It takes more than the vagaries of a particularly impish February morning to disrupt the rhythms of a true racing yard. The sleet comes, then sunshine and a mocking cold wind; horses drift in to the stables from first lot, others are saddled and dispatched in their place, a routine which has changed little since the days of Fulke Walwyn, the original master of Saxon House Stables.
The present incumbent of the yard is a horseman in Walwyn's image. Few would match the dictatorial Fulke's idea of a proper trainer, but Noel Chance would be a sure candidate. If there is potential lurking inside the skinniest of equine frames, the ebullient Irishman has the eye to spot it and the patience to wait for the right day, the precise qualities which brought Walwyn an unparalleled rollcall of victories at the Cheltenham Festival, including five Gold Cups. When Looks Like Trouble emerged from Saxon House to win the last running of the championship two years ago, the handsome young chaser did not just confirm Chance's growing reputation, first announced by Mr Mulligan's victory in the 1997 Gold Cup, he re-established an ancient tradition. But if the champion, his 10-year-old legs bearing the scars of a tendon injury, can return to Cheltenham on 14 March and become the first horse in 31 years to defend his crown, even Walwyn would have to doff his tweed cap. Winning three Gold Cups out of five would bring exclusive company for any trainer, let alone one who spent much of his career eking a living out of unpromising horseflesh on the fringes of the Curragh.
A story is never far distant in a conversation with Chance. This one is about a horse called Pier 39 and a famous coup orchestrated north of the Irish border. "When we went across the border, we would tip the customs guys going through. It saved on the paperwork, and we'd try to tip them a winner too," he recounts. "So we went across this time and said, 'This one's nailed on, you know', and the guy says, 'No, it can't win'. I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because Dessie Hughes has been after coming through here and he says his cannot get beat'. Well, that dented my confidence a bit, but there was no pulling back by then. Everything was set up. Sink or swim, we were on." And Pier 39 won, by a whisker, of course, at 7-1, keeping the good ship afloat for another few months and confirming Chance's fervent belief that his maker might just be a betting man.
Even now, he is only just revealing to his long-suffering wife, Mary, some of the scrapes that have littered their married life. "I'll say to her, 'You remember that holiday we had in such and such. Do you know how I paid for that?' and she'll say, 'Noel, I don't want to hear it'." Though, as the daughter of a bookmaker, she knows the rules well enough.
The breadline is ripe territory for reminiscence and anecdote. "It's all so serious now," he adds. "It's different. The bank can close you down just like that. Before the computer age, you could write a cheque on a Tuesday, knowing it wouldn't be cashed until the following week and you had a good horse running on the Saturday. If the worst came to the worst, you could always ring up and say, 'Can you hang on to that cheque for a day or two'. I remember once being called in to see the bank manager because I was overdrawn about 150 quid. My limit was only £500 anyway, but this guy calls me in. Now I've always believed that the best method of defence is attack, so I went in and said, 'You're absolutely right about this overdraft, it's not big enough, I need £4,000.' When he'd picked himself up, he asked how I intended to repay it. 'Simple,' I said, 'I'll back a winner.' Needless to say, I didn't get the few grand." But, mostly, that has been the way, back a winner, pay a few bills, spend the change.
With two Gold Cups and a Royal & SunAlliance Trophy to his name now, Chance's days of ducking and diving are all but over. He regrets none of them because he knew no different and because living on his wits is a particular strength. Strangely, like so many raconteurs, he is a hard man to pin down emotionally. His philosophy is uncompromisingly simple, his temperament irrepressibly optimistic. A loser today means a winner tomorrow. It has been that way since St Patrick's High School, Downpatrick, where fishing consumed far more time than studying. If there is one regret in his life, it is the absence of any image or recollection of his father, a head lad who died when Chance was two years old, leaving nothing apart from the most significant inheritance of all, which was a love of horses. He was brought up by an aunt in Northern Ireland and readily admits that his youth was spent as fecklessly as much of his adulthood.
"When I think of my mother working away to send me to school and me only worrying about whether I caught a big enough fish, I shudder at the thought. I made it up to her, but that's not something I'm proud of. Racing is all I've known, I couldn't do anything else even if I wanted to, I'm not qualified. With racing, you're always on the fringe, on the fringe of having a good horse, on the fringe of having a gamble, it's a surreal sort of lifestyle sometimes because you eat in good restaurants, stay in the best hotels, deal with thousands of pounds buying and selling on behalf of other people, and yet you're having difficulty paying the mortgage. That's just the way it is. It's a stressful life, but if you can get by, it's a great life."
Jo Waites, his head lass and an obvious driving force in the yard, acts as the lightning conductor for any brief flashes of anger. If she gets it in the neck, the lads feel it a moment later. But laughter is the stable's more dominant sound. After nearly four years, Jo knows all the trainer's pet hates and stock phrases. "Can you go to Newbury Station and catch the 1.15 train at 1.20?" means "First lot was late pulling out". If the horses are caught clothed in odd sheets on the gallops, it is "Farmer Brown has been looking for his cows again".
But training winners has never been more competitive, and spells as a lad in Australia and with a grand old trainer called Sir Hugh Nugent on the Curragh have taught Chance the importance of attending to detail. "We don't do a lot of shouting and roaring, but we still mean business," he says. "If things aren't done right, you're on the slide. It's as simple as that." Every morning, Chance, Mark Pitman and Charlie Mann vie to be first on to the Lambourn gallops, not for the sake of competition, but to get the best ground for their horses.
Waites likes the informality of the management, the fact that she can call him "Noel" not "Boss", unlike her last yard, and that, every evening, when they solve the Rubik's Cube of tomorrow's exercise schedule, he listens to what she has to say. Above all, she likes the fact that attendance at the Maltshovel pub down the road is compulsory for the whole yard on a Friday evening and that the trainer himself will quite often be the first to arrive and the last to leave. The standing joke between them is that Jo trains the winners, Chance the losers. "No, I'm a good-news man" is his standard response to bad tidings. Last week, though extra security has already been summoned, Waites set up her caravan outside the box of the Gold Cup favourite. She will stay there every night until the race just as she did two years ago, with her dogs for company. One night back then, she was woken up by a voice outside calling "Come on, boy". No one was there, but she swears to this day that it was Fulke Walwyn.
If there are demons in the air, Chance has yet to meet them. When Mr Mulligan ran in the SunAlliance at Cheltenham in 1996, his first full season as a private trainer in England, he could barely buckle up the saddle because of nerves. Michael Worcester, the horse's owner who brought Chance over to train in Lambourn, was even worse. "How that saddle stayed on, I don't know," Chance laughs. "Suddenly, this was serious stuff, we had the great white hope for the SunAlliance and I hadn't been there before." Mr Mulligan, a lumbering, diesel-engined giant of a horse, finished second that day, but galloped the opposition into the ground in winning the Gold Cup under Tony McCoy the following year, a result widely regarded as a "fluke". A lingering sense of injustice still hovers over the yard, not a bad motivational force on cold mornings.
On the wall of Chance's office there is a framed cutting of a newspaper article the morning after Looks Like Trouble won the SunAlliance Chase. "Concern for fallen favourite casts a shadow," the headline read. Well, yes, there was understandable concern for the fate of the Irish-trained Nick Dundee, the hot favourite who was badly injured in a fall three fences out. But Chance believes to this day that his horse would have won that race anyway and reckons Trouble's victory in the Gold Cup the following year proved his claim. A substandard Gold Cup, countered the critics, who also were less convinced about the worth of the champion's victorious return to action after injury at Wincanton earlier this year. Yet it was some feat of training to get the horse back on to the racecourse, let alone back to a fair imitation of his old self. It will not seem that way on the day, but if Trouble reaches the tape on 14 March in prime condition, victory or defeat is essentially irrelevant. The hard work, the nights of fretting and the hour and a half Waites spends each day, washing down, blow-drying and bandaging those delicate forelegs, will have been worth the effort.
"We nearly expect it now, this last bit with the run-up to Cheltenham," Chance says. "We've got to the stage when we'd be disappointed if he didn't win. I have to catch myself and say, 'Hang on, let's get there first, let's tone the whole thing down'. If he stays in one piece, he'll get there, if he doesn't, he won't. We've always felt that if we can get him to Cheltenham raring to go, it will take a good horse to beat him." Reality, though, has not stopped him from playing out the race a thousand times in his mind.
On Wednesday morning, as racing digested the news of the Jockey Club's drug tests on five yards, the stable star was sauntering up the Lambourn gallops in front of television crews from the BBC and French Channel 4. To an outsider's eye, he looked supreme, almost arrogant in his work. For Waites, who relinquishes the morning ride to no one except perhaps Richard Johnson, his Gold Cup jockey, and John Francome, the former champion and Channel 4 analyst, this is the best part of the day. Chance counts down another morning without mishap. A long time ago, an agent in Ireland who had a nice horse to place, said: "Sorry, Noel, I can't help you here. This one's got to go to a good trainer." He meant one of the big trainers on the Curragh; the perception was that big meant good. Chance, with 45 horses in his yard and more at the gate, is big enough now. With two Gold Cups in the cupboard and another in the offing, the question of quality has already become academic.
Biography: Noel Chance
Born: 18 December, 1951, Dublin.
Educated: St Patrick's High School, Downpatrick.
Family: Wife, Mary; daughters, Fiona, 18, and Eimear, 16.
Career: 1967, worked for Sir Hugh Nugent; 1971, moved to Australia to work for Neville Begg in Sydney; 1974, returned to Ireland to train on the Curragh; 1995, came to Folly House Stables, Lambourn, as private trainer for Michael Worcester; 1999, set up as public trainer at Saxon House, Lambourn.
Biggest wins: Mr Mulligan (Reynoldstown Chase 1996; Gold Cup 1997); Looks Like Trouble (Sun Alliance Chase 1999; Gold Cup 2000; John Bull Chase 2001); Flagship Uberalles (Tingle Creek Chase, 2000).
Career winners in England: 80.Reuse content