses were despatched to five different courses, ridden by 14 different jockeys, the leading 8 of which, as usual, were home grown. By any normal standards of business, let alone training racehorses, this is an enormous operation. But if it is a beehive, the buzz is a happy one without that nasty feeling that a sting or even an aggressive swarm might be just around the corner.
At 8 am on Monday two horses transports are already rumbling down the drive, three more stand waiting. Horses and riders are filing out of the barns for their six furlong spin on the mile long all weather gallop up the shoulder of the bank. A TV crew are filming “A day in the life” of star apprentice Samantha Bell and out of the portakabin comes one of the great double acts in any sport, Richard Fahey and Robin O’Ryan.
They are little and large, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor without the egos. O’Ryan is older, taller, craggier, more cautious and even quieter spoken than Fahey – besides having a lot more hair. But at 61, with twenty years assisting Mick Easterby before joining Richard in 2005, Robin is as wise and seasoned as anyone in the racing game. The trust between the two men is as palpable as it is reassuring. There are 190 horses in training at Musley Bank and in a month’s time the pair will set off around the yearling sales recruiting for even bigger and better things next season. Trust has to be unconditional.
That has long been a central criterion for a successful racing stable but a visit to Fahey last week put it at a new and refreshing level. For this is training reduced to core simplicity: rider tacks up horse, joins in the string, whizzes up the gallops, hoses the steed off and then puts it to cool off on the horse walker. There are no frills, no shouting, no super subtle instructions but little sloppiness either. That quiet statement about “the best yard in the country” may not be emblazoned on the tops of those splendid new barns but these people want to believe it. Across the country there is concern about staff shortages in racing and the dependence on overseas labour. But not here where just three Polish staff add a cosmopolitan touch to an otherwise English and Irish workforce. “I have great staff,” says Richard in those quick, muttered Irish tones, “I think they must enjoy it here.”
On a day like Monday at Malton you could reflect on the resurgence of this ancient market town and the surrounding area that, with thirty trainers and over 1,000 horses, is busier than at any time in its history. Out to the east in the sunshine you could spot Highfield from where Charlie Elsey sent out two classic winners and became champion trainer in 1956 and Whitewall where in the 70’s Bob Paisley, manager of all conquering Liverpool,would spend his summer break working unpaid as a stable lad for his friend, the trainer Frank Carr. I suppose it is possible to conceive the image of Jose Mourinho mucking out at John Gosden’s but only if it was part of one of those TV ads in which footballers suddenly leap out of their seats in airplanes or piazzas and start playing “keepy-uppy.”
When necessary Richard Fahey ships horses through the town and across the River Derwent to get a feel of the grass of the Langton Wold gallops but normally they just come spinning up the all weather. “We don’t hang about,” says Richard as the speedometer reaches 32 mph, “ when they run slow races I will go slowly, this is a Yorkshire canter.” Just ahead of us is Hayley Irvine with a head cam filming Samantha Bell on the horse in front. “Not very polite,” chuckles the trainer, “a camera looking up Sammy’s bottom.”
“This is what we do now,” he elaborates, “ when I was at Butterwick (the little yard seven miles away where he began training in 1993), the land was all flat and we had to work the horses twice a week. When we came here in 2003, we realised we only needed to work them once a week, (the speedometer now touches 42 mph) I keep reading about people saying how great their facilities are, that they can do different things every day but we just stick to our routine. Horses love routine. Any of 15 people could train these horses at the minute because we have a system in place and they would know how it runs.”
So up the gallop they come: thoroughbreds on the stretch in the early morning, necks straight, limbs powering, manes flowing and perched exhilarated above the saddle an assorted bunch of lads, jockeys, secretaries, staff and regular “riders-outers” one of whom comes past us now. It is Venetia Wrigley, Deputy Lieutenant of the County, wife of former Senior Steward Nicholas Wrigley, and whose tireless charity work culminated in raising over £30k for the Macmillan Trust by riding in and winning the charity race at York in July 2013.
“I started riding out here in February 2013 to get ready for the charity race,” says Venetia who although a long time equestrienne had never played at being a jockey and is not that many seasons short of her seventh decade. Afterwards Richard said ‘the staff will miss her’ to Nicholas and he replied ‘bad luck, I think you’ve got her.’ Now I ride four lots before breakfast on Mondays and Thursdays. I feel very much part of the team. They are extremely good fun, many of them are extremely talented and there is very good camaraderie. I love riding with them. It is quite challenging. I have my share of falls. I have one yesterday when something whipped round at the bottom of the gallops and I said to one of the lads, ‘I am so sorry to have held up the line’ and he said, ‘don’t worry Mrs Wrigley, it ‘appens to us all.’”
No dramas on Monday and soon the trainer, a chunky purposeful figure in jeans and a dark blue hooded windcheater with “Richard Fahey” printed rather unnecessarily on the back, was talking to riders individually as they held their horses for the legs to be hosed down. “We all know the routine,” he says when he finishes, “but we are always trying to tweak it a little. At the end of the season we took the shoes off all the horses and kept them off until the beginning of March. It’s something I saw at Mike de Kock’s and it gives them a chance to grow some hoof and build their heels back up.”
This turns out to be not the only idea he has lifted from the great South African trainer. On the side of one of the two huge new 45 box barns a horse was being moved into the treadmill. “We have had it this season,” says Richard, “it’s early days and there is a bit of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ but I think it must be useful.”
No such doubts about the “spa”, the rectangular sheep dip style pen into which cold water is circulated at 5 degrees. “I have had one of these for years, “ he says, “for old horses and anything with little niggles and sore joints they really work.” The basics of horse care are to have large and airy boxes and plenty of space for both horses and humans to share. The new buildings set down the bank are complemented with 42 individual railed paddocks, many of which were filled on Monday with runners from the weekend taking a well earned rest, and by a furlong round covered ride encircling the lowest, largest and newest barn.
“I had looked at what everyone else did with their covered ride,” says Richard as lightweight Paddy Mathers skitters a fresh horse out of the entrance, “and I could not see why they did not make more use of the middle. So I put boxes in them and it works really well. It is where we gather and warm up in the mornings but it is really handy in the winter. Being a furlong round, you can canter the yearlings in it and if we even put hurdles up if you wanted to school some jumpers. Do a dozen circuits and it is job done.”
Although Richard started out as jump jockey and twice won the Swinton Hurdle as a trainer, less than ten runners in that sphere overthe last three seasons is proof that there is no longer time for the jumping game. In 2008 he trained 100 winners for the first time and as the totals continued to climb his ambitions needed shape. “An owner of mine, John Staunton, told me I should think ahead,” remembers Richard, “ I got someone to design it so that we were not just putting things up willy-nilly. It took us three months to think out what we really wanted and then take it to the planners. They have been good, Ryedale Council have been great and HSBC have been very supportive.”
“But you can’t stand still in this game,” he says, getting into the car and sweeping down the drive, under the Malton bypass and down a short track to another 50 acres of recently purchased meadowland in what was supposed to be the flood plain of the River Derwent. “It hasn’t flooded yet,” he adds, “and I hope because of the new drainage system that it won’t any more. But down here we have 25 boxes for horses R&R, we are putting in a spa and a horse walker and some turn out paddocks and the rest we use to take haylage off. It makes us nearly self sufficient.”
It’s all crashing, uncomplicated common sense. Besides haylage his horses are fed “Baileys” racehorse cubes. “They have spent millions of pounds on trying to find the right balance, so why try to outguess them,” he says, “the feed man used to be the most important man in the yard but those days are gone.” There is no regret in the voice, nor is there as he dismisses his own riding career across the river with Jimmy Fitzgerald. “Well I was champion conditional and must have ridden 100 winners,” he says, “but Mark Dwyer was in the yard, I could see his talent and knew I was not good enough. And by the time I was 26 I was not enjoying it. I enjoyed trying to buy and sell horses, and then a guy called Tom Dwyer asked me to train some for him and we went on from there.”
An owner comes on the phone, the conversation switches seamlessly to possibilities for the weekend and for ambitious plans much later in the year. Another calls before we get back to the famous Portakabin and the impossible seeming game of racing Pelmanism continues as horses are named discussed and entered and planned. Richard Fahey and Robin O’Ryan face each other over their computer screens at a desk along a wall. There are twenty minutes until entry closing time at 10 am and they converse in long-practiced short hand with the occasional questions tossed over to Caroline and Katie, the two secretaries similarly placed at the other desk along Portakabin’s side.
Richard and Robin have been doing this with continuing success and it shows. They are calm, but quick, realistic and markedly lacking in the theme of jealous complaint that all too often curdles a trainer’s discourse. “It’s not all doom and gloom and the big owners looking south,” says Robin O’Ryan, of a season that has seen Godolphin’s purchase of the two year old Birchwood pay off with big success at Newmarket and unlucky defeat at Goodwood. “Besides it’s nice if somebody gives 30 grand for one and they end up being good horses. Wootton Bassett (whose unbeaten two year old career ended up in Group I triumph at Longchamp) cost 46 grand and Richard got Superior Premium (11 races incuding the Cork and Orrery at Royal Ascot) for 2,800.”
Six years ago O’Ryan and Fahey spent 43k buying a yearling for the incoming Senior Steward Nicholas Wrigley. It was named Common Touch and duly won all its money back and was sold at a profit. Since then there have been five more “Touches” costing between £40k and £70k and all have won, the most recent, Another Touch, at Newcastle on Thursday. “Richard is extremely talented,” says Venetia Wrigley, “and when he and Robin are buying horses they are phenomenal.”
Needless to say the men themselves take a more modest line. “We have done it ourselves for the last ten years,” says Robin O’Ryan. “If we are going to make a mistake we would prefer to do it ourselves. I know what he likes. I am not saying whether it is right or wrong but an agent won’t know what he likes We have to know our clients. Some of them don’t want to wait. Some of them will wait.
You have got to buy a lot of horses on spec. The Leger sales start in three weeks, a lot of winners come out of the Leger Sales – they make sharp two year olds . We will go there with very few orders. But that is where the right horses are and one year we didn’t buy enough. Come November all sorts of people wanted horses and we couldn’t find any.”
One hundred and seventy two years ago Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” whilst staying in Malton. The way things are going there is unlikely to be any Scrooge at Richard Fahey’s Christmas feast.