An insipid sun bleaches the Cotswolds, and the chill draughts cleansing this corner of Gloucestershire confirm that autumn will soon yield to winter. For the National Hunt fraternity, though, this is as intoxicating a moment in their year as the first fall of snow is to skiers bound for the Austrian Alps.
You can sense the anticipation as the trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, like a proud father, introduces us to a select number of his charges, some ofwhom are bound for Cheltenham next week and The Open, the first major jumps meeting of the season.
"Morning, everybody," he welcomes us. "As you know I don't talk to the press, so you can all go home now." It is a self-mocking reference to the days when this same Twiston-Davies was racing's Greta Garbo - he even told an astonished Des Lynam, waiting to pounce on the victorious Grand National trainer, "I don't do interviews" - and would not have had media observers anywhere near his Grange Hill Farm stables at Naunton. This is the same Twiston-Davies who, just over two years ago, came close to not having those stables for anyone to visit. It needed that second National victory of his career, Bindaree's triumph in 2002, to provide the catalyst for a second coming.
Twiston-Davies, 47, a former amateur rider and farmer-turned-trainer, first invaded the consciousness of the racing world with the gutsy mare Mrs Muck. Victories in the Whitbread Gold Cup, with Beau, and the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, with Kings Road, ensured his name became as prominent in the National Hunt game as those under whom he learnt the training art: Fred Rimell, David Nicholson and Kim Bailey.
Yet in the year before he won that second National, he had considered quitting. "I thought I didn't have very good horses and seriously thought about doing something else," he says. "Going back to farming." How seriously? "Oh, it was definite," insists the father of two sons. "If we'd been second in the National I'd have sold all this and gone away." He adds: "It wasn't a temporary low. Maybe I would have gone somewhere else and had a small farm or something, and had a few horses, but it wouldn't have been like this."
"This" is his 100 acres, which Twiston-Davies still farms but which, more significantly, provide stabling and facilities for his current equine entourage of 75. Not quite the 100 horses he trained in his heyday, but nicely manageable.
They include Redemption, who is entered for next Saturday's centrepiece, the Paddy Power Gold Cup. In last season's renewal, the nine-year-old had to be pulled up after his saddle slipped. Then he fell two out while travelling fluently in the bonusprint.com Gold Cup, also at Cheltenham. The bay gelding has not jumped fences since, and is regarded by his trainer as "the forgotten horse" of the race. That suits Twiston-Davies admir-ably. He admits: "I helped myself to £500 at 20s this morning. I recommend you do as well." He adds: "It's a very competitive race, but he was going brilliantly when he fell last year. We think he's jumping better now and he runs off the same [handicap] mark. He schooled beautifully this morning. He'll be very brave."
His other runners at the meeting include the six-year-old Fundamentalist, winner of the Royal and SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle at this year's Festival. He will be aimed at a novice chase.
Numerically, this season has provided a rich harvest already, with a five-timer at Perth among Twiston-Davies's 40 winners. A wet autumn has softened the ground, and meant that many of his charges have been out earlier than anti-cipated. "We've got the wins in the bag," he says. "We've never had a hundred winners before, but that's got to be a thought, hasn't it? It's definitely feasible with these quality of horses."
So, what inveigled him out of his slough of despondency? "Oh, purely the National win - and the fact that I didn't want anyone else to train Bindaree," he says. "At that stage, I had Peter Scudamore [the former champion jump jockey] as a partner. This establishment simply couldn't support two people, two families. The easiest way of splitting with him was selling the whole thing. In the end, I bought him out, but I had to get a huge overdraft to do it." Or as he once put it, "[It meant] taking on a bigger debt than Argentina."
A welcome twist which accompanied this watershed in his career is that he is now forthcoming with the media, to whom he used to decline interviews on the grounds, as he once told me, that he had nothing to say. The strange thing is that this character, who slightly resembles a smarter, slimmer version of the comedian Rory McGrath, is articulate and possesses a dry humour.
Twiston-Davies demonstrates that when he recounts the only occasion he ever had a cross word with his long-time stable jockey, Carl Llewellyn. "A horse jumped badly over hurdles at home, schooling. I said to Carl, 'Go and jump it over fences'. He thought that was a bit much. I think he had a bit of a headache from the night before. His reply was, 'Go and ride the f****** thing yourself'. But he did ride it and it jumped beautifully. So I won the argument."
You remark that he appears relaxed, ebullient even, these days. "That's what happens when you don't have to ask yourself too many questions," he says. "You only worry when you aren't going well. Success is very enjoyable. It's better than working for a living, isn't it?" But if things become tough again - what would be his response then? "You just have to get your head down... and win the National," he says wryly. "Just don't get too bogged down in it. You just have to remember the war in Iraq and things like that. Whether my horse goes faster than somebody else's doesn't really matter in the great scheme of things, does it? Sometimes you must put things in perspective."
Just as he did a couple of years ago. The rewards since have illustrated the benefits, while demonstrating to him that it's actually good to talk.Reuse content