Racing: Hawke on the verge of history

Grand National: Entry to an exclusive club awaits the jockey aiming to repeat his success as a trainer
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The Independent Online
PICKING UP a copy of the Western Morning News to kill an hour one morning, Nigel Hawke found his eyes stopping on an advertisement for a disused stables. Half an hour later, he was at the door of Holemoor House, a new but elegantly stone built mansion just north of Chard. Soon after, he was looking out over the rolling fields of the Somerset countryside and contemplating life across the threshold of one of sport's more masochistic professions.

Hawke landed right in the heart of prime jumping territory. Paul Nicholls is half an hour up the road, Martin Pipe and Philip Hobbs a bit to the west. He gave himself three years to make a go of it and his self-imposed tenure is up at the end of this season, but objectivity has long since been consumed by the promise of tomorrow.

Quality not quantity has been Hawke's aim, but if Kendal Cavalier propels his trainer into an eclectic group of National heroes next Saturday, his philosophy would have been stretched beyond all rational limits. Apart from the grey's handsome victory in the Welsh National, there has been precious little for Hawke to cheer in a season hit by the cough. When he goes to post at Aintree, the sparely built nine-year-old will carry a precious cargo of hopes and history.

Hawke has already carved his own place on the pages, by guiding Seagram to victory eight years ago in his first ride in the race. Only Algy Anthony, Fred Winter and Fulke Walwyn have achieved the extraordinary feat of riding and training different National winners. Winter managed it twice. At 33, Hawke would be easily the youngest, but he is curiously reluctant to accept the National's favours. His voice develops a weary edge when asked to recall memories of the day. For one of the host of weighing-room journeymen, a "travelling jockey" in racing lingo, the moment should have been elevated to mythical status. Instead, it has been reshuffled into a pack of cards, most of which have not been trumps.

He will admit to watching the video "once in a blue moon". A photo of Seagram jumping Becher's hangs on the wall of his house, a former cottage hospital too close to the stables for comfort, a painted copy of the same picture has pride of place over the mantelpiece. But the sentimentality, you sense, stems from the artist, one of the stable lads in David Barons' yard, rather than the delight it triggers.

"I was just in the right place at the right time," he says. "We jumped the last behind Garrison Savannah and I'd settled for second." But the Jenny Pitman-trained Gold Cup winner tied up on the run-in and Seagram pounded home, depriving Fleet Street and the crowd of the proper story. Hawke, unused to being the centre of attention, took refuge in the gents' toilet for 10 minutes.

"The National didn't help my career, I didn't expect it to," he says. "In lots of ways, I'd like to put it behind me. I'm not complaining, but I'd like to be remembered for a bit more. You can't live on one thing for the rest of your life."

If Aintree on Grand National day was right place, right time, a selling hurdle at Newton Abbot proved the opposite extreme. Hawke's mind has conveniently blanked out the horror of his first-hurdle fall from Beam Me Up Scotty. Walking into the jockeys' car park is his first and final memory of the day which ended his competitive riding career at the age of 27. Hawke was unconscious for a week.

In the head unit at hospital, he was made to throw little bags of sand into a basket to improve his co-ordination. He thought it was a pointless exercise, but there were people on the ward who couldn't master it. "I was on a tightrope for a time," he says. "It was like Declan Murphy's injury, except that my blood clot was on the outside and his was on the inside. The strange thing was that when I had recovered, I wasn't on drugs, didn't have any headaches, so I was saying, `Right, let's get on with it'. But there was rather more to it than that. I wasn't allowed to drive a car for four years."

Hawke would have made the career move into training any- way; injury simply forced his hand. He had already served his apprenticeship, as stable jockey to Barons, and two seasons in New Zealand gave him the freedom to polish his own ideas. Like Venetia Williams, Hawke favours a training regime which balances a horse's mental and physical well-being. "In New Zealand, horses are trained from the field. They don't have stables. OK, they have the right weather, but being out in the field is the best cure for anything. They get a little bit of freedom." Hawke once got a horse called St Mellion Leisure from Martin Pipe. "He was a nutcase really. But we provided a change of scene and we won a race with him, not a great race, admittedly, but he won." No one wins races with Pipe's cast-offs.

Kendal Cavalier, who arrived from Rod Millman's yard just before Christmas, has been another beneficiary of Hawke's enlightened approach. "He arrived out of the blue. I don't know why the owners chose me and I haven't asked. The horse was well, but he knew the game inside out and he needed something different.

"We took him hunting this winter and turn him out each morning. That's why we went to Lambourn to school him last week. You've got to keep him a little bit fresh."

Like his old flatmate Nicholls, Hawke was left with something to prove after retiring early from the saddle. The intense pressure of training racehorses has already cost him a long-standing relationship, and he admits to being all-consumed by his profession, to reflecting with envy on the easy life of the jockey. "We've got the horse right, now it's up to you to lose the race," as Barons used to say. Hardened by a host of cold, wet, West Country mornings, Hawke knows what his curmudgeonly old mentor meant.

But his yard is full, he has some nice horses for the future and some blessedly patient owners. Now all Kendal Cavalier has to do is keep in touch with the leaders for the first circuit - within 10 or 15 lengths, Hawke says - and hunt them down round the second. "There's not that much of him," adds Hawke. "But he's got a great heart and incredible stamina." Attributes enhanced by ground soft enough to slow down his rivals.

The National has a habit of pitching unlikely candidates into the spotlight. Hawke is still suspicious of instant celebrity. By Saturday evening he might be getting the taste for it.


l Algy Anthony rode Ambush (1900) and trained Troytown (1920).

l Fulke Walwyn rode Reynoldstown (1936) and trained Team Spirit (1964).

l Fred Winter rode Sundew (1957) and Kilmore (1962) and trained Jay Trump (1965) and Anglo (1966).