It is quite an achievement, getting a dust allergy up here. Howard Johnson's horses are stabled nearly 1,000 feet above sea level and yesterday the wind was blasting over the high spurs of Northumbria with all the cleansing fury of judgement day. Snowdrops thrashed the sunlit lawn; evergreen forests swayed and sighed. And here was another force of nature: Inglis Drever bounding eagerly up a steep woodchip gallop. All in all, a very bracing spectacle.
Yet these are anxious times for Johnson. No horse at the Cheltenham Festival has shorter odds over his head than Inglis Drever, who goes for his third Ladbrokes World Hurdle a fortnight tomorrow. And no fewer than 16 of his stablemates burst blood vessels on the gallops last week. Johnson has given his entire string – "from the two-year-olds to the roughs" – a course of medication that will confine them to barracks all week. His diagnosis is a dust allergy, which he traces to a dirty batch of straw. "We had just one bleed this morning, and one cough," he said, cupping another cigarette against the gale. "It'll right itself in time. It's just a case of whether it does the job for the big day."
He hopes to test the water at Kelso on Saturday, with Scriptwriter. It was at the same track, 23 years ago yesterday, that Johnson saddled his first winner, after taking over a herd of cattle and handful of jumpers from his father, Roy. But that little acorn lay a long time dormant. True, there was a first Festival winner, Ushers Island in 1993, and a quite brilliant steeplechaser in Direct Route, whose shoes are embedded in concrete paving outside the stables, a pathfinder for its residents. But when the cattle were culled during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001, Johnson had little hope that the horses might redeem "the loss of a lifetime's work".
Then, one Sunday morning, an owner brought a software entrepreneur named Graham Wylie for a look around. Wylie's wife, Andrea, asked if he had any greys in the yard. Johnson promptly produced two, both for sale. Wylie chose Lord Transcend, whose success gave him such a taste for the game that his next investment, in Royal Rosa 18 months later, set an auction record of 340,000 guineas. Now he has over 100 horses here, and is funding lavish new facilities.
Wylie surveyed the scene yesterday and recalled Johnson suggesting Royal Rosa: "It'll be expensive, mind, two or three [hundred thousand]." Wylie was taken aback. "But I'm a bit of a fatalist," he said. "I had just got back from my honeymoon, and was going through the post while listening to Howard on the phone. One envelope contained a dividend of £400,000. So I said: 'Why not?'"
Privilege spared him illusions. He tries to apply the same principles that made him rich to his partnership with Johnson, but would not presume to interfere in racing matters. "It's simply a hobby," he shrugged. "But an expensive one."
Wylie sensed he was perceived, within the game, as a reckless ingénu. But his third horse was Inglis Drever, and at the 2005 Festival he had two other winners, Arcalis and No Refuge.
Their Festival team this time includes one of the season's leading novice chasers, Tidal Bay, who has entries over two miles and three. "I haven't decided about the Arkle and the SunAlliance, but I'll tell you what we might do," Johnson said. "We might run him in both. I'm serious. Tidal Bay and Inglis Drever will both need to go away for a racecourse gallop and then we'll see. I'll work Tidal Bay in cheekpieces, to help him concentrate on his jumping. He's like a giraffe, that's his problem, Ruby [Walsh] said he was just looking at the birds and bees at Doncaster. But they didn't go fast enough for him. As for Inglis Drever, we all know he goes through a flat spot in his races, but he knows where the winning post."
Johnson's candid love of Aintree means he need not have his hand forced. Not even Wylie's money, after all, can make them immune to the sport's random favours. "We turned down Denman," Johnson revealed. "His sire, Presenting, wasn't getting any winners, and we get calls from Ireland every day of the week. But you can't get them all."
Still, you need not seek far for evidence of greater profligacy. Wylie's wealth is sometimes proposed as a solution for the problems of the local football team. "My name always comes up, but that's only because I'm the richest guy in Newcastle," he said – a remark that somehow fails to defeat the unassuming tone of his conversation. "We had heady days, when Keegan was last manager. But since then they must have spent £200m, and what have they got to show for it?"
The implicit contrast could not have been more obvious. Racehorses may not make Wylie any richer. But at least they are bringing home the silverware.
Kauto Star or Denman? The professionals give their verdicts
The eagerly awaited Cheltenham Gold Cup encounter between the giants of steeplechasing, Kauto Star and Denman, has divided racing. Today, Mike Dillon, of Ladbrokes, gives his view...
"First and foremost it's magnificent for racing, fingers crossed it comes off on the day. Choosing between the two horses will have been very hard for Ruby Walsh. At the end of the day, it is impossible to get off a Gold Cup winner, but I would say he has been having plenty of sleepless nights since making his choice. I was deeply impressed with Denman in his last start, at Newbury, just with the sheer power of the horse. I knew he was good, but he surprised me. I know Kauto Star is brilliant, and I actually think he has improved this season. But it could be that he finds Denman too powerful round Cheltenham."
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