Racing: Phillips out to create lasting impression

A trainer best known for his comedy act is a serious contender for an illustrious job.
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The Independent Online
AT FIRST acquaintance, the jokes come thick and fast. An interview with Richard Phillips? "The only people who usually want one are the police." If recent speculation proves accurate, however, the Lambourn trainer who is at least as well known for his impressions as for his horses is about to be taken very seriously. The interview which the rumour mill is talking about is the one with Colin Smith, owner of Jackdaws Castle, a base that could give Phillips the chance to bring his merits as a trainer to a much wider audience.

Speaking last week though, the supposed favourite to succeed David Nicholson professes that he has not even seen the yard - "I couldn't afford to go to the open day".

He adds: "I have known Colin Smith and his family for a long time and I've always got on well with them. That's possibly why my name might have been put in the picture. Obviously, it would be nice to be considered for any job like that, but in the meantime I'll just try and get my horses to win as many times as possible."

When he says that a horse will win, it wins, the trainer insists, but he is all too aware that so far in his career he has not had cause to say it very often. Having taken out a licence in 1993 after eight years assisting Henry Candy, 36-year-old Phillips has had 40 wins over jumps and nine on the Flat. He takes encouragement when Martin Pipe reminds us that he went three seasons without even one.

An acute observer of men and horses, in both his careers, Phillips repeats many quotes from other trainers about their trade. He is a perfectionist and agrees with Sir Mark Prescott that "a happy trainer is a bad trainer". The maxim which seems to mean most to him, though, is one of Charlie Mann's, that "to train racehorses you don't necessarily need money, you just need bollocks".

This he clearly has. He did not have a silver spoon - and is mighty grateful for it - having been brought up near Epsom but in a family with no racing connection. "My father was a civil servant in Whitehall, at the Ministry Of Defence," he says. "One thing I learnt off my father is that you should always do something in life that you want to do, because he didn't want to be in the Ministry Of Defence." Phillips's earliest memories are of what he saw on Epsom Downs and he became the comprehensive boy who wanted to be a racehorse trainer.

Via work at stables after school, abandoning hopes of becoming a vet when the competition got cut-throat in the wake of All Creatures Great And Small, and fine-tuning Norman Tebbit's advice by running from Abingdon to Lambourn - that's about 20 miles - Phillips found himself knocking on the door at Fred Winter's stable. Winter did not have a job for him, and neither did Fulke Walwyn, but, down the road at Letcombe Regis, Graham Thorner did.

Last year, incidentally, Phillips was rumoured to have been runner-up to Simon Sherwood when Andrew Cohen appointed a new trainer at Winter's old stables, Uplands.

Thorner won the 1983 Great Yorkshire Chase with Get Out Of Me Way when Phillips was working for him. Phillips has an ambition to win the race too, and a possible candidate with Noble Lord, but the majority of his trade has been conducted at a much less exalted level.

Certain official requirements, such as substantial capital and at least six horses that can put one foot in front of the other, became obfuscated when he made his application to the licensing committee.

Winners were never going to flow immediately, but with largely unpromising material he believes he has passed the test. His experience with two classier animals, Gnome's Tycoon and Time Won't Wait, has given him plenty of confidence and he asserts: "I'm sure that if we had a good horse, we could train him as well as anyone else. I don't think there's any self-doubt there really."

Cash-flow problems in the early days as a trainer spawned his other career impersonating the likes of Henry Cecil, Michael Stoute, his landlord John Francome and Nicholson. Performing has not been easy money. "I think that anyone who has stood in front of an audience and tried to make them laugh knows what pain is all about," he says with feeling. "I only forced myself because I was so keen on being a trainer - nothing else drove me on." The extra income helped to pay bills, publicise him and introduce him to potential owners.

Peter Savill and David Johnson are current owners and three years ago he wangled a win for Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum with Laazim Afooz - Arabic apparently for I Must Win. Mostly, though, Phillips's horses are owned by syndicates, for which he is a fervent advocate, making him a perfect partner for the Elite Racing Club which has an increasing number of horses in the yard and now underwrites the stable's finances. Networking and marketing are passions and if Phillips does not yet know everyone in racing, he surely plans to.

One owner has sought his advice on the repackaging of William Hague and Phillips has ideas on that issue - "he should take the piss out of himself a bit more". Although he hates ever to admit defeat, his career as trainer rather than Hague adviser looks by some way the more hopeful cause, particularly after his best win total in 1998-99 and with the untapped potential of several store horses instead of the more usual cast-offs and cripples.

A leading light in racing's pessimist/realist club, he would never say that the future looks bright, but one way or another, Jackdaws or no Jackdaws, his career may well be about to enter a new phase.

Like many people in racing, Richard Phillips has derived much simply from working in a sport he loves rather than from tasting its more tangible rewards. Now, however, that is not enough. "Good horses have always been the aim," he says. "I don't want to be training just for the hell of it."