It has not been a solitary spring for Noel Chance, the Lambourn trainer, at his Saxon House stables. Never before have so many journalists beaten a path to an unlicensed establishment.
For the incumbent is not only great company but also a man with a great story to tell. About his slow-burning career which has survived several assassination attempts and about the former invalid Looks Like Trouble, who, on Thursday, will attempt to become the first horse since L'Escargot 30 years ago to win successive Cheltenham Gold Cups.
Blue Riband day will afford Chance, at the age of 50, the opportunity of winning his third Gold Cup in the last five runnings. He has a 100 per cent record thus far – entered two, won two – following the exploits of Mr Mulligan in 1997 and Looks Like Trouble two years ago. The beauty of a third victory is that we know it will not inflate the trainer excessively. Too much has happened before to make the Irishman overly conceited.
It has not been easy for Noel Chance and the only short cuts he has ever found were in the shaving mirror. His father died when he was two and the young boy had to be farmed out to an aunt as he grew up.
There was, though, an innate love of the racehorse (Chance snr had been a head lad) and, by his early 20s, Noel had already spent five years as a stable lad with the Irish landowner, Sir Hugh Nugent.
That passage was followed by a similar period with the Sydney trainer Neville Begg, who, with his natural generosity and kindness, immediately reminded Chance of a historical figure. It was neither Nightingale or Gandhi. "He was like Hitler," Chance says.
Back home in Ireland and still a young man, Chance returned to the familiar grind, a small figure with small aspirations and similar results. Then, one day, on the grasslands of the Curragh, he struck up a conversation that would lead to the position of private trainer to Michael Worcester, based in Lambourn. Worcester would ultimately become disenchanted with racing, but that was not before Chance had saddled his Mr Mulligan to win the 1997 Gold Cup and also supervised the early career of another good young horse by the name of Looks Like Trouble.
"The first 20 years training for me was difficult but I wouldn't have done anything else," Chance says. "It's a wonderful life. I never had a bob, but I didn't eat in a bad restaurant or stay in a bad hotel. It's a surreal existence training racehorses. You're dealing in vast amounts of money belonging to other people and you tend to lose touch with reality to a certain extent. You tend to lose the value of money, particularly when it's other people's.
"We would make a living now rather than a lot of money. Bad prize-money is the problem. I'm dead sure that the fellow working in the Honda factory at Swindon would be earning a lot more money if he does the same hours that I do. But there is such a thing as quality of life, and you could pay 10 times as much and you wouldn't get me on that assembly line."
Noel Chance talks about his training life as an on-the-edge existence. He seems to have been the Blondin of racing, balancing the books and paying the staff wages with clandestine punts at small tracks. "After Mr Mulligan won the Gold Cup some fellow told me that it must be my finest hour," he says. "I didn't say so, but I thought to myself 'certainly not'. Winning a race 10 years ago to survive was my finest hour.
"Banks don't look too favourably on the training fraternity. It's too dodgy for them. They don't appreciate the phrase 'fell at the last'. But we're still here because there is no substitute for experience in a hard school."
To this day Noel does not do fancy and when you arrive at Saxon House it is coffee in polystyrene cups before a trip up to the gallops in his Mitsubishi jeep. Chance looks like a very big gnome and, as he gets to know you better, his words becomes exponentially more fruity. The air really starts to sting though up on the Uplands trial ground as Looks Like Trouble works both ways around an all-weather gallop. His head is bent to one side with effort and there is clearly plenty of explosive material in the keg.
Jo Waites, his head lass, is clearly pleased by her mount's application and describes her glee with the sort of language that would quieten a docker's tavern. Waites sleeps in a caravan outside her devotion's box for the last two weeks before a Festival. She is not a sentinel worth disturbing.
Looks Like Trouble is not a character to mess with either. He is immense, the possessor of a Clydesdale's backside. As he rambles the lanes of Lambourn he swishes his tail at his galloping companion. They do not go into The Maltshovel pub, which is more than can be said of the entire Saxon House workforce on a Friday evening.
The stable luminary outwardly appears back in the crushing condition of old. By one afternoon in November of 2000, Looks Like Trouble was perhaps the dominant chaser of the modern era. Already a Gold Cup winner, he won unchallenged from a classy field in the James Nicholson Wine Merchant Champion Chase at Down Royal. The horses in the pantheon were getting disturbed that a newcomer would be arriving to knock them down a rung. When Looks Like Trouble returned to his yard, however, his name began to look rather prophetic.
"Before I took the bandage off back home I knew there was a problem because the horse was shying away from me and that's not his character," Chance said. "When I did eventually get to touch his leg he went up in the air. Any other part of a horse's body you can nearly cure, but we knew we'd got the worst injury you can get."
There was a hole in a tendon. "Some people have said that it was not a bad injury, but, on a scale of one to 10, it was a nine. There are no short cuts with this injury so he had to have a year off.
"But we didn't cry into our beer because we were, and still are, so grateful to the horse for providing what he has. People have horses for a lifetime and don't win the races he has for us.
"It's not been like breaking a leg, where theoretically the bone can knit back stronger. The tendon is always suspect. The last two weeks have been the hardest two weeks of all. Before that was a piece of cake in comparison I can assure you.
"I've been winding him up for the last fortnight, and when you wind horses up that's when things go wrong. But if you don't wind them up they don't win. So if he goes, he goes. There's no point in going there half-cocked."
Mid-afternoon on the Festival's final day will be the moment Chance can actually relax, but for now the harshest of the preparation has been completed. Looks Like Trouble galloped on Saturday and his tendons were as cold as a mountain stream when examined yesterday morning.
Chance will not admit it, but he has just about chopped through to the end of the treacherous path. The horse who appeared to have lost it all one winter's day in Northern Ireland is now back. "It's a miracle," the trainer says. "So many people don't realise what you have to do just to get a horse to the races, never mind Cheltenham or the Gold Cup. So many things have to go right. In fact, nearly everything has to go right. It's a miracle to get a horse to the Gold Cup, and a major one to actually win it.
"He's come through it unscathed until now, but the problem with tendons is the jumping. This is a big horse, around 12cwt, and when you've got that weight landing on legs not much thicker than my wrist at 30mph you wonder how they do it. I just don't want to see him breaking down in the race. He doesn't deserve that. Bugger the bets [at 18-1 and 20-1]."
It has indeed been an improbable climb to the top, but there would be few more heartening and well-received victories if he won at the base of Cleeve Hill on Thursday afternoon. And that goes for Looks Like Trouble as well.Reuse content