Racing: In search of a new bloom: David Elsworth enjoyed all the glory as Desert Orchid's trainer. But as he prepares for this week's Cheltenham Festival life is rather different. He talked last week to our new racing correspondent, Paul Hayward

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE dusk of a winter's evening after the last race at Kempton, a figure is seen embracing and kissing the statue of Desert Orchid that dominates the track's main thoroughfare. A legless punter recalling old betting triumphs? Not quite. It is David Elsworth, the horse's former trainer.

Elsworth embarks on the Cheltenham Festival this week with no Desert Orchid to parade and a smaller, less distingushed string of horses than in the days when he was appearing on News at Ten almost weekly as the great white animal's spokesman. Racecourse gossip has been ganging up on him, and only when you see close-up his impossibly bustling, intuitive style of horse coaching can you rid the brain of the bar- room doom-mongering and conclude that we are dealing here, two years after the Desert Orchid story closed, with a lull rather than a lament.

At the height of his powers - numerically, at least - Elsworth trained 143 horses at what he calls his equine 'public school' in Whitsbury, Hampshire. Now he has just under 90, split between Whitsbury and Whitcombe Manor, in Dorset. Though his Oh So Risky was second, beaten half a length, in the 1992 Champion Hurdle, he is only seventh in the betting for this year's race on Tuesday, and Elsworth can be merely hopeful, rather than confident, of adding to his commendable total of eight Festival winners.

Elsworth is a peculiarly English amalgam of influences. He is half country squire, half country lad. He is an epicurean who enjoys the anecdote-swapping and uproariousness of racecourse bars, and yet, surveying his lawn from his study at lunchtime last week, he was the image of quiet reflection and landed respectability. He is the former market trader who ended up in the manor house just miles from his birthplace; a man who goes shooting and yet is disdainful of the right-wing tabloids, and who muttered critical thoughts about the Gulf war, perhaps because he understands the power of money, and what harm it can do.

Wherever this places him in the social scale, Elsworth is a horse manager and mentor with a roaring appetite for life. That is unmistakable as he bounds through the morning duties, and it will probably be his salvation if, as seems unlikely given his record, his handy knack of digging treasures out of sand fails him to the point where bank managers are never off the line. 'I was born in Salisbury, just up the road,' Elsworth says as he scans the plains to the north of the New Forest, 'and to be able to train up here like this is . . . a miracle.'

Land and language are loved in equal measure. A horse who defies his trainer's mind-manipulation techniques is not 'difficult' but a 'renegade'. The poor dumb beast is probably just following his own instincts to avoid labouring for the benefit of humans, but he is also tangling with Elsworth's central philosophy of success. 'You've got to train their minds first, then you can train the rest of them,' he says as he speeds across the downland gallops pursued by his dogs.

In his methods, Elsworth is decidely more Gower than Gooch, though he champions the values of 'horse husbandry' - the oats and water stuff - when he discusses the preparation of these fragile conveyances. Like the more instinctive and self-assured practitioners in any sport, Elsworth's achievements are a compass reading to him, a reminder that however thinly spread the victories become, the gift itself is always within.

This much becomes evident when you prod him about the fall in his numbers or the absence of a Desert Orchid in the squad. 'Always had a good horse,' he says in a way that is intended to leave a mark. 'I've never had a year when I haven't had a star. I may not have always had the best horse, but I've had stacks of good ones.' And it would be hard to argue otherwise, given that Elsworth has won everything from a five-furlong sprint at Royal Ascot to the ultimate steeplechasing marathon, the Grand National, not to mention Desert Orchid's Gold Cup (and the rest) or the achievements of Flat racers like In The Groove (a European champion three- year-old filly) and Seattle Rhyme, a top two-year-old colt and one-time favourite for last year's Derby.

Talk of Seattle Rhyme, his best hope for 1993, returns Elsworth to the subject of his big gamble of the late Desert Orchid years. After winning virtually every top jumping race - the Champion Hurdle, ironically, is a significant and irritating omission - Elsworth decided to concentrate his efforts on the Flat and stopped accepting 'store horses' - slow-maturing, stoutly bred animals reared specifically for steeplechasing.

Temporarily, at least, this has presented him with a problem. While it has diminished the quality of his winter runners, the recession has severely reduced the number of Flat horses being boxed into Elsworth's two training yards, especially as he has tended to attract 'businessmen and working people who have stretched themselves to a horse or two', rather than oil tycoons who can afford to scoff at cyclical downturns. 'A lot of my stars have gone. Barnbrook Again, Desert Orchid . . . ' he says. 'I haven't been able to click my fingers and replace them.'

And so Elsworth straddles the two worlds, admitting that his overheads are high, and conceding that the pursuit of pounds 2,000 races at Ludlow and beyond cannot any longer rank with the hunt for the very best races. Thus you see him at Wincanton on a Thursday, while you also see him at Longchamp on Arc day, or in America for the Breeders' Cup, where In The Groove ran two years ago. You could see that he was in clover at Churchill Downs, buying feathered cowboy hats from trackside shops and mingling with similarly self-made horsemen on Kentucky mornings.

What people may have missed about the Desert Orchid years was that Elsworth never regarded the horse as some fireside pet. He saw the kicks and bites, the sheer animal power of the silvery creature the public liked to swoon over, and if you ask Elsworth now - as he prepares a lesser team of six for another Cheltenham Festival - the one fact that he recalls with most pleasure is that Desert Orchid paid so handsomely.

'What we did do well,' Elsworth says in reply to a compliment about his handling of the media, 'was exploit his full potential. When you're privileged enough to get a horse that good, and one which remains sound, you've got to fill your boots while you can. I mean, he was a phenomenon. As for the attention he got, well, if I hadn't trained him I'd have got sick of hearing about him.'

This is the rationalist's view of the Desert Orchid saga, and it is one that Elsworth always held. Similarly, he is candid enough to say of this year's Festival: 'I'm not complacent, but because I haven't got quite the ammunition, perhaps I'm not quite so excited about it.' And yet the emotional tide in Elsworth is sometimes as big as he can manage, as he showed with that hug of the Desert Orchid statue, or in a fruity altercation with his West Country rival, Martin Pipe, at Wincanton recently.

Fragrant Dawn, Rocket Launcher and Givus A Buck were all winners last time out, so however Oh So Risky fares on Tuesday, Elsworth could yet be reliving something like the Desert Orchid reception at this year's Festival. 'You can make yourself bitter and twisted,' he says of his falling numbers again, 'but I think we do well enough.

'Don't you?'

(Photograph omitted)