In football, great managers often emerge from the margins of their playing days. No doubt because of a common understanding of adversity, much the same is true of those jockeys who start training racehorses. Certainly there is no better test of a trainer than to win a bad race with a worse horse. And while Brendan Powell rode some very good steeplechasers in his time - after all, this is the man who once got Rhyme 'N Reason off his knees at Becher's Brook to win the Grand National itself - the unique distinction he disclosed yesterday has been achieved only through a blend of graft and craft.
Powell has just become the first trainer anywhere, to his knowledge, to count both David Johnson and JP McManus among his patrons. The two biggest spenders in jump racing are very different men, but in Powell both have recognised one innocent of self-importance or calculation, and a trainer who is rapidly earning his stripes. Johnson now has three animals stabled at Powell's Hampshire yard, while McManus has bought one of its most promising inmates in Tokala - winner of his first two bumpers and then second in the strongest such race of the British season so far, at Cheltenham last month. "I must admit that when the silks arrived we did leave them lying casually in the kitchen for two or three days," Powell said.
Tokala is due to make his first start over hurdles between Christmas and New Year. "Not many horses defy a penalty in a bumper, especially four-year-olds," his trainer said. "He ran a blinder at Cheltenham, too, and has already won both on summer and tacky ground. He's a big, good-looking horse, a lovely mover, and he has schooled well. More than anything else, though, he just loves racing - he's so enthusiastic."
This attitude has manifestly been borrowed from his trainer, whose endeavours as a jockey were barely sane. He would drive 100,000 miles a year, schooling horses in Scotland one day and Dorset the next. When he finally retired, five years ago, only Richard Dunwoody had matched the 7,000 mounts he had taken over the preceding 19 seasons. He rode more than 600 winners in all, but he also rode a lot of mediocre animals and some dangerous ones. His retirement was accelerated by a terrible fall at Newton Abbot, in which his chest was crushed and he ended up in intensive care, though naturally Powell himself would happily still be riding now, at 45.
"It just seemed that every year another one would come along, right to the end," he reflected. "Dublin Flyer, Monsignor, Young Kenny. I did enjoy it, all the different people you would meet every day. Whereas this game, now - I didn't realise how stressful it would be. Every time you walk into the yard you find a new problem that you are going to have to explain to someone. But by the same token, I get much more buzz from training a winner than I did from riding one."
Powell enjoys relief from the attrition with his Flat horses, and has mustered a combined score of 43 this year, but his most practical chance of breaking into the big time is probably with jumpers. He nearly did so with Colonel Frank last winter, but he is likely to remain on the sidelines until later in the season, when Punchestown could be on his agenda. "The great thing is that a couple of years ago, for the first time, we were able to buy some unbroken horses," Powell said. "Before we had no choice but to take over horses with problems and try to patch them up. But the horses we have had from day one, they were all unspoilt, all of them could be anything, and I hope they will start coming through."
Powell is also nurturing some talented young riders, though he remains obstinate when it comes to surrendering his own schooling duties. A few weeks ago he fractured a vertebra on the gallops and was told that he would need to spend three months in a brace before daring the saddle again. He got rid of the brace after two days, and was riding out again a fortnight later. Powell's new patron may have many better horses than Tokala, but none will be handled with more devotion.