Racing: Williams leaves the cowshed behind to overthrow orthodoxy with State Of Play

Chris McGrath meets the non-conformist leading a talented generation of Welsh trainers towards Cheltenham
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In the still, grey winter air, the valley echoes to lilting, larky male voices against a bass counterpoint of horses clattering down a hidden lane - banter between the riders and their employer, the young dragon of Welsh racing, who stands waiting alongside a woodchip gallop.

Soon they come snorting back up the steep hill, led by State Of Play, the horse that gave Evan Williams his breakthrough success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November. That was State Of Play's first race since April, and he has again gone to ground since. Next month, he will resurface in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup as one of the leading half-dozen contenders.

"The form men, the speedfigure men, the handicapping men - they all say he's not good enough," Williams said. "But they don't know the horse. It's a massive ask, I know. It's as good a Gold Cup as we've seen in a few years. I can give all the bravado, all the bullshit. I know we have a lot to find. But it helps us that everyone thinks we're the underdog. We like them thinking we're just a crazy bunch of farmers. Having nothing can be a massive hand to play."

This is a characteristic observation, its bluff, down-to-earth premise soon infused by the wistful cadences of its delivery. In many obvious ways, Williams does remain the underdog, with a jumble of stalls improvised among these dreary farm buildings above the sea. Equally, a triptych of modern barns is nearing completion down the lane, a measure of the breathless haste of his emergence.

Still only 35, Williams worked his first point-to-pointer as a teenager but only began training them in earnest in 1997. By 2002, he was national champion. Since turning to National Hunt he has, once again, been an overnight sensation. In particular his record of salvaging lost causes from other yards has won him a reputation for benign alchemy. State Of Play himself was picked up for just 18,000 guineas.

"Sometimes horses come here that are washed out," Williams said. "Then after a while one of the lads will say: 'This is all right, this is.' Hell's bells, you think, it can't be. Yet as often as not they have been proved right. People ask what it is we do - and I haven't got a clue. I'm not a bloody magician. We only know one way. It might be the wrong way, but it's our way. Everyone wants to copy other people. But if people tell me to go right, I'll always go left."

Williams learned self-reliance through the unhappy expedient of not being able to rely on others. His father drank, his parents broke up, and Evan went to live with his grandparents. At 12, he would get up at dawn to milk 70 cows before school. He does not dramatise the memory. "I thought I was lucky, really," he said. "Other kids, they jumped on the bus and moaned how bored they were. I never had that problem. Whatever else my father might have been, he was a very good stockman. Even those who had no respect for him would say that. And my grandparents as well, they gave me a good grounding."

The lore paid off. Some of the horses Williams rode in point-to-points blew up on their way to the start. "I figured I might have bad horses, but they would be fit bad horses," he said. "And it was exactly the same when we started out with all our cast-offs and misfits. At the same time I don't think you can underestimate the mental toughness. People have become paranoid about the Pipe/Nicholls fitness factor. But it doesn't matter how fit they are if their attitude isn't right."

There was no mistaking the Hennessy as a bespoke Williams operation, and his homespun preparation for Cheltenham represents another pointed gesture against orthodoxy. "State Of Play is best fresh," he said. "I had so many good judges telling me I was mad, not to run before the Hennessy, and it's the same now. But you have to believe in yourself, because nobody else will. You can't panic. It's the same with the best jockeys. The bad ones try to force it all the time.

"There is a turning point in everyone's life. You might only get one chance. And let's be honest. People looked at Evan Williams as some farmer who trained a load of bad point-to-pointers, summer jumpers, selling hurdlers. We were never going to get a chance to train a good horse until we had trained a good horse."

Williams is not alone, of course, in these rampant incursions from Wales. Peter Bowen has already saddled a Gold Cup runner-up and Alison Thorpe is excelling. Williams lurks inside the border, just beyond Cardiff - some two hours east of Bowen - and is irritated by parochialism, whether in the English or his compatriots. "The Welsh used to obsess about their identity, couldn't see past the Severn Bridge," he said. "But there is a fresh, cosmopolitan feel to this corner of the world now. And [Paul] Nicholls, [David] Pipe and [Philip] Hobbs [all in Somerset] have shown everyone that geography is not going to stop you training winners."

Though the stable is going through a quieter spell just now, it has already produced 56 winners this season and Demi Beau - "tailor-made for the Grand Annual Chase" - has been kept nervelessly in reserve for the Festival.

For all the self-deprecation, all the rustic humility, there is an infectious conviction to Williams. As a talented teenage flanker, he abruptly abandoned rugby after a single game convinced him he would never make the highest grade. "I was useless really," he says now. "I was just good at stopping others playing." By the same token, it is not quite enough for him to say that all he ever wanted was to be here, in Aberogwrn, somehow making ends meet.

"It's mental, the way the job's worked out," he said. "And nobody's more surprised than me. Equally we didn't take out a licence just to bumble along. You can go a long way on desire. If you want something bad enough, you will go through a lot to get there. They all laugh at us. They all think we're mad. And they're probably not too far wrong. You have to be mad to do this job. But it's better than milking cows. A lot better.

"I've always looked ahead. I suppose it's wrong, looking for something you'll never get. But you have to keep trying, God knows. I'm perfectly resigned to the fact that State Of Play might be the one in a lifetime. This time next year I might be glad to have one win a selling hurdle at Hereford. Sometimes I come down at night, just go and check on the horse. I look at him and think: 'Madness'. I'm just so grateful to him. It's a bloody fairytale really, isn't it?

"We are up to 83, 84 horses. But it's not enough, not to compete with the big boys. And that's got to be the aim now. I'd prefer to kill myself trying than not have a go. I'll be happy if I wear out."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Numero Un De Solzen

(Kelso 3.10)

NB: Cerebus

(Southwell 3.30)

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