27 March 2005

Three centuries ago Andrew Reid’s house was occupied by the actress Celia Fiennes who used to gallop the eight miles north from London’s theatreland to what would then be the wilds of Mill Hill and The Ridgeway. Despite being robbed one night she set up a charity for highwaymen. Reid is a charitable man but whether he would do the same thing for his fellow racehorse trainers sounds a bit unlikely.

“A monkey could train racehorses,” says the 51-year-old, whose somewhat autobiographically named Eccentric won last week’s Winter Derby to make his the top stable at Lingfield during the all-weather season. “All you need is good staff and a consistent system. I want to expose the fallacy that it is hugely complicated.”

It is a typically provocative challenge from the only man to train racehorses at the same time as being a deputy High Court judge and a founding partner of a leading London law firm. On Tuesday morning Eccentric was back at work after Saturday’s exertions and it was hard to decide if Andrew Reid was Mr Toad in a polo hat, Robin Hood in riding boots, or just another horse-handler baffling you with his own particular method of doing the job.

“I don’t train my horses, they train themselves,” he said as three of his 18-strong team wing up his all-weather gallop with a green-paddocked background more suited to some far away rural retreat than one stop beyond Finchley on the Northern Line. “They don’t go out in rain, mist or fog because I have a thing about keeping them warm and dry at all times. But once they are fit I am not afraid to run them three times a week.”

It was Tuesday morning and we are looking out over some of the most surprising 150 acres in the whole kingdom. On the rim of the 12-million conurbation that is Greater London, the only dwelling in view is the farm house opposite. Otherwise all we see are the fields, jumps, riding arenas and stables of what was intended to be the country’s leading equestrian centre. Eccentric was one of three foals Reid and his wife bred here four years ago. He named the other two Mad and Certifiable.

But there is a method to him, albeit not always recognised by others at the time. Ten years ago when Reid bought the ailing, 120-box Belmont Riding stables set just down from the lordly heights of Mill Hill School, his plan was to develop a showcase for the whole concept of the horse. “I had given up the idea of training,” Reid recalls. “With this we would have had dressage, show jumping, and plough horse demonstrations. We had Mark Phillips in to design an event course and twice had 10,000 spectators here. The project could have been a real addition to the community. The stables needed rebuilding because they didn’t pass any of the health and safety regulations. But there was no change of use and right at the end we got turned down by the Department of the Environment and a letter signed by Mr Caborn.

“Imagine my astonishment,” he said with a breathless, beady-eyed, lawyer’s chuckle at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, “when six months ago I got a call out here saying `Mr Reid, this is the Olympic bid. What could you offer us?’ I nearly fell off my horse laughing. I said to them you ought to ask Mr Prescott and Mr Caborn because they personally killed what I could have offered. And to think that they now have the gall to ring me up and ask about facilities.”

The tone of combative detail is one both colleagues and authorities have got used to over the years since the Reid name first hit the racing headlines with the slow but splendidly game David’s Duky winning the Eider Chase back in 1992. By then the Londoner, whose first riding experience was on donkeys on Hampstead Heath, had already founded the Reid Minty Law, had built up a lucrative property and barn-conversion sideline in Bedford, had studied the methods of several leading trainers, and was entirely unworried by explaining the errors of everyone else’s ways.

Today, while there are still plenty of sparks behind the flashing spectacles, there is also a touch of serenity about him. A serious heart operation in October 2003, the partnership he has formed with his wife, Carina, and the arrival of the adored Katie just six months ago has put things into perspective. “They say I ought to have a complete lifestyle change,” he had said munching a healthy looking pear at breakfast only moments before he picked up a pile of neatly annotated lawyer-type files to explain his training system. “I would like to bring a trainer in here. But he would have to do it my way.”

The system involves a sometimes mocked mixture of benevolence and discipline. If his horses get wet they have special towels and heat lamps to dry them, yet shoulders just have to be shrugged if they get claimed by another stable in the bargain basement races they enter. On the strength of Eccentric’s triumph, the horse’s fifth win in seven races since mid-December, he has promised all his staff a holiday. On very different grounds, he reported the previous lot to the drugs police.

As we ride through, he shows the huge polo arena where all his horses do their early work and where Belmont Polo Club leads the winter league. But he also points to the ponies in the field, and to the apartments where most weekends The Children’s Country Holiday Fund give disadvantaged kids the chance of sampling a greener life. “Some of them,” said Reid, “have never seen a hen, let alone a pony. This gives them a very different experience.”

Eccentric, yes; Mr Toad, maybe. But over in Mill Hill an unlikely Robin Hood still rides the range.

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