21 January 2007
THERE ARE only two things you need to know about Evan Williams. That when he was 12 he would get up at 5 am and milk 70 cows before going to school. And that at 17 he was on the verge of top-class rugby when he got pushed around the entire game by a rough old has-been on a wet night in Tredegar. “I realised I was just not good enough to make it to the top,” he said, the Welsh voice musical in its emphasis. “I rode my first winner that Saturday.”
There can be something harsh about naked ambition but with 35-year-old Williams, just four full seasons and 155 winners into his training career, you can warm your hands on it. Last November the wider world felt its glow when he won the Hennessy Gold Cup first time out with his star horse State of Play. “There are times in life when you have to step up to the plate,” he said unhesitatingly to the TV cameras. “This was a massive, massive day for all of us.” There has not been a statement like it since Mark Johnston walked forward at York after winning the Ebor and declared that he would bring fame and Classic winners back to Middleham.
Evan Williams is in Glamorgan, not North Yorkshire. He has always been there but it has not been easy. His father had a problem with the bottle. His mother left. Young Evan just had to make the best of it. “I suppose at 10, 12 years old, kids are very adaptable. My father would not be in a fit state to milk the cows and feed the calves and the school bus went at eight o’clock. I didn’t worry so much about missing school as missing rugby. It’s funny; I am really the worst man in the world at getting up but you just get on with it.”
The family are reconciled now but the experience is obviously burnt deep into the psyche. “We had to sell the farm and it left me empty for a while,” he said, looking out across fields which stretch down towards the sea. “I thought what a waste. My grandparents had built the whole place up to 500 acres by sheer hard work. There are 160 acres here at Aberogwrn [just 10 miles east of Cardiff], a lot of land I just rent, a couple of houses in the village that I have bought for the lads, and other bits and bobs. I may be skint but I will never have nothing.”
Back in the little kitchen Isobel and Eleanor, aged eight and nine, are nearly ready for school, 15-year-old William still has half-an-hour for his bus. The wheel to which Evan and Catherine have put their shoulders needs pushing nearly 24 hours a day. The mobile phone is clamped to his ear, tomorrow’s runners list is on the table. Catherine gets out some bills to sign and then scoops up a pencil case to shoo the daughters into the car. What has been built will not be lightly thrown away.
Down the lane the building goes on. The girders are going up for a third barn to match the two beside it. A patch of earth is being levelled for an indoor school. An eight-strong group of horses headed by the neat and elegant Gold Cup-bound State Of Play are leading off up the hill for their three repeat canters on the steep woodchip slope which Williams uses as a basic work-bench. The buzzing beehive analogy has never been more true.
Evan limps off after the string. He needs a new hip because of a bad fall during a 200-winner point-to-point career which saw him twice Welsh and once national champion. It should slow him down. It seems to have almost laughably revved him up and you have to jog to stay with him. The horses wing up the hill, short, sharp spins keeping their keenness on the bubble. Unembarrassed enthusiasm is the card. As the horses wend back down the lane for a repeat. Williams literally sings out the questions: “How – was – he, Stuart?” “Very – good – thank – you.” To a cynical Englander it may sound silly. Down in the Principality, old traditions ring right.
But this is the new Wales. “Round here there used to be a massive chip which had people complaining all the time. But with so much coming to Cardiff, there is now a sense that we are really embracing the future not moaning like the old days.” Moaning is not a great currency at his Aberogwrn stables except some griping at being labelled “new kid on the block” when there has already been two decades of racing experience. Williams was still only 17 when he walked in to the bank with £10,000 cash from the sale of lambs and so impressed the manager that he left with a £30,000 overdraft.”
What is in big supply is the ambition that was pledged that muddy night in Tredegar. If it could not be rugby then racing would have to be the ladder to the top. “I want to train a hundred horses,” Williams said. “I know it sounds incredibly ambitious and people say 40 or 50 are enough to handle but you are never going to have a real go at the job unless you have a massive string. And we want it, we all really want it,” he said, the verbs almost biting the air.
“We are a very young team: my head lad, Rhys, is 24, assistant James Tudor is 22 and it just wouldn’t begin to work unless they were all as hungry as me. We are not that technical. We believe in fresh air, clean hay we grow ourselves, and empowering everyone. We all just buzz around to make sure everything is right.”
State Of Play’s big day was the Hennessy. Whether or not he can progress again is a difficult question. The same very definitely, does not apply to Evan Williams.