Racing: Elsworth has the Punch to fight back

Royal Ascot brings an opportunity for a neglected trainer to broadcast his revival with the favourite for the Gold Cup
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IT'S BEEN rather embarrassing when Persian Punch and Napoleon's Sister have collected big races this season. Their trainer has come marching into the winners' enclosure and looked vaguely familiar. David Elsworth has been a huge figure in horseracing but some people have begun to wonder if he's spent some time in the Scrubs or Pentonville.

The tale of DRCE, as he calls himself, is salutary for anyone who ever thinks they've made it in this sport. In the late Eighties and early Nineties David Raymond Cecil Elsworth was the biggest man in the training game. He trained Desert Orchid, Barnbrook Again, Combs Ditch, Floyd and Oh So Risky over jumps and they made him the champion National Hunt trainer. At the same time he unearthed jewels from the quarry such as Indian Ridge, In The Groove and Seattle Rhyme, cheap but excellent horses which made him fourth in the Flat title one year.

They called him the man for all seasons, but soon the only climate he was to know was winter. Buoyed by his jumps success Elsworth decided to focus largely on the Flat. He bought his own horses at the yearling sales, as he always has done, but then found the recession biting and no-one to sell them to. The on-course rumour said he was destitute, which he denies to this day, but Elsworth had been pushed down the other side of the mountain.

"I was working chasing my own tail," he says. "I had 140 horses and I was working very hard and making very little money. I wasn't skint, which was a popular belief. That was the racecourse chitchat and of course the last fellow to hear it was me."

Elsworth moved from his Hampshire hall of excellence at Whitsbury and entered an alliance with the owner Peter Bolton at the Dorset base of Whitcombe Manor. Then the number of horses dropped off. And a similar thing happened to the trainer himself. "While I wouldn't say I was semi- retired I didn't perhaps work as hard as I should have down there," he says. "A lot of my owners preferred and associated themselves with Whitsbury and people didn't send me as many horses.

"Maybe I lost a little bit of my public relations. Perhaps I didn't work as hard. Maybe I got tired. But if you don't win races people don't send you horses. You've got to keep hustling, getting out there in the market and buying yearlings and persuading people to part with their money. That can be hard work.

"I'm not bitchy enough to mention trainers by name, but some people court publicity and if they have a winner they can't stop banging on about it. I'm not the most modest man in the world, and I would have thought at my stage of life and the number of winners I'd had, you wouldn't have to do all that. You can either train horses or you can't.

"But if you don't go out and hustle for horses people forget you after a couple of years. I keep reminding myself, and anyone that will still listen to me, that a few years ago at the end of the Eighties I was champion jumps trainer and fourth on the Flat. It just shows what a fickle business racing is. People very soon forget."

It may be true that Elsworth has more chips than Silicon Valley but, in the end, it was a bloody-minded belief that everyone else was stealing his glory that put smelling salts to his career. "I had more leisure time down there and enjoyed my shooting and Dorset itself," he says. "But then I started to feel left out. It was my ego. I missed it.

"I didn't feel finished, but I did notice my picture wasn't in the papers as much as Frankie Dettori's."

Eighteen months ago the drawbridge once again came down at Elzy's Camelot as the trainer returned to Whitsbury. Slowly, the results have started to come again and so has the line of journalists leading to the great man's door.

The scribblers have always liked Elsworth. He talks freely and with acerbity from behind Jack Duckworth glasses that have an arm missing. He takes them down to The Cartwheel for a pork sandwich and pints of bitter. Once again they have found this package irresistible. The trainer, though, has never found it as easy to impress owners.

"To make a top trainer you probably need someone with good public relations, a charming fellow who people like because he entertains them and he's successful," he says. "If you're a crotchety old bugger, who's short-tempered with everybody and doesn't give owners any fun then they're not going to have horses with old Elsworth. But I've always believed the best place to advertise is in the results column."

Elsworth has been aggrieved almost continually for the last 20 years that he has not been among the bright, shiny things entrusted with good horses by the Maktoum family. "If I was more of a diplomat and a little more like some of my colleagues I would say lovely things about the Arabs and how it was my ambition to train for the lovely maroon and white silks," he says. "But I don't have to suck up to them. And they're not very worried about me.

"It does frustrate me when I can't get hold of any of their horses, but then it does give me a great deal of pleasure when we're lucky enough to beat them. It's nice that we can compete.

"I did actually train for the Maktoum family for a while but, by the end, I was getting horses that had had problems and were coming to me late. I said to the management that if they could not send me anything better there was no point sending me anything at all. They took me at my word."

Now it is David Elsworth's intention to once again advertise his talents at a Royal Ascot meeting that has served him so well in the past. Most of all he would like to win the Gold Cup with another outstanding figure in racing, the massive Persian Punch, who looks like a horse who should be in a rutted field, pulling along a plough and a line of seagulls. But he'll take any success to prove, at 58, that Elzy can still cut it. "I could do with a few winners at Ascot if I want to get 30 yearlings next year," he says. "This game's like show business and you've got to beat the drum.

"I don't regret anything I've done in the past. All experience in life is good for you, even the things you wished hadn't happened. I'm working harder now than I have for a long time and I'm enjoying it. I'm enjoying winning. It's good to win. I need to win."