Racing: Fundamentalist aim fires Twiston-Davies

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The Independent Online

Receptions have certainly changed at the Grange Hill Farm fortress of Nigel Twiston-Davies, high above the Cotswolds village of Naunton.

Receptions have certainly changed at the Grange Hill Farm fortress of Nigel Twiston-Davies, high above the Cotswolds village of Naunton. Where once the press hordes could have expected boiling oil cascading down from the ramparts, the only hot liquid yesterday was coffee, served by the trainer himself, with the thoughtful accompaniment of custard creams and milk chocolate digestives. It was like going to see Mr Chips.

Twiston-Davies is a changed man both in circumstance and demeanour. Much of it has to do with the yard's fortunes. Thanks to the likes of Fundamentalist and Ollie Magern, the stable lies fifth in the championship. The results have been enough to justify Twiston-Davies's decision to continue in his trade.

One April moment two years ago, he was just over nine minutes from retirement. It was a sunny, windy day at Aintree, the sort of afternoon you would have needed a windbreak on the local beach, and Twiston-Davies was ready to take his bucket and spade home. But, as he stood outside the marquees at the top of the straight, the trainer witnessed Bindaree, on the big screen, catch What's Up Boys within the last 75 yards.

"If he'd finished second we'd have stopped," Twiston-Davies said yesterday. "I'd be farming by now, probably somewhere back towards Wales. I'd have bought a little patch there. But I didn't want anyone else to train Bindaree because they might have done better and I do say thank you to him a lot. Every time I have an apple he gets the core. I owe him."

While a fresh spirit of glasnost may be blasting through his part of Gloucestershire, Twiston-Davies's appearance remains reassuringly constant. He emerged into a low, blinding sun yesterday, having just jammed his finger in a door. His hair was reliably tousled and he wore a pair of distressed moccasins.

The team has changed though. After Bindaree's National, Twiston-Davies bought out his partner and childhood friend, Peter Scudamore. It was a new beginning professionally and in his attitude to publicity.

"We grew up together and it was very tricky," Twiston-Davies said. "But you want to sell when you want to rather than when you have to, and we were getting fewer and fewer horses, less and less money, and something was going to have to give. What was wrong was the financial figure. It could not support two families. One had to go." Twiston-Davies's calculations worked out that it was not to be his.

"I'm not solvent because I had to take out a £1m overdraft to pay him off. Solvency is not a word I'm used to. So while I've always thought people looked stupid on the telly and said stupid things - which I never wanted to do - a £1m overdraft makes you do things you don't want to. But I'm enjoying it a lot more and for one reason - the horses."

The old crusader Bindaree is again ready for the front and the armour is being prepared to defend his Welsh National crown.

Ollie Magern, the Hennessy Gold Cup runner-up on Saturday, is achieving figures constant with a winner of the Festival's Royal & SunAlliance Chase, which is precisely his target. "He's the forgotten horse of the Hennessy," Twiston-Davies said. "He was a six-year-old, giving a more experienced horse [Celestial Gold] 4lb and was beaten just over a length. And the other one is meant to be the hero."

Ollie Magern possesses the physique of a runt and the really big horse at Grange Hill this year is the biologically massive one, Fundamentalist. Before the weekend he would have been odds-on in a match with Pegasus, but then came defeat in a tactical race at Newbury.

"It was total overconfidence on all our parts," Twiston-Davies said. "We thought he was going to win by hundreds of miles and we were outmanoeuvred. He is such a special horse and Carl [Llewellyn, his jockey] tried to be kind to him, to do as little as possible. If he'd given him a belt into the second last I'm sure he would have sprinted away. And he didn't want to deck him at the last. In a funny sort of way, the pressure is off a bit. He's no longer the wonder horse."

Maybe not to others, but Fundamentalist remains non-pareil in Twiston-Davies's mind. That is the reason why the Pillar Chase at Cheltenham in January is part of the programme. Only then, against the experts, will we learn if Fundamentalist has the qualities to win the race his trainer most covets. "I'd love to win a Gold Cup," Twiston-Davies said. "Other than that, the ambition is to become solvent."