Action men in sibling partnership

Greg Wood on brothers who merged their racing stables
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The Independent Online
One of the reasons why so many trainers are hopeless tipsters is that, like doting parents at the school sports day, they refuse to believe that their little darlings can be anything other than the fittest and fastest in the class. Try as they might to avoid sentimentality, many of the horses become additions to the family, to be cherished and defended accordingly, and just as few parents would want to share their family with the one next door, the thought of mixing their string with that of a fellow trainer would not be an agreeable one.

In one Lambourn stable, though, just such an arrangement is currently enjoying considerable success, but it is surely no coincidence that the trainers involved are family already. When a persistent virus stopped Simon Sherwood's training career in its tracks, a convoy of horseboxes was dispatched to his yard in East Garston, and returned to Rhonehurst, for 14 years the base for Oliver, his brother, with Simon's entire string.

The two Sherwood operations were merged into one, and while Jockey Club bureaucracy allows only one name - Oliver's - on the licence, the new regime is very much a partnership of equals.

And three months in, it is proceeding very smoothly, with a 22 per cent strike rate and more than pounds 110,000 banked in prize-money. There is also an easy air about Rhonehurst and the Sherwoods, a sense of confidence and optimism, which implies that the decision to unify their yards was a very shrewd one.

It is certainly not a half-hearted exercise, extending even to the respective brothers' stable dogs, which now scurry around the same kitchen table. "Basically it's a totally straightforward business merger," Oliver says. "Of course there's going to be a few teething problems, but we've always got on well and we seem to have struck a good balance. Obviously, there was much more upheaval for Simon, he had to sell the yard and move into a new house, which was quite traumatic, but his owners have all been marvellous.''

When Simon Sherwood saddled a double at Cheltenham on Gold Cup day, 1992, it was inconceivable that his time in East Garston would, within four years, reach such a conclusion, but the virus which swept through his string was both stubborn and thorough. "Three seasons after the Festival double we just hit a brick wall," he says. "We were wiped out, just eight winners, and then we had to replace the whole lot and of the 26 we got, 12 of them were bumper horses. I wasn't making money, and it's easy to get on the slippery slope, waiting for a good winner. Suddenly, you're in a tricky financial situation.''

Even so, the decision to join his brother was not sudden or one-sided. "It was a communal idea, really. We realised that we needed each other, not necessarily as people, but that our businesses needed each other.

"The fates had dealt me a couple of duff cards. I've always been a little like that, if I'm not going in the direction I want, then I'll get out before I have to fight through and come back and do the whole cycle.''

Oliver's operation, meanwhile, has received an injection of vigour and new possibilities from which even such a successful yard can benefit after almost a decade and a half in the business. Many fine animals have passed through his hands, The West Awake, Cruising Altitude and Arctic Call among them, while another, Large Action, is back in training after a long absence through injury and may yet win the Champion Hurdle which would reward his talent and durability.

Firm ground may rule him out of the Bula Hurdle, over the Champion's course and distance, at Cheltenham this weekend, but with his successful return to the track in a Grade One hurdle at Fairyhouse last month, Large Action has already provided Oliver Sherwood with one of the most satisfying moments of his career.

"There are times when I could walk away from it all, when I just don't want the hassle," he says. "When an owner takes their horses away, or lets rip when you're doing your best. The vast majority of my owners are wonderful, but you get some nowadays with no animal sense at all, they want immediate returns and don't understand that animals are subject to sniffs and coughs. The grass is always greener and they switch round like the magic roundabout, just for the sake of it.

"But then you get a day like the one in Ireland with Large Action, and it makes it all worthwhile. I must admit that in the darkest tunnels I didn't think he'd come back to be a Champion Hurdle horse, and we could still move up to staying races if the speed's not quite there, but I'd love to think we could go to the Champion with a live chance. If ever a horse deserved to win it, it's him. He's a real pro, so easy to train. You can just keep giving him work and he'll bounce back for more.''

Large Action may inevitably be identified with Oliver Sherwood, but between the brothers there is no displaced jealousy, no "he used to be mine" attitudes. "It would be well-nigh impossible if it was, say, a Sherwood and Kim Bailey joining up because both would retain their identity," Simon says.

``We will probably set out some ground rules as we go along, but at the moment we're both feeling our way, getting to know each other's horses, rather than needing to delegate roles.

``Perhaps after the first year, we'll sit down and work out where our strengths and weaknesses are. Ultimately, Oliver probably has the final word to a certain extent, but if I disagree with something, I'm certainly going to voice it, and then we'll talk it through.

"Basically it's just like any other partnership. The most important thing is to keep talking." And for as long as the two masters of Rhonehurst keep talking, you can be fairly sure that they will keep training winners.