Henry Joseph Oliver, racehorse trainer: born Droitwich, Worcestershire 7 February 1935; married first June Geary (marriage dissolved), secondly 1978 Sally Goodwin (two sons, three daughters, one stepdaughter); died Broad Green, Worcestershire 16 January 2008.
Henry Oliver's roguish charm as a mercurial trainer of racehorses was often mistaken as concealing a mind forever calculating how to skin the bookmakers. He was a horseman through and through, but his trait of being the hidden hand on the tiller rather than the publicly named trainer only added to a frisson of mystique that somehow never left him. Though a trainer in his own name at the age of 18, he was to win repute by training in all but name for others; firstly Jackie Brutton, then Katie Gaze and finally in tandem with his wife Sally. A winner's enclosure inhabited by a beaming Oliver regularly inspired headlines of gambles landed, often at long odds, but such planning was always played down.
Oliver was in it for the horses. From effectively being forced to like them, when despatched by his father to New Zealand at the age of 15 to find his way in life, Oliver grew to cherish their effect on him and his family. At the time of his death he had been associated with the winners of more than 1,000 races, either as trainer or buyer. He gave the illustrious Peter Scudamore a record-breaking, eight-time champion jockey, his first ever win, on Bruin at the Whitwick Manor point-to-point, and on many return trips to New Zealand after retiring as a trainer he unearthed 69 horses who have won nearly 250 races, for earnings of £1.5m.
The son of a Droitwich horse trader, Oliver developed his own unerring touch. He helped Brutton to record marvellous results when joining her in Andoversford in Gloucestershire. The mare Snowdra Queen won 10 races, Lord Fortune won 23, so when Oliver left to work for Gaze there was a bit of a rumpus.
While Gaze's name was on the licence, Oliver was the unnamed director of the show. Their relationship was not without incident, indeed they teamed up for a defeat still recounted in the point-to-point fraternity in Wales. Riding at the Tredegar Farmers fixture in Gwent in 1970, Oliver jumped the final fence on Frozen Dawn with a substantial lead over Silver Too. He then eased his mount so much that Silver Too was able to catch up, go past, and win. For reasons not recorded, and to the amazement of the crowd and race stewards, the judge gave the verdict to Frozen Dawn, the odds-on favourite.
Oliver's time with Gaze reached a heady crescendo at the Cheltenham Festival of 1972. Gaze trained barely a dozen horses, yet two of them won: Even Dawn in the Aldsworth Hurdle and Cold Day in the County Hurdle. The fact that two horses from such a tiny yard could win at such a prestige event, at odds of 40-1 and 15-1 respectively, added several layers to the Oliver mythology.
His work continued after he married for a second time. With Sally Goodwin he established one of the foremost husband-and-wife teams to have graced British racing. Together they rekindled the brilliance of the hurdler Aonoch who had won six in a row for the champion trainer Fred Winter before slipping out of the spotlight. With the Olivers he bounced back by winning the 1985 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and at the 1986 Grand National meeting, trouncing the Champion Hurdle winner See You Then. For good measure, Aonoch won the Aintree contest again the following year.
There was no doubt that Oliver liked to bet, though he did not look upon himself as a gambler. However, a gamble reportedly worth £80,000 was landed when County Player won at Nottingham, and Shu Fly won what is now one of the season's biggest handicap races, the Greatwood Hurdle, at 10-1. Though the Olivers never had more than 12 horses in a season they managed the remarkable feat of winning races with four of them – Shu Fly, Bolshoi Boy, Knights and Noble Ben – on a single afternoon in 1991, and it would have been five had another not fallen at the last.
Oliver retired from training in 1997 and took up scouting for raw talent in New Zealand with his eldest son, Nick. The Cheltenham Festival winners Lord Relic and Our Armageddon were recruits, as was Spandau, who became the subject of a Jockey Club investigation after it landed an alleged £500,000 gamble at Newton Abbot in 2003. Oliver was one of those who backed the horse but denied he was part of a well-orchestrated coup. There seemed little need, given that the win was the 101st for Oliver's New Zealand imports.
Always a devoted family man, Oliver must have taken immense pride in the knowledge that three of those 1991 winners were ridden by his daughter, Jacqui, while Nick, Sharon and his stepdaughter Sophie all rode in races.
Tony SmurthwaiteReuse content