Worrying start to the Old year

Richard Edmondson on a trainer whose ambitions have been knocked off course
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As the big freeze continues, a worrying thought is beginning to set in the mind of Jim Old, the trainer of Collier Bay. It may well be that when the Champion Hurdler returns to a racecourse after his greatest hour, he will see some rather familiar faces peering over the running rail in his direction, the very same cold-bleached features that watched him sprint up the Prestbury Park hill last March.

Collier Bay has been allowed to bask in the warmth of ultimate success for some time now, but the elements are doing him no favours in retaining his crown. "I've been worrying about a race for him for quite a time now because the opportunities are so restricted," Old said yesterday. "From the point of view of this horse, it wouldn't necessarily worry me going to the Festival without a run. It wouldn't be ideal but I could do it. He's won first time out before."

As the options diminish, it could be that Collier Bay will return for the Leopardstown race he won in his build-up last year. "We might have to go to Ireland [for the Europe Champion Hurdle on 19 January], but if it's frozen up here two days before, then we ain't going there either," the trainer said.

While the weather gets some of the blame for Collier Bay's inactivity, it appears there is another, greater devil. Old gets rather unseasonal when it comes round to the topic of organising the race calendar, and it may be safe to assume that he did not send David Oldrey, the chairman of race planning, a Yuletide chocolate log, rather that he would like to tap him over the head with the natural equivalent. "Over the last two years they have taken seven Champion Hurdle-type trial races away and replaced them with handicaps," Old said. "They are catering for mediocrity.

"The avowed intention seems to be that Alderbrook and Collier Bay, as the two main protagonists, should meet head-to- head three times this season. They want to restrict the opportunities to such an extent that we have to clash on those occasions."

Collier Bay's misfortune is not a phenomenon unheard of at Upper Herdswick Farm in Wiltshire. If something bad can happen to Jim Old, it usually does. It would be easy to see him as Frank Spencer with horses - and he does engender the same sort of general affection - but he has also posted a level of great professional achievement. The trainer's life could be titled by the book Kingsley Amis did not write, "Unlucky Jim".

"I've always been the same, and it's been worse than it is now," he said. "I've always been known as unlucky Jim, particularly at school. If anything happened, it always happened to me, especially when it came to getting caught."

James Andrew Bertram Old's racing gamut started when he went from the charmed newcomer of training to leper, in the space of the three years in which virus came to visit at his south Bristol yard and then failed to check out. A selection of elderly owners had the ill grace to die on him during the same period. "They were three very bad years, and when that happens people start to lose their confidence in droves," he said. "I also lost four terrific owners. They had four horses each, so it starts adding up."

Now based in Wiltshire, Old suffered the sort of calamity at season's outset that might have been of some assistance at his previous location. Fire swept through his yard, killing four horses and injuring another six. The trainer's office was also accounted for and he now operates from a Portakabin.

In between, though, has been the great glory of Champion Hurdle afternoon 1996, when the hand of Old was a very popular meeting point. That day his hair, if not dishevelled, was hardly shevelled either, and he transported a mac that Mrs Columbo would have thrown out. He looked a quintessential part of racing, just like the bloke you have always seen through the mists of the betting shop, counting coppers out of a plastic bag.

It is this vulnerability (and Old is the most self-deprecating of figures, calling himself the sort of names you rarely hear at evensong) that makes the trainer such a well-liked figure. Collier Bay may not be seen for a while yet, but a reliable forecast is for cigarettes and a tumbler to be evidenced in Jim Old's fingers. "I thought about giving up smoking and whisky for New Year but I couldn't," he said. "They are essential to the trainer's survival kit."