Greystoke, the ancestral birthright of a fictional icon, Tarzan, but the actual home to an authentic legend, the late Gordon W Richards, can be a forbidding locale when spring is undecided whether to massage its extremities with warm fingers. Here, with the Cumbrian mountains providing a scenic backdrop but absolutely no barrier to the northerly winds, the change of seasons is clearly on hold as the son and heir to the Richards racing empire, Nicky, parades his Cheltenham-bound élite squad.
Among them the costly purchase Faasel, frustratingly denied being Richards' first Festival winner by the thrust of Pen-zance's head in last season's Triumph Hurdle. The gelding is quietly fancied for this year's Champion Hurdle, despite an anticipated Irish assault. Then there is the novice chaser Turpin Green and the grey Monet's Garden, whose colour and imposing frame immediately cause you to wind back the years for a few eerie seconds . . .
A decade go, with the mighty One Man approaching his pomp, and about to secure successive King George VI Chases, I interviewed Richards Snr and persuaded him to be photo-graphed with the then eight-year-old up at the castle where the trainer occasionally rode him out. In the pale dawn light, it was like a ghostly apparition. One Man went on to claim the 1998 Queen Mother Champion Chase too, but by then Richards was too ill to witness the success of a horse in whom he had always had faith. At Aintree two weeks later, One Man suffered a fatal fall. In the autumn, the trainer succumbed to cancer.
Back in the present, it is decision time at Greystoke, as it is at all the major National Hunt yards as trainers contemplate this annual star trek to the festival. To boldly go? Or wait for Aintree? Or postpone your challenge for a year? The latter appears the most likely option for Monet's Garden, a top-grade hurdler who, among other feats, eclipsed the current joint Gold Cup favourite, Monkerhostin, last season and has converted seamlessly to chasing. The Arkle or Royal & SunAlliance Chase are possibilities, but he is not certain to be a challenger. Impetuosity is not in the family genes.
"One Man and Monet's Garden have got similar ways about them," says Richards. "The beauty of One Man, and up to now the beauty of this horse, is his jumping. He flows over his fences. But Monet's has got a mountain to climb before he's a One Man. He's a very high-class prospect, the best I've had since I started training, and any trainer in the world would love to have him. Hopefully, he'll go on from here, but you have to make the right decisions for the horse. Maybe it's too early for him. It's possible he just wouldn't have enough experience right now."
He adds: "Fortunately, he's got a very understanding owner. This is a lovely young horse, but we want to view the whole picture. We want five or six years out of him. And hopefully, after then, we'll be saying, 'By Christ, he was a ruddy real 'un'. That's the way father used to train 'em. He didn't rush his horses, did he? One thing father always said: 'When you think you've got a good horse, train him like a good horse'. I've never forgotten that."
Richards, who was assistant to his father, speaks of him frequently, and with veneration. Yet inheritance of a grand name in racing has always been both mightily beneficial, taking many pounds out of the saddle cloth of opportunity, and a welter-weight burden. It can open doors to influential owners and bloodstock agents; it can also impose absurd over-expectation.
Richards, approaching 50, was already in his forties when his father died. "I suppose I was always going to take over," he recalls. "Although I had applied for one or two other jobs by then. If he'd gone on for another 10 years, I don't know if it would have been a little bit late in life for me to start training horses."
When the time came, presumably he had to prove himself a little more than a counter-part without the appendage of a famous name? "Yes, I suppose people will have been looking more closely at me, the same as Nick [son of Josh] Gifford, and Tim [son of Peter] Easterby. That's just the way of the world," he agrees. "When you're taking over something like this, it's a bit of a challenge. There's no doubt about that. I remember right at the start, Martin Pipe came up and shook my hand when we bumped into each other at the sales and said: 'Good lad, you're doing all right'. I've always appreciated that.
"But one thing father instilled into everybody, jockeys and stable staff, and into me as well, was a great determination and self-belief. A lot of his friends in the industry were very supportive towards me. You need that when you hit a low ebb. Towards the end [of his life], father said of his horses, 'The young ones aren't a great bunch and the older horses are just getting a bit too old, but you've got the best owners'."
One significant patron, Jim Ennis, had already "drifted away", recalls Richards. "But father and Jim had always stayed friends and no bridges were burnt." That fact was to prove fortuitous. "Jim's always been a great friend of Greystoke. He'd watched me plugging away with some of the lesser horses and doing quite nicely with what I had.
"One day, Jim gave me the big cheque: 'Go and buy a real one,' he told me. 'I'd love to win that Champion Hurdle.'
"Well, you're not going to pick up a Champion Hurdle winner for peanuts. So we paid out 230,000 guineas for Faasel. We'd done our homework nicely on that horse. The truest words were Jim's, when the horse finished third to Harchibald at Cheltenham earlier this season: 'He's just a boy against a man at the moment'. It's true. Another summer could bring him on."
However, Richards is adamant that the five-year-old Unfuwain gelding is worthy of his chance, given good going, despite the potent threat from Irish raiders. "We'll go and have a right old go at them."
Gordon W Richards, the jumps trainer, was, and is, frequently confused with the doyen of Flat jockeys, Sir Gordon Richards. In fact, he was actually named after the knight. When plain Gordon began his racing career as a Flat apprentice in 1944, a pedantic clerk of the scales inserted a "W" so as "to avoid any confusion" As if. An increasingly futile battle with the scales forced Richards to turn to the jumps game. He retired after breaking his back in a fall at Perth. That one moment conspired to produce one of the country's most successful trainers. His record of almost 2,000 winners during 34 years as a trainer included two Grand National winners, in Lucius and Hallo Dandy.
Richards Jnr was himself an accomplished amateur jockey, but weight took its toll with him, too. He also had some fairly stiff competition when it came to riding the yard's horses. "Father had Ron Barry as his first jockey. And later we got a young fellow called Jonjo O'Neill from Ireland. I was never really going to figure, was I?"
He is now in his eighth season training, and the Richards yard is flourishing. A tally of 50 winners last season; 48 already this, a testament to his dedication. A twice divorced father of four, Richards has a fiancée, Caroline Armstrong, who "rides out and helps around the place". Clearly a standard condition of entry to the family's affections.
Relaxation he regards as an alien concept. "I've got some very wealthy clients. They send horses to me because they know they're going to get total dedication. Also, I live for the banter with the jockeys and the craic with the owners."
You suggest that the Flat could be a more lucrative proposition. "Why should I?" he retorts. "It's true I'm never going to be a rich man. But we're competing at the sales at quite a high level now and we're determined to get as high up that ladder as we can.
"Greystoke is very labour-intensive. It's long, gradual, build-up to fitness, using proper National Hunt training methods, and everything we make out of this job, we plough back into it in facilities."
He pauses and runs the question through his head once more, before adding mischievously: "Mind you, if one of the Arabs or Coolmore rang you up . . . well, that's a different matter, isn't it? You can never say never."
For the moment, Cheltenham dominates all thinking. "I want to prove myself as a real high-class trainer and I know I'm no way near being there yet. You've got to earn that respect to be regarded at that level, and what you achieve at Cheltenham plays an important part."
Already Richards has demonstrated that he is considerably more than the son of a genius who produced a champion in One Man. He has confirmed that he is very much his own man.
LIFE & TIMES
NAME: Nicholas Gordon Richards.
BORN: 25 February 1956, Alnwick, Northumberland.
EARLY DOORS: won Flat championship as amateur rider, 1973; became assistant to father Gordon at Greystoke stables.
CAREER: took over Greystoke as jumps trainer upon death of father in autumn 1998; won with first runner, Better Times Ahead, at Carlisle, October 1998; 15 winners in first season; best of 50 winners in a season, 2004-05; 48 winners so far in 2005-06.
HIGHLIGHTS: treble on first day of Aintree meeting with Monet's Garden, Turpin Green and Faasel.
FAMILY CONNECTIONS: as well as legendary father, sister Jo and daughter Jo work at Greystoke.Reuse content