Ben on course to go well over par!
Nick Townsend talks to trainer Ben Pauling
Ben Pauling, the young Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer destined to record numerically his best season yet, surely merits all the accolades for initiative as he prepares to rachet his career up to the next level.
The 38-year-old who for six years was Nicky Henderson’s assistant before striking out on his own in 2013, and whose enterprise was soon rewarded by the feats of the ill-fated Festival winner Willoughby Court and the exciting Barters Hill, could have simply upgraded to existing larger, grander facilities. Instead he went out and bought an 18-hole, 71-par local golf course six miles down the road.
If this golf ‘n gallops joint enterprise appears a somewhat bizarre scenario, there is no doubting a sound rationale which means that after this year’s Cheltenham Festival, he and his wife Sophie and their team will move from his current rented yard at Bourton Hill Farm, near the Cotswolds tourist magnet of Bourton-on-the Water to the verdant vista of Naunton Downs Golf Club where he has developed a 95-box yard.
“Sophie and I want to keep the golf and we’ve still got 18 holes there,” he explains. “Sophie oversees that side of things, and is currently renovating the clubhouse. We re-tweaked the course, and the gallops go up through the middle. It’s unique. Nowhere in the country are horses trained within a golf course. It’s quite a novelty and should be exciting.”
He adds: “With Bourton Hill Farm, when we went there it had 32 boxes. Now it has 83. We built new gallops and schooling lanes but ultimately it wasn’t our own facility. We’ve been fortunate to find our new site and build a yard that once we could only dream of. The gallops only cross one area of the course and that is the 14th hole. Where the gallop goes close to a hole we simply say to the golfers that if they see horses galloping towards them, or trotting behind them, just wait to play their shot until the horses are out of sight.”
Asked if he makes use of his own facilities, this Ben concedes readily that he is no Curtis or Crenshaw on the fairway. “I can play – badly,” he admits ruefully. I do have a set of clubs and I have a bash round with a few mates, maybe eight or ten times a year. But I don’t have a handicap.”
Any handicapping on this site is more likely to relate to the weights carried by his horses, who include the yard’s most memorably-named performer Shakem Up’Arry. Owned by Harry Redknapp, the eight-year-old eased to an eight- length victory in a handicap chase at Haydock before Christmas.
“He was always a horse we’ve thought a lot of, but never hit the heights I expected him to over hurdles,” says his trainer. “Chasing will definitely be his game, and he will be a very nice novice for the remainder of this season. I think he could be even better next season. He’s a big raw horse that will take time to come to himself, and needs soft, but he’s a magnificent beast and a very good jumper, so he’s a nice horse to have on your side.”
Kildisart, a winner at the 2019 Grand National meeting, will be aimed at the Aintree spectacular itself in April, having recovered from “some hind suspensory issues,” according to his trainer. “But he’s now back in training and it will be all guns blazing to see if we can get him fit for the National. Hopefully, he’ll stay sound.”
Among Pauling’s other winners this season – 33 at the time of writing – seven-year-old hurdler Not At Present has won four of six races and was narrowly defeated in the other two. “He’s progressing nicely, and will probably be a better chaser next season,” says Pauling, who also enthuses about Le Breuil. “Brilliant for us, at the Festival (winning the Grade 2 amateur riders’ novices chase in 2019). “And another who’s been great for our career.”
Long distance hurdler The Cob will be aimed at a valuable three mile handicap at Sandown in February, followed by a possible tilt at the the Pertemps Final at the Festival. “He can occasionally throw in one or two stinkers (he was pulled up at Don
caster in late December), but undoubtedly has a big engine and on his day can be very competitive in any handicap. He’s in good form with himself at the moment.” Pauling names younger horses with potential as the six-year-olds Mucho Mas and Bowtogreatness, the latter of whom is “another one of Harry’s (Redknapp), he could be well above average, I think.”
After such an auspicious start to his career and the manner in which his team are currently thriving it should be stressed that the move to Naunton Downs is part of a retrieval mission.
“Our first five, six years of training couldn’t have gone any better,” recalls Pauling, who not only married into a racing family - Sophie’s late father Tim Finch being a successful amateur rider, trainer and owner - but his elder sister, also named Sophie, is married to a training rival in Charlie Longsdon.
“We were very fortunate to land on some exceptionally good horses very early on, but one, Bright Forecast (third in a Grade 1 at Cheltenham Festival) went by the wayside with a fibrillating heart. Another, Willoughby Court had a blood infection which got the better of him (and he had to be euthanised). Barters Hill slipped the tendon off his hock and was retired. They were three genuine Grade 1 horses. They’re the horses that you need to keep you in the top sphere of this game. Off the back of those, everything else had gone very well, we got a nice number of horses and some fabulous owners.”
Though such vicissitudes are an inevitability in the sport, that was, by any judgement, cruel fortune. It was followed by a further setback in 2019.
“The season before Covid hit, we had a terrible virus within the yard. It’s very sadly not something that comes and goes in a flash. A piece of work could put them back a month. A strong piece of work could leave them looking like they’ve just run in the Grand National on heavy ground.”
He adds: “We still managed to pull off some decent results that season with some nice horses, but our winners were down. That was followed by the Covid year. So, this year has been very much a year of rebuilding – and finishing off creating what I believe to be one of the best yards in the country. We’ve not held back – it’s somewhere we’re going to be exceptionally proud of, with some fabulous facilities.”
Pauling could not have enjoyed a finer education than under the fivetime champion trainer, the now 71-year-old Henderson whom he describes as “a genius”. Ask him what lessons proved particularly valuable in his time at Seven Barrows, and he responds: “Nicky was always very patient with his horses. He let his horses tell him when they were ready. That is probably the one thing I took from him, especially the young horses - not to push them, keep them healthy and free from injury, and let them come to themselves in their own time.”
He stresses the stark difference between preparing an average horse for one particular race and “keeping a quality horse consistent at a level, and repeatedly taking it to big races and running very successfully. That is an art. That’s hopefully what we certainly achieved in our early days with some very nice horses. I hate looking back but the horses that Barters Hill beat Politologue, Altior, Buveur D’air – suggest there’s no two ways about it. If he had remained injury-free, he would have been absolutely out the top drawer.”
Pauling adds: “Willoughby Court was the same. If either one of those had remained injury-free, our career would have been in a different place again. You just need a horse that keeps you absolutely top of the game, and that keeps everything ticking along very nicely.”
Such contrasting fortunes in his first eight seasons have taught Pauling the need to maintain a healthy perspective of events. “We didn’t start with the financial backing of some of the bigger yards. We started with eight horses for family and friends. I didn’t take any owners from Nicky. We’ve built a business of 100 horses, we’ve just built our brand new yard and we’re having a very good season. I’m very proud of what Sophie and I and the team around us have achieved.”
He adds: “If you’d said to me at the start ‘in the first eight years of your training, Ben, you’d have two Grade 1 horses, two Festival winners, you’d have Listed and Graded winners left right and centre, would you be happy?’ I’d have said ‘yes, of course’.
Pauling admits when I ask him about the limits of his ambition and whether he’s prepared to enter the numbers game: “There’s two types of trainer in my view. You’ve got the Dans (Skelton), the Ollys (Murphy), a bit more now, Fergal (O’Brien) to a point, and you’ve got Paul Nicholls - they’re training so many horses, it’s a huge operation. We’re building 95 boxes and yes, I want to train over 100 horses to fill those, and that’s not an insignificant number. But I’ve got no interest really in getting to 200. I’d rather have better quality, and not quite so many.”
He adds: “I do have a family (he and Sophie have two daughters, Isabella and Tilia), and we have a life outside racing as well. It’s important to have that balance. That doesn’t mean I’m not an exceptionally competitive person, and I want to beat every one of them (the big yards) every time I run against them. But it also doesn’t mean that I need to train 200 horses to do it. I’d be very happy if we had a lovely bunch of horses in a few years’ time that I could be very proud of and be featuring in the bigger races. That’s a very nice place to be.” And, dare you suggest, become a man who can hit par on his own golf course into the bargain…