Racing: A woman of high breeding

Sue Montgomery meets the father of the heiress to a long tradition; Venetia Williams' family tree is intertwined with the equine world, so success is natural
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN RACING circles there is a tradition that once a horse achieves fame its pedigree is inspected and analysed in the hope that somewhere lurking in the genetic inheritance is the formula that brought about the existence of this particular Pegasus.

Human achievers are rarely subjected to such scrutiny; they are not purpose- bred for a career, and environment and individual choices are as much a part of their equation as heredity. But was there not an instance of a swimmer and a trampolinist whose off-spring became a high-board diver of note? Logical, really.

Neither should it be any total surprise that Venetia Williams, trainer of the Cheltenham Gold Cup second favourite Teeton Mill, has achieved the status she has in her profession. It is not just that she has been exposed to horses all of her life and has developed her innate understanding of their frailties and capabilities. No, there is arguably more to it than that. Woven into her family background are words like initiative, excellence, responsibility, dedication, determination. No pride or prejudice but plenty of sense and sensibility.

Her three-greats grandfather, having heard in Exeter that London tin prices were escalating, saddled his fastest steed and galloped to Redruth to buy up all the metal he could before the Royal Mail coach arrived to deliver the news.

Further down the spear side are three top-flight huntsmen, great-grandfather John, grandfather Percival and father John, who all carried the horn of the Four Burrow hounds, Cornwall's crack pack, with distinction. Whatever your views on the morals of venery, it can be accepted that hunting hounds to a high standard requires qualities of leadership, tact and stickability. Great-aunt Mary (a pretty, spirited dark-haired gal whom her great-niece is said to resemble), was one of the country's first female masters of foxhounds. And her paternal grandmother was instrumental in starting point- to-pointing in Cornwall, in defiance of the Methodist vote.

Of the distaffers, her competitive late mother, Pat Rose as was, show- jumped for Britain during the Fifties on her top-class grey, Without Reserve. Her older sister Caroline, forbidden by her parents to race motorbikes, did it anyway.

John Williams - Venetia's dad - has now retired from the chase, and is man enough to concede that eventually his nerve, in terms of leaping fences and watching his beloved hounds threatened by motorway traffic, went. In his 70th year, he runs his family's 400-acre Aramstone estate straddling the river Wye in rural, red-earthed Herefordshire which includes his younger daughter's training establishment.

If we say this big, kindly man is proud of her achievements, we're venturing into bears-and-the-woods territory. But again, he can admit that his faith was, at the beginning, tested. "If I'd dreamt that her success was to be what it has been," he said, "I might have felt I was a fool to have done so."

Williams and his second wife Lois, Venetia's step-mum, live in a 17th- century farmhouse to die for: outside exquisite gardens running down to the Wye; inside an infestation of extrovert animals (a Labrador and two Burmese cats) and paintings of horse and hound by Lionel Edwards and Peter Biegel.

Williams' summation of his family's initial involvement with the thoroughbred is fairly understated. It is, though, a who's who of racing with more than a nod to European history.

"Pa joined the Army in 1914," he said. "He went to Gallipoli with the North Devon Hussars, who were mostly masters of packs of hounds. He got frostbitten there, came back, recovered and went into a cavalry regiment, the First Lancers. One of his jobs was to go to Ireland to find horses and the person who was doing the same thing for the Ninth Lancers was Fred Darling. And two brother officers were Geoffrey Freer and Victor McCalmont."

The family racing connection was established after his father's Aunt Mabel left an unexpected pounds 10,000 legacy. The windfall financed the purchase of two fillies - Aunt May and Ma Marie - who had a significant impact. Aunt May's son Be Hopeful was Peter Walwyn's first horse; her daughter Mabel was runner-up in the 1965 Oaks and a decade later dam of the champion three-year-old filly May Hill. That same season Percival Williams' only other horse in training, Ma Marie's daughter Pasty (named for one of the best Four Burrow hounds), was champion juvenile filly. The broodmare band at Aramstone today comprises four descendants of the original two mares.

First heredity, then environment. Strong-minded, independent Venetia was spurred on by being the second born. "Even when she was small, she was determined to be better than her older sister," said her father. "And in the pony club we said well done when she was second in a hunter trial but she was livid because she hadn't won.

"She wanted to be the best, whatever it was. As a child she would be doing her homework when the others were on the beach. She has always had that driving force to succeed. And she has never made excuses; she looks faults in the face and deals in reality, not wishful thinking."

At one stage Venetia went off to Newmarket to take up a typical girly post. Williams acknowledges his hopes then were the wrong ones. "I was happy about the circles she was moving in," he said, "and hoped that in due course she would marry someone involved in racing and life would take its course. Despite all the signs I hadn't quite cottoned on. But perhaps, with a daughter, someone of my generation wouldn't."

If he was not already, Williams became aware of Venetia's career tunnel- vision soon after another family legacy funded the creation of the Aramstone training facilities. The bone of contention was the installation of a new gallop: he favoured a gentle curving sweep; she wanted a short, sharp rise. "She told me that if I had my way and she did not succeed as a trainer she would blame me permanently. So, of course, I collapsed in a heap. And, of course, she was right."

In the dining-room overlooking the Wye hangs a fine oil painting of Williams as a straight-backed young man, hallooing hounds over a Cornish stone wall. Tongue-in-cheek, an affectionate plaint is that he is the man with no name: once Percival Williams' son, now Venetia Williams' dad.

But, in truth, John Williams seeks no spotlight. He is happy in his supportive role and to step into the breach in an emergency, such as being delegated to saddle a lowly beast at Hereford while Teeton Mill was winning the King George. "I claim no credit," he said. "If I have done anything, it was to make things possible. But she has made them happen."