Tompkins budgets for victory

Sue Montgomery meets the trainer of Even Top, a bargain among the favourites
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The Independent Online
In a business where the pedigrees of the handlers are often as fancy as those of the horses, a pounds 50 overdraft and an industrial Yorkshire background has led just as surely to Epsom as any inherited wealth and breeding. On Saturday, Mark Tompkins will take Even Top to the Derby with a live chance.

The dark brown colt has been among the favourites for the premier Classic since his defeat by a whisker in the 2,000 Guineas a month ago. For his Sheffield-born, Newmarket-based trainer, victory would be the culmination of 17 years of graft.

Although Tompkins, 45, has no racing heritage - Henry Boot, founder of the civil engineering company, was a grandfather - what is in his genes is the ability to knuckle down and get things done, plus the belief in his own talent. He started training in the autumn of 1979 with a pounds 10,000 bank loan, a lease on the most rundown yard in Newmarket, and the aforementioned overdraft. Flint Cottage Stables, long since bought and refurbished, is now full, has already produced one Classic winner, and houses not only a contestant in this year's Derby, but also one in the Oaks, a notable achievement for a 60-box establishment.

"When I look back at the sort of horses I started with, I realise now I must have been mad," he said. "But training racehorses is all I wanted to do, ever since Granny Tompkins used to take me to courses like Warwick when I was about six."

Tompkins' maxim from the start was that given a good horse, he could train it as well as, and probably better, than the next man, but it was some years before he could prove his point.

It was not that he came from the wrong side of the tracks for his business, just from a different one; but that difference meant the traditional networks - the big owner-breeders, the well-connected agents - were closed to him. And the trainers with whom he served his apprenticeship, Walter Wharton, Willie Musson and Ryan Jarvis, were, though respected, not in the first flight of fashion.

Tompkins started with horses that were moderate at best, and suffered an instant reverse when his first winner was killed eight days after his victory. Later that year there was the prestige of a strike at Newmarket, the next season the filly Lusitanica won four times, and the Flint Cottage Stables Ltd productivity graph headed ever-upward with Flat runners and hurdlers.

These days there is a better class of animal resident behind the Suffolk- pink painted box doors, and it reflects well on their trainer's judgement that the best ones - the 1993 St Leger hero Bob's Return, Even Top and the Oaks filly Honest Guest - were picked out by him at the sales as yearlings with one eye on a limited budget.

If Tompkins's background is unorthodox, so is Even Top's. He is by a sire, Topanoora, of whom so little was expected that he was exported to India before his first crop even ran - he has since been retrieved by an Irish stud - out of a mare who won three times over hurdles. But for his trainer, it was love at first sight. He recalled: "I was going down the line of boxes at Goffs auction in Ireland, spotting with the help of Joss Collins, of the British Bloodstock Agency. I pulled this brown colt out and had a look, and immediately told the lad to put him away again, that I wasn't interested. But I turned to Joss and said, 'That's the one.' I knew I was going to buy him at any cost, but I wasn't going to let the vendors know that. With his breeding, we were taking a chance paying as much as we did for him, 27,000 guineas, but he was a lovely individual. I always buy with the thought in mind that if they don't make Flat horses, they can be jumpers. We try to give our owners value for money."

Even Top's owner, Benny Schmidt-Bodner, a septuagen- arian Londoner, will have no complaints on that score. He has had the glory of Royal Ascot winners - including three Wokingham Stakes - but this will be his first Derby runner.

On the eve of racing's showpiece occasion, Tompkins had some uncompromising words for those who run the sport. "We're in the entertainment business. I don't mess about; the job's got to be done professionally here. If someone doesn't want to do it like that, they can go and do it somewhere else.

"We've done it right, we've won a lot of good races and we're full all the time. I've worked hard to get a very good nucleus of owners - all of them British-based, incidentally; if the Arabs pulled out, there'd be a lot of yards in Newmarket with empty spaces, but not this one.

"But it's hard to attract new investors, even if you've won a Classic. You can't expect to sell a product if it's not worth buying, and at the moment racing is not. Owners are being hit with everything from bad prize money to bad catering and facilities on the tracks. They are subsidising other people's fun and profits. The sport needs a revolution, a Dr Beeching to go through it, but with those in charge at the moment, it just won't happen."

Even Top knows nothing of racing's politics, but is primed to gallop the most important mile and a half of his life. "He'll stay, he can quicken, he's balanced enough to act on the course, and he's got a great temperament," Tompkins said. "It was a swine to get so close in the Guineas, but I've always said the Derby was his race."