As morning spreads over Exmoor on Tuesday, a former dairy farmer will drive his lorry down a spiral of deserted lanes, brushing hedgerows ever reluctant to admit spring to the hill country.
Taking the bigger road at each junction, he will eventually reach the motorway and start rattling east. On reaching the racecourse stables at Cheltenham, Jeremy Scott will lower the ramp and lead out one of the favourites for the first race at jumping’s greatest carnival – a championship for novice hurdlers. Melodic Rendezvous is one of the sport’s rising stars, increasingly impressive in his last three wins. Yet it is conceivable that he is not even the best prospect in his own yard. The next day, Scott will repeat the same journey with Empiracle, arguably the most striking bumper winner in Britain this season.
This kind of thing is not supposed to happen any more. Even trainers who had considered themselves comfortably established among the elite can no longer compete with the cavalries of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, or Willie Mullins over in Ireland. The wealthy patrons of these three stables, in particular, have agents corralling every young horse of luminous potential. Last year Henderson alone accounted for seven of the 27 winners at the Festival.
Yet Scott has come up with two that would be coveted by any of those yards – and done so, moreover, barely five years after transposing his priorities between a dairy herd and a growing stable of point-to-pointers. “The thing you have to remember about the big boys buying up these horses is that it’s not so much about pedigrees as the fact that they have already shown a bit,” Scott says. “Someone else had to discover them first. Those people then took the money, which is fair enough. But there’s no reason we can’t find those horses as well. It’s just a case of finding people who are prepared to hold on to them.”
Though “very serious money” has duly been offered for both Melodic Rendezvous and Empiracle, it is easy to see why you might prefer to see through the adventure with a man grateful both for the “mid-life crisis” of his early fifties – and for a residual fatalism learnt in farming. Languidly folding his long legs into an armchair, among hunting prints and antlers, Scott conducts a wry survey of this paradox.
Crediting his wife, Camilla, with their day-to-day husbandry, Scott recalls starting off “with just one or two point-to-pointers, as a bit of fun, to get us off the farm”. But then the odd horse began to arrive from elsewhere, until there were a couple of dozen distributed around the outbuildings. One or two proved good enough to run under Rules – notably Gone To Lunch, who finished second in a Scottish National and, 10 days later, a Grade One chase at Punchestown.
“We did carry on milking cows for a while, but I’m not clever enough to run two businesses that both require a high level of attention to detail,” Scott says. “It was getting to the point when both were beginning to suffer. Going into it at the beginning of a recession was possibly not the cleverest thing to do, but I haven’t starved yet.”
Someone sent him Melodic Rendezvous in the hope of finding a buyer. Scott passed him over to a syndicate of locals. “Proper country people,” he declares approvingly. “They’d lost two horses in a row and were a bit despondent. So they took a punt, and it has turned out rather well.”
Empiracle did invite a tightening of belts. Scott found him in Ireland as a raw three-year-old, and persevered until he was ready to put himself in the shop window. “At five he was all out of kilter, a tall and gawky teenager,” he recalls of the now six-year-old. “So we turned him out and forgot about him. If he had been owned by someone else, yes, you probably would have felt under pressure to run. But it’s often the best thing for these horses. They can need time. Ultimately, I hope it will pay off with this one, as a top-class chaser.”
Including point-to-pointers and the next tier of youngsters, Scott now has “probably 50 horses kicking around” this bluff above Wimbleball Lake. “As I grow older, I appreciate it here more and more,” he says. “When you come down that drive at the end of a long day, with the sun setting over the reservoir – it’s a joy to see. I’m not sure the horses appreciate the view, but I’d like to think they do the relaxed atmosphere.”
Values learnt on the soil meanwhile abide on the Turf. Scott considers the recent horsemeat scandal an unsurprising rebuke to the dislocated culture of food and animals in an ever more urban society. “One day farmers will be cherished for what they do,” he says. “After all, what do we need in life? Food, warmth and water. We’re breeding like rats, and the surface area of the planet isn’t getting any bigger.
“I’m very lucky. It’s all a bit fluffy, really, living in a national park. But a farmer does get a pretty good dose of realism. I suppose racing is a wee bit of a bubble. There I am, burning up the bloody M6 for four hours – on someone’s whim, to a point… On the other hand, when I was farming I employed one person, now I employ 20. It’s keeping people fed at any rate. And if it’s giving someone pleasure, so much the better. You do have to keep in mind that it’s all supposed to be a bit of fun. We tend to take it far too seriously. The world will keep on spinning. But if it does go well, there’s no pleasure like it.”
Chris McGrath's Nap
Courageous (6.10 Wolverhampton) Well treated even without his partner’s valuable claim.
Petrol (7.40 Wolverhampton) Another improver for his stable, ahead of the game under a penalty.
One to watch
Fiveforthree (Willie Mullins) has been backed for the Coral Cup since working well earlier this week.
Where the money's going
Champion Court is 8-1 from 10-1 with William Hill for the Ryansair Chase.Reuse content