Oliver and West Tip made the trip fun

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Mar­cus Army­tage

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

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