Racing: The outsider returns with a point to prove: Cheltenham focus: Next week's meeting gives David Elsworth the perfect opportunity to reclaim the limelight. Richard Edmondson reports

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The Independent Online
AS HE WALKED out of the winners' enclosure after Oh So Risky's victory at the 1991 Cheltenham Festival David Elsworth knew he had had enough. Bloated by consistent success at the highest level of National Hunt racing, the trainer was taken by the challenge of achieving similar station on the Flat.

Three years on in the capricious world of the turf, Oh So Risky and Elsworth return to the Festival next week with a more desperate challenge in the sights. To prove to some that David Raymond Cecil Elsworth, whose name was implanted in the minds of many outside the sport thanks to his partnership with Desert Orchid, is not a sliding force in horse racing.

Now in his 55th year, the trainer has been pestered for the usual round of pre-Cheltenham interviews at his new Dorset base of Whitcombe Manor in recent weeks. But, for once, the inquisitors have not popped round for words to weave into a eulogy. Elsworth had a moderate Flat season by his standards in 1993 and people want to know why.

But if one swallow does not make a summer, Elsworth wants it also to be known that a single vulture does not mean there is a carcass on the floor. 'People haven't said much to me, but it has seemed as if I wasn't getting invited to the parties any more,' he said this week. 'The press certainly were trying to write me off and I read all that shit. But I still had 30-odd winners, a couple of them Group winners, on the Flat last year.

'A trivial thing that did get to me was when I wasn't included in a feature on 12 top jumps trainers. If you look at my record I've always finished in there, but people were quite happy to think I was finished.

'I might be down on my Flat horses because of my move to Whitcombe, but that won't make any difference. We'll have a good Flat season this year and then we'll pick it all up again.'

Elsworth might be deceiving himself if he believes he is ever to conquer the summer game. His Identikit for a Flat trainer looks more like a Picasso portrait.

A socialist in a largely conservative sport, he has made his own way after being born into a family of farmworkers. The nearest Elsworth has got to an old school tie was probably when he was a clothes stall hawker at Romsey market.

These are not components shared by the smart men at Newmarket, and Elsworth knows it. 'There's more to training horses than getting them out of the yard fit,' he says. 'My good point is that I'm good with horses, but if I was Anthony Stroud (Sheikh Mohammed's racing manager) I'm not sure I'd send the Arab horses to me.

'Maybe I'm not everybody's cup of tea and people might say that Elsworth's a funny bastard and a bit tricky, and we need a professional nice guy.

'I'm not bad at the bullshit, but there are a lot better. There are other trainers who can't train, but who are better at coping with situations and owners than I am. They get success their way and I get it mine.'

Elsworth's way is to buy young horses he likes and attempt to nurture them. (More often than not he tip-toes on to the financial tightrope by purchasing yearlings before he has located an owner). In this way he has produced excellent performers such as Indian Ridge, In The Groove and Seattle Rhyme, and he hopes a successor lies in this year's Flat batch.

Before then, though, Elsworth may have spun some more golden thread in the winter game which made him. In fact, whatever he does from here on in, the trainer will forever be associated with a single jumping horse, the retired one which visits him every year for a holiday. And when the trainer leaves us, the two most prominent words on the notices may not be Elsworth's name, but those of the grey. 'When the obituary comes I know I'll be the man who trained Desert Orchid,' he says.

After Tuesday, however, he may also be the man who trained Oh So Risky, Whitcombe's standard bearer, who will be joined in the Champion Hurdle field by stablemates Muse and Absalom's Lady. As he inspected the musketeers in their boxes, Elsworth looked happy to be out of the alien habitat of his office. Back on the desk, he left an outgoing fax which in terms of calligraphy and grammar reminded one of a crayoned effort on a schoolroom wall. 'I'm a country lad,' he said. 'I'm illiterate.'

But, alfresco, other accomplishments emerge. The trainer indicates virtually hidden wildlife in the Whitcombe pastures, the herons and the buzzards; and he is the first to observe the sea fret creeping in from Weymouth. 'It's terrible on the metal round here,' he says.

In another comfortable environment for Elsworth, the front bar of the King's Arms at Dorchester, he talks with further vehemence about his string. It is often said that Elsworth exists more comfortably with horses than he does with humans, which is just as well, as he has fallen out with most of his training neighbours down the years. Jim Old, Richard Hannon and Martin Pipe, the champion trainer towards whom Elsworth is openly hostile, have all had their spats with the man, though this does not prevent the first of those describing Elsworth as the nearest thing to a genius in racing.

Chris Hill, who was part of Elsworth's journey for 12 years, is no less flattering. 'When I joined him (in 1980) he was little known, had few owners and was starting from nothing,' the former member of the team says. 'But through his own drive and ability he's scaled the heights.

'There are a hell of a lot of trainers in Newmarket who have been given a flying start in terms of patronage, stables, contacts and dollars 100,000 yearlings who have had nothing like his success and achievements.

'There is no science about it, he has an innate understanding of horses. He's worked with them right from when he was a kid and he seems to know how they think and feel. And he's not a trainer who needs to weigh a horse to know if it's right. He can tell by looking at it. It's the eye.'

Hill cannot explain these sublime skills, but then neither could he understand his former boss's swinging moods. 'He's up and down,' he says. 'It was like Etna had erupted one moment and the top was back on the next. But I've never known anyone forget something so quickly either. The problem would pass and he'd talk to you half an hour later as if nothing had happened.'

Further thoughts are provided by an owner with Elsworth. 'He's always buying horses without having owners for them,' he said. 'But he's a genius. I love him.'

Elsworth also rates himself. 'I don't want to sound mysterious or modest, because I'm not either, but I find training horses easy,' he says. 'It's only common sense, and feel and touch. The more you do, the better you get.

'I think the biggest assets you can have are enthusiasm and doggedness. It doesn't matter how much of a genius you might be, if you don't bother to get up in the morning and get on with it you're no good.'

Until October, Elsworth had been rising at Whitsbury in Hampshire for 12 years. The racecourse tom-toms suggested he had moved to his salaried position at Whitcombe for financial reasons, but the trainer himself speaks of another challenge, of generating new winners from a new base, as he addresses through his strikingly hooded eyes. 'I've always wanted to win a Champion Hurdle simply because it's a race I've never won,' he says. 'If I win the Champion, without sounding too immodest, you'd struggle to find a good race in the calendar I haven't won, and that would fill the record up.

'Training is all about having a plan, and the day you stop scheming or planning you might as well give up. If you accept the problems that come you've gone. And I haven't'

(Photograph omitted)