When he sees a reporter's notebook or a microphone produced under his nose Nigel Twiston-Davies reacts as if he's come across some toxic waste. If you ask the trainer why he doesn't speak to the press he's more than likely to ignore you.
Twiston-Davies himself, however, cannot be ignored at the moment. On the morning of Boxing Day he was 19th in the trainers' championship with eight winners for the season, a six per cent strike-rate and pounds 86,000 in earnings. His Cheltenham stable had been wreathed with virus. By this morning he had leaped to sixth, Earth Summit had collected a Welsh National, Kerawi the Christmas Hurdle and Thursday had yielded a hat-trick. At times like this racing editors ask their men to have another go at securing an audience.
My trump card here was Peter Scudamore, the former champion jumps jockey and assistant to Twiston-Davies. For reasons known exclusively to himself, Scu talks to me. "Whatever you do don't ring Nigel," Scu said. "Take him out to lunch." I thought this was a bit of an insult to a reporter of 20 years standing used to wheedling out words on the telephone. But then Scu was right.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is a conversational Scrooge and speaking to him is like trying to get blood out of a hundredweight. Nigel said he didn't want to talk to me on his land, or anyone else's for that matter. "I don't do interviews," he said. "But I will answer a few questions if you like." This raised an interesting distinction.
Twiston-Davies is not rude about any of this and it's not that he's shy. He just doesn't want to make a charlie of himself on record. "I don't give myself the chance to say something silly and see it in the newspapers the following day," he said. "Some trainers don't come over too well on the television and say things that they regret afterwards. I prefer to let the horses do the talking."
This information blackout means that little is known about the secretive life of the Twiston-Davies. He is rather like one of those brightly spangled butterflies that exist uniquely in Sumatra. But if you wait long enough by the watering hole that is Th' Hollow Bottom in Guiting Power you can catch a glimpse of this easily startled creature. It will either have a lager or gin and soda in its hand.
Indeed, one of the disappointments of Nigel's press reclusion is that he appears like a bloke who might be good company. His face looks as though it has been dipped in a barrel of beetroot and his 40-year-old physique has obviously collided with a few parties.
At the races, it always appears as though Twiston-Davies's body is attempting to escape from its clothing and you have to stop yourself trying to undo his top button. He demonstrates that he is not going to be fooled by fashion gurus by wearing something dangerously close to Paddington's duffel coat.
While Eton might be famous for producing young men who are probably very good at flipping a pancake through 180 degrees, Twiston-Davies is a product of Radley, the trainer factory. His name, upbringing and manner lead many to misdiagnose him. "The persona most people have of him and the reality are two totally different things," Scudamore said. "The general impression seems to be that he's not approachable.
"We've got an owner here called Fred Mills, who's from Essex and not the sort of person you would imagine having a horse with a double-barrelled public schoolboy. When you see this ex-Radley schoolboy who doesn't talk to the press it rather creates the image of an unapproachable figure out of touch with the common man, which is very much the opposite of what he is."
Though he has trained from Grange Hill Farm at Naunton, Gloucestershire, since 1981, Twiston-Davies's operation has only really swollen since Scudamore became his assistant on retirement in the spring of 1993. The talk at the time was that Scu had been smuggling home secrets from Martin Pipe's yard in his lunch box. It is an allegation that neither man denies.
Grange Hill Farm started this season with more than 80 horses. "We're one of the bigger yards in terms of numbers but we haven't got that many expensive horses," Twiston-Davies said. "The majority of our owners come to us as opposed to us searching around London or wherever for them. We're not very good at the PR side and most of our horses are from local people, who possibly haven't got as much money as others.
"Perhaps I'm happier dealing with that sort of horse, that it's not the end of the world should something happen to go wrong with it."
He won't admit this, but old Twiston-Davies is, in fact, a bit of a worrier. Last week's salvo was deeply important to him. "It was very good for everyone's morale: for the yard, the owners, everybody," he admitted. "And for my temper, according to my wife."
Scudamore goes further. "You can't overestimate the importance of that weekend," he said. "Nigel definitely felt the pressure during our bad run. And he may not look like that type of person, but before big races he does worry about things. "He's very good with people. He's open and he wears his heart on his sleeve a bit. He does get wound up.
"Only about a third of horses ever win a race, so most of the time you're letting people down and that's quite hard. You're always ringing up friends and telling them their horse has got a cough or a leg and that's very difficult. That sort of pressure gets to Nigel."
Twiston-Davies can afford to relax a little now, though. The horses are running beautifully and jumping even better, thanks largely to the specialist input of Ginny Elliot, the former world champion eventer. Wisley Wonder, in particular, has shown improvement in his schooling recently and is considered the yard's best hope at Uttoxeter this afternoon. Last time, at Wincanton's final obstacle, the seven-year-old refused when asked the question. They do a lot of that at his yard.Reuse content