Johnathan Powell spends a day at Lambourn with the trainer who has sprung towards the top of the tree
Our award-winning writer meets trainer Clive Cox
Clive Cox’s second spell as a racehorse trainer has delivered a series of big race victories that have pitchforked him irresistibly towards the top of the tree. To spend a morning with him at his stables on the roof of Lambourn is to marvel at his calm demeanour and easy going temperament as he goes about the stressful business of fine-tuning his team of 100 thoroughbreds that have already won more than 40 races this season and over £1 million in prize money. It surely helps that the yard and gallops he rents are owned by John Francome, an old chum from his riding days.The mood always lightens when Francome is present because the canny former champion jockey cannot resist trying out his latest risqué jokes on stable lads and visiting owners. The focus of trainer and landlord is on the next big challenge for the searingly fast sprinter Harry Angel who recently gave Cox his second victory in the Group 1 Darley July Cup at Newmarket. Confidence is high as the countdown continues towards the Sprint Cup at Haydock early in September for which he is already a warm favourite. The trainer says admiringly: “This horse has matured and grown up over the summer and proved at Newmarket that he was a man. “Going there we didn’t think we were tilting at windmills because he was only beaten three quarters of a length by Caravaggio at Royal Ascot when things didn’t really go our way. “He was so well in himself that day,and a bit too fresh.He ran with the choke out and never had a chance to get a blow in.
“With maturity and racing he has become the finished article and you’d have to say he looked pretty special at Newmarket in outrunning Brando and Limato with Caravaggio only fourth. I’m very proud of him.”
These are heady days for Cox who,like so many fine trainers,learned his trade as a jump jockey. In his best season he rode 33 winners but he is probably most widely remembered for partnering the favourite Sacred Path in the 1988 Grand National.
Theirs was a short journey as they fell at the first fence.Cox can laugh about it now though at the time he described it as the biggest anti-climax of his life.
On the way home his wife Tina didn’t speak for the first hour before he finally suggested,“Come on, it’s not that bad.”
Tina then revealed that her handbag had been stolen while she was watching the big race.
“LIverpool seemed an awfully long way from home that night,” he recalls.
When he stopped riding in 1990 he turned to training at a little yard near Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire close to the London to Cardiff railway line with Tina
putting together a few syndicates.
They worked prodigiously long hours for minimal reward and it was an uphill struggle before he handed in his licence and joined forces with his friend Mikey Heaton-Ellis, an inspirational figure who bravely overcame being paralysed in a race fall to make a success of training before his untimely death from motor neurone disease in 1999.
After nine fruitful years as assistant trainer to Heaton-Ellis at Barbury Castle, Cox was ready to take the plunge again and jumped at the chance to take over the reins as salaried employee of Elite Racing at Francome’s Beechdown stables.When that deal ended it made sense for him to rent direct from Francome.
The results these past few years have been undeniably impressive, though the modest Cox is so understated you almost have to drag the names of all his major winners from him.
The list is getting longer by the season. Lethal Force, who cost only 8,500 Euros was a brilliant sprinter who won the Diamond Jubilee and July Cup, Harry Angel, another bargain at £44,000 looks every bit as good if not better, while Xtension, Kodi Bear, Profitable, Reckless Abandon, New Seeker, Gilt Edge Girl, Priceless, Jimmy Styles and My Dream Boat have all been flagbearers for the yard.
Then there is the jaunty two-year-old filly Heartache,leased by a syndicate of 70 enthusiasts, who danced to a notable victory in the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot in June, beating a heavily backed American trained favourite.
Cox has a happy knack of unearthing smart juveniles at affordable prices for his owners and several of them have subsequently been sold on for life-changing figures.
Harry Angel, for instance, now runs in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin team, who bought him this spring from Peter Ridgers, a 70-year-old chartered accountant, after eye-catching victories in the Mill Reef and Sandy Lane Stakes.
Lethal Force is now on the stallion roster at the Cheveley Park Stud while Harry Angel will eventually stand at the Sheikh’s Darley Stud in Newmarket.
Cox clearly has an eye for stock and talks fondly of the day he paid £44,000 for Harry Angel at the Doncaster yearling sales in 2015.He had bought Xtension,his first Group 2 winner, from Paul McCartan and was encouraged that Harry Angel was out of a half-sister to that horse.
Aware that Harry Angel’s sire Dark Angel was a hit among breeders and trainers alike, he feared that the youngster would be well out of his price range.
“I enjoy buying into families that I know and trust so he was obviously on the list of yearlings I planned to look at with John Reid who helps me at the sales.
“Harry Angel was full of presence, athletic, a gorgeous looker with everything you want in a horse so I wasn’t expecting to get him.But you never know and I was thrilled and astonished to be able to secure him for £44,000,”he relates.
“He was very keen at home ahead of his first outing at Ascot as a two-year-old and keen in the race, too, so did well to run the odds-on favourite to a nose.
“Adam Kirby gave him a beautiful,kind ride, wasn’t hard on him at all, which has been well rewarded since.”
There was a blip next time at Glorious Goodwood when Harry Angel became so wound up at the start he refused to enter the stalls. He has been making up for it ever since and with more improvement to come should give Cox and Kirby many more days in the sun.
Kirby is in no doubt about the colt’s talent as he says “Harry Angel is a machine,the best around and the best you will see for a long time.I truly believe that. He is so exciting to ride. I’d take on any sprinter with him.”
Clive Cox, far right, helps lead in Lethal Force and jockey Adam Kirby after winning the 2013 Darley July Cup