Williams on a roll with happy horses

NEW FACES FOR '97: While her horses romp to success a young trainer is running up an enviable strike-rate.
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Venetia Williams has an exercise book in which she details the performance of every horse she runs, with winners entered in red felt- tip and the losers in black biro. Not far away on her desktop is a shopping list, and one of the items on it says a great deal about her first full season as a trainer: new red pen.

Indeed, it is a little surprising that the old one has lasted so long, since for several months, winners have been emerging from Williams's yard as dependably as cars off a production line. To date this season she has saddled 19 winners from 48 runners, giving a strike-rate of 40 per cent which even the likes of Martin Pipe (27 per cent) and Kim Bailey (22 per cent) can only dream about. Ignore the summer jumping campaign, meanwhile, and the total since early September is 19 winners and 22 losers (13 of which made the frame).

After barely a year with a licence, there is a head peering over the door of every one of Williams's 40 boxes. For most trainers at a similar stage of their careers, the biggest problem is finding half a dozen horses which run faster than they walk, rather than how to make room for the latest recruits. While potential new owners may now ring at any moment, however, the early days were more difficult.

"You can't just twiddle the sign in the window to "open" because nothing will happen," Williams says. "I spent a lot of time going all over the country. I chased a lot of red herrings, but I also came up with quite a few people who were new to racing." The first weeks and months brought a frustrating series of near-misses, and Williams was forced to rely on a useful piece of advice. "Someone told me that you must use statistics for your own benefit, and I noticed that of the top 100 yards, we had the second-best placed percentage." This season, of course, the stats speak for themselves.

Delighted though she is by her present success, there is nothing false about the modesty with which Williams discusses her rapid ascent, nor about the definite hint of surprise that she has come so far, so swiftly. After all, when she secured her first job in racing, as secretary to Grant Pritchard-Gordon in Newmarket, it was riding, not training, which was her principal interest. But that was until, in the spring of 1987, holding the binoculars suddenly seemed far more attractive than holding the reins.

"I'd ridden in the Grand National two weeks before and fallen at Becher's," she says, "the last time that men were men and Becher's was Becher's. They modified it after I'd put a hole in the landing side. I was knocked unconscious but otherwise I was fine. A fortnight later I was in a common- or-garden hurdle at Worcester, on a 33-1 chance, in front coming to the last. And bang. I broke my neck, and I don't recommend it. I was temporarily paralysed, which was a bit worrying, and even though everything was okay in the end, that was the end of the riding."

The fundamentals of training were learned as an assistant to John Edwards, a near-neighbour, and Nigel Twiston-Davies, until the time seemed right to renovate and extend a stable block on land which has been in her family for centuries. Now Williams had the chance to add a personal touch to the routine, and while she denies that there is any secret technique behind her glut of winners, it is difficult to argue with the form book.

"We try to take a common-sense approach to everything," she says, "and it seems sensible to go with a horse's nature rather than trying to get them to fit my idea of it. For instance, if a horse is in its box for 23 hours in a day and then on the 24th, you go up the gallops and back down again, its circulation goes from total stagnation to suddenly roaring around its body, and then cuts off completely again for another 23 hours. Then you wonder why you get joints filling up and so on.

"So we try to turn most of ours out in the paddocks every afternoon, and they can have three or four hours just quietly walking around. The first thing they all do is get down and have a roll, then they get their heads down and eat some grass, gently keeping the circulation going. That's natural too, for horses to have their heads down for a few hours a day, and for that reason all my horses have their mangers at ground level."

Perhaps it is just the memory of how glorious it once was to be a muddy child, but as the horses are led back to their boxes after an afternoon of romping and rolling - "probably the filthiest horses in training", Williams says - they seem to be glowing visions of health and contentment.

"I don't know that I'm doing much right, maybe I'm just not doing much wrong," she says. "I try not to look too far ahead. There are heaps of horses which have won a bumper in Ireland which are all going to be Gold Cup winners, until they're proved otherwise. It's exactly the same with trainers. People think, second-season trainer, one or two winners, hey chaps, we've spotted one here. Then the horses get stuffed two or three times and suddenly I'll be yesterday's news."

When you have lain paralysed on the downside of the last flight at Worcester, such caution over long-term predictions is understandable. If Williams herself is unsure how long her winning streak will last, however, her horses offer compelling evidence. The filthiest in training they may be, but few who saw them would deny that they are probably the happiest too.