When Gandolfo first took out a trainer's licence, Pipe was still at school. When Pipe was saddling his first runners, Gandolfo had already claimed a Whitbread, a Midlands National and two races at the Festival. But as the man from Wellington accelerated through the 1980s producing once undreamed-of winning totals, the man from Wantage retreated into the background. The old-fashioned jumps trainers' virtues of care and patience counted for little as a new generation turned to numbers as its measure of achievement.
Yet fashions, and fortunes, can change with the wind. David Gandolfo, now 56, is training his horses just as he has done for 34 years, but suddenly he has a clutch of potential champions, and with his rich experience he is making the most of them. Gales Cavalier - "the best two-mile horse I've trained" - is among the favourites for the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in March. Balanak, a son of the Derby winner Shahrastani recruited from John Oxx's Flat stable in Ireland, is unbeaten in two races over hurdles and a 16-1 chance for the Triumph Hurdle. And Trying Again, winner of the Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday, will run next in the Tote Gold Trophy and could yet be a live outsider for the Champion Hurdle.
Their trainer believes that he is making as much of his horses as he ever has, but this season he simply has the ammunition to do so in good races. "I don't think I've ever had more than 35 or 40 horses," Gandolfo says, "and apart from two seasons when we had the flu, I think our percentages have always been all right. Because of injuries, accidents and disease, one does need to try and enter the numbers game from an insurance point of view, but I've always had few owners, I'm not a great PR man. I wouldn't mind having 100-odd horses provided I was only dealing with 20 owners, but I don't think I'd like to be dealing with 200."
A small, loyal group of owners with an understanding of the game. When many younger trainers would welcome the Devil himself to their table if he gave them an order for a couple of novice hurdlers, the Gandolfo approach depends on trust and respect, built and earned over seasons. "I like to be dealing with people I can speak to frankly, from the belly," he says.
"When you've got any sort of livestock, you've got problems, and one can't get away from that. Some people can understand it, some can't. You'd be surprised the number that don't want to hear the truth. It's a thin line between having adequate patience and chucking good money after bad, and I certainly try not to be guilty of the latter."
Contacts, again established over many years, are another important part of Gandolfo's operation. Gales Cavalier was recommended to the trainer and his owner, Timmy Whitley, by Michael Moore in County Cork, and Moore's services are greatly cherished. "Thewhole family knows their job and most important of all, they're scrupulously honest," Gandolfo says. "One can operate on their word without having to look for bogeys under beds.
"I remember Fred Winter saying to me that one thing you should never let go or sell is one's Irish contacts. Luckily and happily, mine are as good as anyone's, and it really shows this year. It's not just one horse winning lots of races. Most of the horses we've run have done their job."
By giving 13lb and a serious beating to Absalom's Lady at Ascot recently, Gales Cavalier demonstrated that he could be a worthy heir to such former stable residents as Peter Scot and Grey Sombrero. Gandolfo has not saddled a Festival winner since 1982, when Reldis took the Grand Annual, but Gales Cavalier will take some beating in the Arkle if his preference for a right-handed track can be overcome. Balanak, too, will go to the Triumph with every chance, but win or lose, their trainer's career will continue as it has done for more than a quarter of a century.
"I've always known when my horses were healthy," Gandolfo says, "and I've always tried not to go whizzing around in diminishing circles and changing everything when things have been wrong." Now that the big prizes are returning to Wantage once more, it is tempting to suggest that David Gandolfo is back. In truth, of course, he has never been away.Reuse content