Racing: Semple tilts at the top with Big Timer

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A giant wind farm dominates the Lanark hill where Ian Semple gallops his horses, two dozen graceful monsters whirling their arms over a huddled forest.

The windmills give the enterprise below an irresistibly quixotic flavour, with its sweat and straw and dung, and its heroic ambition. But they might also prompt British racing to consider its own alternative sources of energy.

Scotland is one of the sport's backwaters, home to just one Classic winner, when Rockavon came down from Dunbar to win the 1961 2,000 Guineas at 66-1. Tomorrow Semple saddles Appalachian Trail in the Totesport Ayr Gold Cup, knowing that no Scottish horse has won its most cherished prize since Roman Warrior, 31 years ago. Yet Semple is refuting convention, much as he did by only starting to train as he approached his 50th birthday, following years of contented anonymity.

At 15, weighing 5st 4lb, he had taken a train from Glasgow to discover the menial, meticulous lore of stablework under Major Hern on the Berkshire Downs. "Character-building stuff," he remembers. "But a great grounding. Once a month, we had Sunday evening stables off, and usually I sold mine to a married lad."

After a mediocre riding career, he served long spells with John Dunlop and John Gosden, until lured home by family life and the chance to train a rabble of horses on a building site. That was nine years ago. Now Belstane Stables can be saluted as the most successful Flat yard in Scotland since Nigel Angus included Roman Warrior among 35 winners in 1975.

Last season Semple became the first to better that score since, and now he has a wholehearted new landlord in Gordon McDowall: a polytrack gallop has been laid, another barn is going up, and Big Timer has been saved from predators.

This unbeaten colt is a primal force of nature, a slab of power to match all those windmills, and last month became Semple's first Group winner in the Acomb Stakes at York. Having been discovered by Dean McKeown for just $15,000 (£8,000), the colt is now too valuable for his owners to resist a profit. Thankfully McDowall has seen off bidders from outside the yard, and Semple is now preparing Big Timer for a Grade One race at Belmont next month, conceivably a gateway to the Breeders' Cup itself. "He has a high cruising speed, he's by a dirt horse in Street Cry, and would have greater earning potential over there next year anyway," Semple said, geldings being ineligible for British Classics. "This will be a great advertisement for what we are trying to do here, though I expect they will dress me up in a kilt."

McDowall stepped in after Semple's previous backers resisted fresh investment. "They thought that at my age I should be playing golf, not looking for new headaches," he said. "It's hard to believe you can still be so ambitious coming up to your bus pass. I must have been wired up wrong."

Semple made his name as a beachcomber, salvaging driftwood from other stables - horses like Kelburne, who won handicaps at Sandown, Ascot and Goodwood. "When he came here he was rated 44 and I had seen laxatives work faster," he said. "But he ended up on 102 and put us on the map." He speaks as he finds - referring to one Newmarket celebrity as Mike Yarwood, "because he impersonates a trainer" - and emphasises the value of that candour to his patrons. Many being local, including the owners of Appalachian Trail, there is a heady team spirit just now.

"We've an open door here and get a bigger crowd on Saturdays than Motherwell," Semple said. "They come round every week and put the world right. It's got to be more than just a bill landing on their carpet.

"Last year we went four weeks without a winner before this meeting, everyone was saying we had a virus. But we came away with three winners on the Friday, which was great for a yard this size. No self-respecting bug would live up here anyway, 800 feet above sea level." Dropped to six furlongs for the first time, Appalachian Trail won a listed race at Newmarket last month and would be an ante-post calamity for the sponsors. "I still think seven is his best trip," Semple said. "But that's what you need for this race - he needs pace, cover and a split.

"It's nice to show people here don't have to send horses down to Yorkshire. I've worked with Group One horses most of my life, but you don't expect to see them in this neck of the woods - especially on the money we're spending. But even if it's short-lived, having better ones around is great motivation.

"I could stop tomorrow and muck out for somebody else, and it wouldn't bother me. Sometimes I'd be only too glad. If I have to solve a problem, I pick up a broom and sweep out half Carluke. I'm just a glorified head lad, same as I've been all my days. If you worried about it, it'd drive you daft."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Cesare

(Newbury 3.10)

NB: Blue Monday

(Newbury 3.45)