The lingering, crescent moon itself seems a husk of frost, and the lanes around the stables are glazed with ice. They are too precarious, certainly, for the horses to walk to the all-weather gallop, so Bob Buckler instead sends them bounding among the sheep in the adjacent meadows, where the first sunlight is restoring green and gold to the wintry monochrome. By the time the horses descend back into the yard, they are wreathed in a nimbus of steam.
An equivalent thaw seems to be suffusing the same animals on the racecourse, too. In the past month Buckler has saddled the winners of the principal steeplechase on cards at Ascot, Newbury and Wincanton, taking him into the top 25 in the trainers' table. For a man whose irreproachable modesty tends to extend to the resources of his patrons, it is a conspicuous achievement. It is, moreover, no coincidence.
This is Buckler's first season since moving a few miles north to a new yard, Higher Peckmoor, leased from Jeremy Barber on the Dorset-Somerset border. While the landscape is not quite as sumptuous as around his old base, at Melplash, it still has a lovely sway and swell. But this fresh start is a very literal one. Having converted a pig barn into 33 stalls, Buckler seems to have broken the viral cycle that had been compounding the odds against him.
"We have started with a clean environment, and that probably is one factor," he said. "We were hit quite hard for a couple of seasons, and then again last winter, when one of our horses brought something back from Sandown. And once it gets into a yard, it grumbles around for months. The older horses got it together again in the spring, but the younger ones tend not to shake it off until they get a summer break."
One factor, certainly, but by no means the only one. Buckler has always cherished the classic model of steeplechaser, the type that tends to demand the temperament of Job and wallet of Croesus. And, as if in counterpoint to the bugs and viruses, these maturing horses can also bring good fortune in cycles.
"Trainers who can spend £200,000 on a horse are spending £200,000 for a reason," Buckler said. "That's not to say that that horse is going to be 10 times better than my £20,000 one. Yes, there will be times when you feel you are going to war against tanks with a .303 rifle. But while some of these French horses will be very good over fences at four or five, they might not last too much longer. Once you identify potential, in the more traditional types we tend to have here, you need to give them a chance, time to develop. And it does feel as though we have got a nice bunch of seven-, eight-, nine-year-olds coming through now."
By his own admission, Buckler makes life harder for himself by being a hopeless salesman. He admits to an astute eye for a young horse, but has always been queasy about persuading people to back that judgement. "Some people are very good at it, but it's not my way of doing things," he shrugged.
Instead he trusts that his horses will do the button-holing for him, sometimes starting them off in his own colours until they establish their merit. But there is nothing diffident about the way he campaigns them, and tomorrow he saddles The Sawyer, a recent Newbury winner, as one of the likely outsiders in a valuable handicap at Cheltenham. "He's dropping back in distance and might get taken off his feet, on good ground, but we hope that all the rain will ensure a suitable test at the trip," he said. "He's so well, and has limited options at the moment, so we thought we'd give it a go."
Similar intrepidity paid off with the improving Niche Market, an exuberant jumper who gave Buckler the most valuable success of his career when a 33-1 winner at Ascot just before Christmas. Fourth in the National Hunt Chase at the Festival last year, he will be aimed at the same race en route to possible National service at Aintree or Fairyhouse.
If you play the long game, of course, your hopes can still be extinguished in a trice. It is now nearly two years since Warlord, whose easy Ascot success had confirmed him the best young prospect Buckler had ever trained, fell fatally when cruising into contention at Wincanton. Perseverance, however, is bringing its consolations.
"A lot of people warned me it would take a year to adapt to the new facilities here," Buckler said. "But we seem to be rising to the challenge."
*His form since required a leap of faith but punters who stayed loyal to last year's winner were again rewarded with a 20-1 success in the big race at Gowran Park yesterday. Relishing the heavy ground, Preist's Leap was always going strongly in the Ellen Construction Thyestes Chase and beat Chelsea Harbour four lengths. Two recent predecessors, Hedgehunter and Numbersixvalverde, followed up at Aintree and Thomas O'Leary will now train Preist's Leap for the John Smith's Grand National.Reuse content