The spotlight will be on the star names at Cheltenham next week, but a bit player is waiting to upstage Nicholson, Henderson and company. Steve Gollings, a rookie trainer, has achieved the considerable feat of mustering two Festival runners from a string of just 15 in his first season.
Both are worthy contenders. His novice chaser In Truth goes for the Arkle Trophy on Tuesday, and the handicap hurdler Vasiliev runs in the traditional "getting-out stakes", the County Hurdle on Thursday.
Gollings, 41, has been based for the past two years in a stable yard fashioned from a disused farm near Louth in the Lincolnshire Wolds. He decided to take out a training licence after more than a decade of preparing horses for other trainers to race. "We ran a livery yard," Gollings explained, "and owners would send us horses for basic fittening then move them on elsewhere. It was satisfying to be associated with winners, but apart from the people immediately involved we got no credit for our work."
In a previous life he dealt with used cars. Now his job is to revitalise a different sort of horse-power for, like most small trainers, he is landed with problems created by other people.
He and his wife Jayne, a bloodstock agent, picked out In Truth at a Doncaster "used horse mart" three years ago and bought him cheaply. "He's a complete hooligan. Trying to train him has been like trying to re-educate a wayward Millwall supporter," Golling's said.
"When we went to find him at the sales he had got himself in such a state that there was just a cloud of steam pouring out of the box door, and in the auction ring he wrecked the floral arrangements. But we knew we'd got a jumper when we tried to load him in the horse-box. He leapt straight from the ground into the box without touching the ramp, and still does."
In Truth's record over fences is up and down. He has won once, but also has a fall and an ``unseated'' to his name, and a final-fence blunder cost him his last race. But significantly, Adrian Maguire, who rode him to his win, has elected to renew the partnership at Cheltenham.
Vasiliev raised eyebrows when he beat the Champion Hurdle contender Mole Board earlier in the season and Gollings thinks he has a lively outside chance. The trainer said: "He has tons of ability, but he had been used as a lead horse for Classic contenders in a previous stable and that soured him. He's still not convinced that racing isn't going to hurt him.
"There was a time when he refused to jump off in races, and he has been labelled a bit of a rogue. But you can't blame a horse for not wanting to do something that he expects is going to cause him pain."
Equine psychology is part of a trainer's craft, and it is becoming apparent that the Gollings couch is an effective one. The horses have access to 3,000 acres of scenery for exercising, but do their serious work up a four-furlong strip, Martin Pipe-style. Gollings is expanding his yard, and is aiming for a string of around 40, which he feels is a manageable number to maintain the individual approach. There could be no greater advertisement for his skill than a good showing at jumping's greatest showplace.Reuse content