Oliver and West Tip made the trip fun
Michael Oliver, a trainer best known for winning the Grand National with West Tip, died this week aged 70.
Oliver, who “retired” from the front line nearly 30 years ago to dabble in bloodstock, was by no means a one-horse trainer but he produced West Tip to run at Aintree in seven consecutive years (six times in Nationals, in which he was placed four times) and at an astounding nine consecutive Cheltenham Festivals.
He knew a good horse when he saw one, which is a gift, and gave Richard Dunwoody his break, providing him with his first two Cheltenham Festival winners, on Von Trapp and West Tip, in 1985.
Aged 18, Oliver was left £2,000 by a relation which he invested in eight loose boxes and four young horses, all by a then unknown Irish stallion, Master Owen. It was a prescient choice; Master Owen would go on to be a champion sire of jumpers.
If Oliver’s wife, Sarah, was in any doubt about what marrying into the National Hunt world would be like, she soon learnt at their wedding; his two best men had their left legs in plaster having had bad falls, while her father-in-law was on a zimmer frame after breaking his hip falling in a ditch celebrating a win.
Trips to Ireland were another thing she had to get used to, starting on her honeymoon. One of Master Owen’s best sons was Master H who won 18 of his 29 races and was third in the 1978 Gold Cup.
Initially, Master H was owned by an eccentric Welsh industrialist Bill Davies, known as “Bill the Wad” because of the rolls of cash he carried in his pocket.
At the end of a horse-shopping trip to Ireland, Bill’s girlfriend, who had been told about the unsurpassed quality of Irish beef, stopped their car at a butcher’s shop in Kildare to fill her suitcase with fresh meat. By the time they reached the airport, her luggage was bleeding profusely.
After Red Rum, West Tip was the next greatest post-war Aintree specialist, but it so nearly ended before it began. Bought by Oliver for £1,700, West Tip was clipped by a lorry at exercise one morning before he had run. A hook on the side of the wagon gauged a hole in his hindquarters. A three-hour operation and 80 stitches saved him, though it left a huge scar.
West Tip would jump 172
National fences for one mishap; the year before winning, 1985, he was in front when he fell at Becher’s second time. “He was going too well,” recalled Dunwoody. “The photographs showed his ears still pricked as his head was about to touch the floor.”
He was constantly lumbered with big weights in handicaps, so to revitalise his career in 1989, Oliver sent him hunter-chasing, where he would carry level weights with lesser horses – which is where my path crossed theirs.
The Horse & Hound sent me to cover the story, I ended up riding the horse and became a huge fan of the trainer. Riding for him was invariably fun.
The first time I sat on West Tip, a horse who could jump the Chair in his sleep, he refused at a threefoot rail while out hunting and got some sheep wire wedged between his shoe and his hoof. I had visions of him pulling back, and leaving his foot on the fence. However, he was so laid back, that he stood there with his leg in the air for 10 minutes while wire cutters were found.
But that was nothing compared to the embarrassment of my first ride in a hunter chase on him when, at Huntingdon, he turned a somersault at the first fence. Far from being upset, Oliver could not contain his amusement that I had managed to put the best jumper in the country on the floor.
We went on to win a couple of races and getting his head in front again did revitalise West Tip, and Dunwoody finished second on him, his best result since winning, in that year’s National.
Far from being upset, he could not contain his laughter that I had put the best jumper in the country on the floor
Top trainer: Michael Oliver, who died this week, was a great judge of horses and won the Grand National with West Tip in 1986