Rising sons: Countdown to Cheltenham

For many years Martin Pipe and Peter Scudamore dominated jump racing. Now the next generation – David and Tom – have relaunched the family firm, and have their sights set on next week's Gold Cup. Chris McGrath reports
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The Independent Online

Though only four years old, and a visitor, Tom was not a bashful boy. He was always dashing over the lawn, splashing in the pool, jumping marquee pegs, covered in mud. He just tried to avoid the intimidating head groom, Denis. And, should he need sanctuary, there was always David. At 14 years old, David spanned the abyss between Tom and the perplexing preoccupations of their fathers. All these horses: Tom's dad sitting on them, David's dad scurrying among them on a bicycle. The boys were left in the jeep at the top of the gallop and David, already tall, attained a fabulous new glamour by teaching Tom swear words.

And here they are, 22 years later, immersed in the same mysterious rituals that first brought their paths together. David Pipe, hair thinning already, has taken over the stables made famous by his father, Martin. And Tom Scudamore, easy in demeanour, athletic and articulate, is stable jockey, in turn emulating his own record-breaking father, Peter.

It is only the third season since Martin retired, but already David has won a Grand National, and tomorrow week he and Scudamore hope to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. Last month their horse Madison Du Berlais became the first ever to beat the 2008 Gold Cup winner, Denman, in a steeplechase.

Pedigree has always counted on the Turf, of course. Trainers, moreover, share the same pragmatic concerns as any other stockmen. Their life work is tied up in land, animals, buildings. Yet when Martin himself arrived on the scene he could hardly have seemed more dissonant with this dynastic, conservative tradition.

A bookmaker's son, he was the heterodox outsider, questioning everything taken for granted by those born into the game. And gradually he achieved such phenomenal success that they repented of jealous innuendo, and embraced his methods as the new standard doctrine. Pipe was champion trainer 15 times in 17 years, while Peter won the jockeys' title every year between his arrival in Somerset, in 1985, and his retirement in 1993. "Nobody had ever seen anything like it," Tom recalled. "Mr Pipe and dad sat down and worked out theirs were the fittest horses by a long, long way. That's why they would so often make the running. They could take class out of the equation."

They were drawn together by a mutual dread of complacency. "We would be on the phone every night," Martin said. "Spent more time talking to each other than to our wives. We were an odd couple, I suppose, got to know our ways. I'd say: 'You rode a bad race.' And he'd put the phone down, and 10 minutes later he'd ring back and say: 'You could be right'. Likewise, he'd give me a rollicking. But if you know that you can speak your mind, without falling out, you will learn from every mistake."

To the sons, this epoch-making partnership was literally everyday stuff. But while Tom soon developed a curiosity about horses, not so David. Martin and his wife, Carole, bought him a Shetland pony, and he sat glumly in the saddle, trussed up in hunting gear. "There was every thought that he might follow in granddad's footsteps instead," Martin admitted.

David did spend six months noting bets for his late grandfather on the West Country circuit. "And Wolverhampton," he adds grimly. "That was a joy." But he was learning all the time. When he had first begun to show an interest on the gallops, he would excitably announce that a particular horse was flying, would win next time. "David, no," Martin said. "It's not that easy, it's not like that." But he would let him go and have his tenner on. "And David would realise that what he'd seen, and what happened in a race, wasn't quite the same. So he learnt, the hard way, how to piece it all together. He burnt his fingers a little. Now his opinions are first-rate. Better than mine, unfortunately."

Tom, meanwhile, was becoming an accomplished rider. It was in the blood, after all. Peter's own father, Michael, had won the 1959 Grand National on Oxo. For Tom, as for David, the surname would bring both burdens and privileges. "From the time I started show jumping, as an eight-year-old, it was never No 361 coming into the ring – it was No 361, ridden by Tom Scudamore, son of Peter."

Peter commends both sons for achieving an equilibrium, an identity of their own. "I admire the way David has stamped his own personality on things," Peter said. "Probably it's been harder for him than for Tom. Tom set off with a huge advantage in the Scudamore name. It had been a legacy for me as well, remember – the legacy of a very tough, very honest man. I still bump into old cabbies who tell me nobody could get a horse to stand off the way my father did. They were cavaliers in those days. From me, the legacy is slightly different, because of my championships. But Tom's done it on his own. He's not riding for the Pipes because he's my son. He's had to work hard, and it hasn't always been easy."

The two lads cut their teeth with a yard of point-to-pointers down the road. Martin, meanwhile, was increasingly troubled by a younger rival in Paul Nicholls, whose wealthy patrons were assembling a formidable stable on the other side of Somerset. There were health problems, too.

Three seasons ago, Nicholls finally broke Martin's monopoly, but the duel had been gruelling and not especially dignified. With one day to go, Martin sat down with Carole – "the rock behind everything", according to Tom – and they decided the time had come. That evening, David was summoned by his father. "I'd been ready for a while," Martin recalls. "But really it wasn't decided until the last moment, and David stepped into my shoes overnight. Nobody knew, just the three of us. And he said that the one person we had to tell, before it came out, was my mother. So we went round, and told her that David was at last taking over, and she cried."

David had one of his buddies staying and they sat up having a late drink. He was tempted to say something, but left it. The next morning Martin called the staff together. "We had a big team photo, and a lot of hugs," he recalled. "It was very emotional. It had been very tiring, at the end."

Nobody was under any illusions. The spread of Martin's methods had created a far more competitive environment, and with numbers dwindling the yard needed fresh impetus. While Martin and David had long been dividing responsibilities, they could not merely exchange the formal titles of trainer and assistant.

"It can't have been easy for dad," David acknowledged. "But just as when I was training the pointers, he's left me to get on with it. He's still down the gallops every day, of course. I was very privileged, to start off with all these facilities, horses, owners, staff. But that brings its own pressures too. You need the results. I wouldn't say I'm the most confident person, so every winner helps me come out of my father's shadow."

The breakthrough came at Aintree, albeit not for Tom. Comply Or Die is owned by David Johnson, who retains his own rider in Timmy Murphy. For the role of stable jockey, however, there was one obvious candidate. The old firm was back in business.

No less than their surnames, of course, the intimacy between David and Tom could be a mixed blessing. "We're both professional," David shrugged. "It's a business, there's a lot of money involved, and people want results. But Tom is becoming more and more the finished article."

Just like their fathers, they can have candour without animosity. "When something needs to be said, David's my boss, and he'll tell me," Tom said. "All either of us want is to get the horses to run faster. Sometimes you come back into the weighing room and hear other jockeys grumbling about 'effing so-and-so, doesn't know what he's talking about'. But David is constructive. We discuss everything, and not necessarily the Brian Clough way – talking it over, then agreeing that he's right!"

"They will have a few harsh moments," Martin said. "They've got to, as one does in married life. I had a few fallouts with A P McCoy. But yes, Tom is family, and when we win big races we have a kiss and a cuddle, silly things like that, and his dad will ring me, the two old men having a little gloat and perhaps a little cry."

For Peter, there is the perennial challenge of knowing the difference between counsel and interference. "If I think he's done something wrong, I will say so. But it can be quite a lonely existence as a jockey. You don't always have someone to turn to. The trainer tends to be more like your manager, and if you send one 'A over T' at the last you're not going to get an arm round a shoulder, you're going to get a bollocking. I try to time advice for when things are going well, and not be too dogmatic. But I've seen him grow in stature and confidence, and he's approaching the stage where he can be as good as any around."

In retirement, it has become easier for those who do not know Martin well to recognise the engaging, self-deprecating character long described by those who do. His sense of mischief used to come across as mistrust, his energy as evasion. Nowadays it is a pleasure to visit the homestead and sense its ancestral warmth. "Everyone calls David the nice Mr Pipe," Martin grinned. "I don't know what that means."

Last summer Martin lost his mother, Betty. "She would spoil me rotten as a kid," Tom said. "Even to the end, she was always trying to give me sweets, just as she was always giving dad biscuits, and sending McCoy to the races with a bag of wine gums. It would drive Mr Pipe potty, and the jockeys too, if they had to do 10st."

Her husband, Martin's father, had been a profound influence. "I wish I had his brains as a businessman," David admitted. "As a dealer, he was a genius. The doors for the loose school cost 50p each from the local hospital. They're not pretty, but they do the job. So much work has gone into this place. It's usually the third generation that blows it. But I'll be doing my best not to."

For Martin, a lifetime of endeavour found ultimate reward last April when David won the National. "We went down the local pub and David bought drinks for everyone. All of a sudden, about 10 o'clock, he stood up and shouted: 'Everyone back to the yard!' And we all went and saw the horses step off the lorry, gave a great cheer, and all piled into the house for more drinks. It was a memorable moment, very moving. I was so proud."

Of course he was, because it had all been about letting go. It is the same for the boys, as Tom says. "We're very proud of what our fathers achieved. David had this great base set for him, and many doors were opened for me. But you're only going to get so far, and then you're on your own two feet. We're not in competition with what they've done. Yes, it's a hard act to follow. But the real pressure is for us to beat Ruby Walsh or Paul Nicholls, not Peter Scudamore or Martin Pipe."