Racing: Bowen's western hero heads into town to face the big boys

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The Independent Online

Thanks to Messrs Pipe, Nicholls and Hobbs, the balance of power in the jumping game has undoubtedly swung westwards. But there is west, and west. Peter Bowen's Pembrokeshire base is not quite "here be dragons" territory, but as the crow flies his nearest racecourse is actually across the Irish Sea, in Co Wexford.

On Christmas afternoon Britain's most occidental trainer will be heading out of the sunset with Swansea Bay, an upwardly-mobile seven-year-old who on Boxing Day will take on the perceived big boys in the sport's Yuletide showpiece, the King George VI Chase.

He will be the first runner in any contest at championship level for Bowen's small team. But horse and man have earned their spurs; Swansea Bay is on a five-timer and his trainer's strike-rates this term, 36 per cent overall and 47 per cent in chases, are almost obscene. Of other Yet-y-Rhug inmates, Ballycassidy has won seven, Jollyolly six, Take The Stand and Battle Warning three apiece. "It's unbelievable, isn't it?," said Bowen. "But it often happens that once one or two horses start to improve the rest do too. The good ones bring the others along. And they're healthy. Touch wood, I've not had one cough this season."

It's an ill wind that blows nobody good and the drying one that has turned the ground at Kempton against Best Mate is in Swansea Bay's favour. "He'll run providing the ground is good or faster," said Bowen. "If rain comes we won't be tempted; it's such a good race, the best company he's run in, that he must have everything to suit."

The recent roll of Swansea Bay, bought for £5,000 as an unbroken three-year-old, has been remarkable but his progress has not always been as smooth. "He was always a very nice individual," Bowen said, "He's 16.3 hands, a real big chasing type, but very athletic. From the moment he first popped a pole he was a natural jumper. He had a couple of good runs in bumpers and over hurdles, but then he started gurgling so he had a wind operation.

"Then every time he'd work like an exceptional horse but after his first two chases, when he was beaten out of sight, I was absolutely gutted. I think it took him two or three races to realise 'hey, this doesn't hurt any more, I can breathe, I can do it' and I was probably being a bit impatient expecting too much from him too soon."

This season, Swansea Bay's record is unblemished in four starts, most recently a five-length trouncing of Hussard Collonges at Haydock. Since his first chase win in July last year he has improved more than four stone. "As soon as he got his confidence back, he's gone from strength-to-strength," said Bowen. "Every time we went up a grade we kept thinking it might be too much. But he's kept doing it. He might not be good enough on Boxing Day, but then again he might, and if we don't try we won't know."

Bowen, 45, runs the yard with wife Karen, who combines work-riding duties with those of a mother of three boys under eight. Son of a haulage contractor and a village postmistress, he is a graduate of the point-to-point world, having run a livery yard before taking the plunge with a full licence eight years ago. His stables, off the A40 at Letterston, now run to 52 acres and 43 boxes, with a new Polytrack strip imminent.

His achievements with Swansea Bay, Ballycassidy (due to accompany his stablemate to Kempton, for a Grade One novices' contest), Take The Stand (heading for Saturday's Welsh National) were presaged early. His first winner, Iffeee, cost 5,000gns and won 10 races thereafter, and Stately Home, bought for a mere 900gns, won a record 10 in a season.

The Welshman became the victim of his own success and although he tried to convince himself that his horses were wrong the truth was that they were the wrong horses. "Things started well," he said, "but then we had some lean seasons. One problem was that we did so well with cheap horses that people would give me £1,000 and expect me to buy a good one every time. We've now come to the conclusion that if a horse is not good enough it gets kicked out; there's no way again would I let the boxes fill up with a lot of bad ones."

Bowen has an intimate knowledge of the motorways of Britain but regards his isolation as an asset. "Yes, I am on the road a lot," he said, "but the way I look at it, though, is what I've got is my own. To buy what we have here would cost a million in Lambourn or Newmarket. I'd rather live down here without a mortgage, without having to keep running just to stay still."