The turf

King of the hills

18 February 2016

3:00 PM

18 February 2016

3:00 PM

There are now two Kings of the Marlborough Downs. Leading jumps trainer Alan King has long trained top horses at Barbury Castle but since summer 2014, to the confusion of delivery drivers, he has had a new neighbour, the former Newmarket trainer Neil King. The only surprise is that Neil did not come sooner: driving with him up and down the gradients and gulleys of Upper Herdswick Farm was — if his wife Clare will forgive the comparison — like witnessing the consummation of a love affair. He eagerly showed off his refurbished woodchip gallop, his fine schooling grounds and the laurel bushes that will in time provide cross-country obstacles, his loose school and the ponds he has established to benefit local wildlife. His pride in the transformation of the once rundown yard near Wroughton is as obvious as his bounding energy.

Watching clusters of scatty two-year-olds jogging along the walkways next to busy roads and queuing for Warren Hill gallops you think of Newmarket trainers as townies. Farmer’s son Neil is a countryman through and through. After a pupillage with Nicky Henderson in See You Then days, and working for an American jumps trainer in Maryland, Neil ran a livery yard and rode and trained point-to-pointers before setting up as a public trainer. One point-to-point victory he won’t forget was on Prince Torus, a talented but fragile horse he took with him on leaving Henderson. Having finally got him right and booked the local champion rider, connections took £200 out of the bank to back him. The rider was then claimed to ride another horse and the owner suggested that Neil rode him instead. They won on the bridle, although not trusting his riding as much as he did his training the stake had been reduced to £100!

When you are with Neil, he stops to point out buzzards and kites above the roe deer trotting through the rows of saplings planted by his predecessor Jim Old. The loo pictures include action shots of Neil with the Galway ‘Blazers’ and other famous hunts, and his owners benefit from the shoot he has established within the training grounds.

So why, with Lucy Wadham, was Neil King one of just two jumps trainers who chose to make a serious go of it amid all the Flat trainers at Headquarters? It was, he says, the natural place to start for a Bury St Edmunds boy who had ridden out for Newmarket trainers. But after 12 years at the St Gatien yard in Newmarket, which became part of a swap deal enabling him to buy the Wiltshire chalkland estate, he has no regrets about leaving. Looking down at 18-month-old Pippa, who was sharing the front seat of the Land Rover and who already has her own pony, he said simply, ‘We’ve moved here for a lifetime.’

The facilities at Newmarket were excellent and were run by Jockey Club Estates. Now Neil has to maintain his own gallops and he speaks with genuine gratitude of help given to him at headquarters by Sir Mark Prescott. But while it has taken Neil time to adjust to training on the steep hills around the farm, he has found his horses to be much more relaxed in the peaceful Wiltshire countryside. Finicky feeders now eat up well in grilled boxes where they can watch each other and the horses stay healthier. ‘We’ve a mile-long grass gallop here with undulations that teach the young horses to balance themselves. Every time they are out of their stables they are walking up a hill.

‘At Newmarket you are all on top of each other. In the autumn, with the intake of yearlings and the sales on in town, you would regularly find the form of the horses dropping away — you could set your clock by it.’

Another factor, too, made him keen to have his own training estate: statistics watchers could see that year on year Neil King was training more winners, ‘but the phone wasn’t ringing. People don’t seem to want their jumpers trained there.’

All but one of his Newmarket owners have kept their horses with Neil through the move to Wiltshire where his first year produced 29 winners, his best total yet, and he was already up to 23 this season when I called a couple of days before the admirably consistent Lil Rockefeller, already the winner of more than £100,000 in prize money, ran an impressive third in an Ascot handicap hurdle under an 11st 12lb burden. The Boss’s Dream had triumphed in a Kempton novice hurdle over three miles with the much-underrated stable jockey Trevor Whelan cleverly exploiting his stamina and they have won again since. Zeroshadesofgrey, who seems to love Doncaster, should triumph again over hurdles and Saffron Wells will surely win over fences this season. The one I fell in love with, however, was the imposing Milansbar. His trainer says proudly, ‘He could win prizes in the show ring, let alone on the racecourse,’ and he might well prove a prospect for the 2017 Grand National.

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