Nigel Twiston-Davies. Dead Stars and Bloody Silly Horses

Wed, Apr 7, 2010

Betting People

Nigel Twiston-Davies. Dead Stars and Bloody Silly Horses

He came close to quitting training altogether and once famously told the nation that he ‘doesn’t do interviews’. What would I find then when I paid a visit to Gold Cup winning trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Cotswold yard in the week before he bids for a third Grand National?

The grand tour of Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Grange Hill Farm stables doesn’t take long. It’s a short walk from the converted two car garage that clings to the roadside at the entrance of the yard, past the somewhat industrial looking equine pool to the anonymous looking building that the trainer calls ‘our pride and joy’.

It’s a 52 box barn in the American style with two rows of open fronted stalls facing a central thoroughfare and an additional row facing outwards on each side. Standard stuff in many respects but crucially ‘all our own work’. That’s why it means so much to him.

‘We poured the concrete, put up the steel framework, built it. Built it from scratch. All to our own design. Just how we wanted it’.

The ‘we’ that Twiston-Davies refers to is not an airy fairy affectation, it’s the literal truth. He and his staff built the thing themselves unaided. Hard work, team work and a born farmer’s practicality seem to be the extent of his ‘secret formula’ for success.

The trainer is proud of the efforts of his close knit group of staff. Where he really comes to life though is amongst his horses. There’s a sparkle in the eye now as we move between the stalls. A genuine and simple pleasure at being amongst these animals. More than at any other time in the visit he seems at ease.

More at ease with the horses than at any other time, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander

No surprise I guess for a man who says he’s suspicious of ‘career trainers’ and maintains he’s only ended up here because the ‘money fell out of farming’.

Back in the office there are no airs and graces amongst a group that includes the trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, his partner at Grange Hill Farm stables Carl Llewellyn, head lad Fergal O’Brien and Fergal’s assistant Richard Bevis.

Carl is delighted that the vet doesn’t recognise me from ‘off the telly’. I put it down to the lack of spectacles, Carl puts it down to the lack of a suit and the fact that I actually have legs in real life.

‘Young Hustler would have won that National but for unseating so early wouldn’t he Carl?’ I helpfully suggest.

‘Fell off at the third’ chuckles Twiston-Davies, enjoying a playful dig at the two times National winning jockey.

Llewellyn carefully considers his response before informing us that we can both ‘F*** off’.

Amidst the wisecracks though the real work of the day is being done. That morning’s work is assessed, tomorrow’s work riders allocated appropriate mounts including those that will get the benefit of Llewellyn’s own expertise and experience. Entries are agreed and the endless diagnoses, scopes, washes and lab reports analysed and noted.

The mood is relaxed but the breadth and depth of intelligence and horsesense in the room is obvious. Nobody mentions Cheltenham, where the yard fired in three winners including the Gold Cup itself and a second in the Champion Hurdle. There are no trophies, no commemorative photos and no backslapping.

At the desk of the no frills stable office

But it was right here in this small functional set up on the back of a long hard winter of wind and rain and sleet and snow that the two times Grand National winning trainer and two times Grand National winning jockey saddled the Gold Cup winner and the Champion Hurdle second plus two other Festival winners to boot.

Why then isn’t Nigel Twiston-Davies building another two 52 box barns, why aren’t they rolling out red carpets for the mega rich owners of blue blooded bloodstock?

‘Where I take my hat off to Paul Nicholls is that he is dealing with people with massive egos, massive egos. People I couldn’t cope with. He does a brilliant job with that. We’ve got lovely owners here. Our owners are all good friends, every one of them but they haven’t got huge egos.’

The word ego is pronounced with a distaste bordering on disgust and here perhaps we get close to what makes this man tick and also why he is sometimes misunderstood.

He won’t play the game. Not because he’s wilful or perverse but because it’s not in his nature and his nature is not something he can compromise on. The Paddington bear duffle coat instead of the Barbour and tweeds?

‘I don’t see the point. One of those silly bloody hats as well? I think I dress cleanly and to keep warm. I don’t believe in all this standing about on a racecourse looking pompous. There’s not actually much you can do once you’re at the course. Maybe put the saddle on but any idiot can do that’.

Chatting with him, the conversation is sprinkled with earthy epithets and with plenty of chuckles. A smile is never far away. He’s easy and enjoyable company but there are some hoops he won’t jump through.

‘I won’t do these wretched stable tour articles, you know that go in the Racing Post because you end up upsetting people. It’s a waste of time. I get fed up of reading them. “This horse is wonderful, that horse is wonderful” and they’re not, they’re probably shit most of them and you know they’re shit but you can’t say that can you.’

What about the whole ‘I don’t do interviews’ thing?

‘That was supposed to be a joke! I said to Des Lynam I don’t do interviews ha ha and he just turned around and walked off. And it stuck’.

This explanation doesn’t quite wash though and chatting later as we stroll around the yard it seems to me the reticence is more about not wanting to appear a ‘pompous ass’. He seems appalled by how some of his fellow trainers come across and has a terror of being seen in the same way. So not only will he not wear the uniform, he won’t talk the talk either.

What people think is clearly much more important to him than I had realised. When it comes to his son riding in the Grand National for example he’s keenly aware of accusations of nepotism.

‘Because he’s your son and you’ve persuaded the owners to let him ride that’s a very big worry. If he does something stupid that would really upset me. It stresses me more than if it were Paddy or whatever. Are people saying “is he letting him ride because it’s his son”? You feel a lot more pressure in that way.’

It’s not that he lacks faith in son Sam’s ability, he rates his riding very highly but once again he seems very sensitive to what others might think or say. He can’t bear being thought of as the kind of smug or pompous type he himself can’t abide.

Ask him a straight question though and you’ll get a straight answer. I ask how he switches off and once again the answer is as honest as it is wrong footing.

‘I’ve developed an interest in what’s up there’ he says gesturing skywards. There is an uneasy pause as I wonder briefly whether I’m about to get a born again conversion speech.

‘You know, the stars’ he continues. ‘If I can’t switch off I can think about that. I can research it on the internet and all of the calculations. Some of the things we look at have taken a thousand years to get here. They’re not actually there anymore and it’s amazing some of it. You have to have something sometimes to take your mind of bloody silly horses’.

With that the sparkle returns to the eyes and the chuckle is back too.

So, what did I learn from my trip down to Grange Hill Stables? I learned that eight hundred feet up on a single track road that looks like it’s leading nowhere, there’s an ancient yard of creamy coloured Cotswold stone and it’s filled with bloody silly horses that sometimes win Gold Cups and Grand Nationals. And right at the heart of it there’s a bright eyed, ruddy cheeked, tousle headed father and he’s gazing at the stars.

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9 Responses to “Nigel Twiston-Davies. Dead Stars and Bloody Silly Horses”

  1. greenie Says:

    Didn’t know anything personal about Twiston. A very interesting piece – sounds like a decent bloke. What does his son Sam ride in the National?

  2. seanboyce Says:

    Sorry Greenie, should probably have put it in the piece. Sam Twiston-Davies rides Hello Bud. I’ve done a run through of all of the NTD horses in a separate piece. You can find it in the Grand National section. thanks for posting, welcome aboard,

  3. Graeme Says:

    Nice article, and offers us a bit of insight into his character. He’s likable because he tells it in a way a lot of other won’t. I also think he deserves more credit for his training achievements at the festival. Too many people make ignorant assumptions about others, but we can never truly know what it’s like to be someone else. I hope he gets plenty of winners in the future.

  4. seanboyce Says:

    He’s a really interesting character I think Graeme. He is not as polished with the media as some but that’s not a skill that comes easily to everyone but he is a straight talker and he gets the job done when he has the ammo that’s for sure. I hope at least one of his goes well in the big one today.

  5. grahamvprice Says:

    I advise people to look at NTDs website. His “Todays Runners ” section is very honest and informative and “Bronwen’s Blog” is absolutely hilarious!

  6. seanboyce Says:

    Quite right Graham, it’s well worth checking out.
    Welcome aboard by the way and thanks for posting.

  7. Graeme Says:

    NTD done well on Saturday. It’s kind of ironic maybe in a sense, that many people call for more charisma in racing, yet sometimes it’s the charismatic ones who don’t keep you as well informed as the likes of NTD, who will just give you it straight. An informative trainer or jockey is better than a charming one as far as my losing bank is concerned. As had been said in the interview, top trainers are always going to tell you they can win to appease connections, even when they know it’s a tough task. I’m guilty of getting reeled in.

  8. keno Says:

    Its nice when the “Good Guys” come through with winners

  9. seanboyce Says:

    Hey, Keno welcome aboard. Been a great season really for NTD and Carl, the deserve a lot of credit. I didn’t realise till I went down there how much they’ve been battling with sick horses too throughout the season. They also had an unbelievable run of ’seconditis’ Think they’ve had about 100 runners up this season.
    The strike rate doesn’t always look that good but I think that’s to do with how often they run their horses, and they do send them out as much as they can I think but they’ve shown with Commnder and Khyber that they can bag top prizes too.

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