Saturday 31st March 2012



Robert Waley-Cohen talks to Andrew Norman at Pointing South Midlands about getting into racing, his riding career, Upton Viva Stud, his racing colours, and the Warwickshire Hunt.


Waley-Cohen was based in London throughout his childhood but spent most of his weekends and holidays on Exmoor. His father, Bernard, adored Flat racing and also took a keen interest in Point-to-Point racing in the winter months. “He never had a bet but when he took us pointing, he gave us money and said ‘don’t spend it on toffee apples and sweets, that’s for betting with.’ Bookies didn’t used to worry about taking half a crown off an eight-year-old kid!”

Looking back over his career, Waley-Cohen says he has undertaken a “portfolio of different activities” and this is certainly true. He worked for Christie’s, the fine arts auction house, for 12 years and continues to attend many art exhibitions, commenting: “You can always make time for things you enjoy.”

After leaving Christie’s, he launched, in 1983, a business providing diagnostic services to healthcare providers in California.

Alliance Imaging proved successful, taking off quickly across the United States and from 1989, Alliance Medical provided a similar service in Europe. Waley-Cohen now has no involvement in the company, having sold the business in December 2007, 18 months after he stood down as Chief Executive. He is still, however, an active investor in some other large organisations.

Reminiscing on his early days of active participation in the racing world, he says, “The first time I owned a racehorse was in America when I was running the Christie’s offices out there. It was out in Far Hills, New Jersey which was commuting distance to the South of New York. We were timber racing. It was pretty amateur, but good fun.”

On returning home in the mid 1970s his father bought him a Point-to-Pointer. It was stabled on Exmoor and Waley-Cohen soon acquired another. He says,”We went to Holnicote and Bratton Down mainly. We always got frustrated because the meetings were so late in the season. We had to make the three-hour drive with the horse box to Larkhill in February. We were based in the heart of Exmoor. It was only when I moved up to Upton that I realised what a long way it was from anywhere!”

He adds, “The only race I won under rules was on a horse called Sun Lion at Warwick. I was very comfortable riding at 12st 7lbs but 12st was hard work! I came third in the Foxhunters in 1981 behind Grittar the year before he won the Grand National. I rode at 12st 7lbs but I wouldn’t have been second if I’d have been 12st – I’d probably have fallen off!”

Waley-Cohen soon got drawn into racing administration and has held many roles ranging from secretary of the amateur jockey’s association in the early days and local steward for several racecourses to a board member of Cheltenham. In the past year he has extended that position to become the non-executive chairman. He says that being in the planning stages of a major building programme at Cheltenham takes up a great deal of time but he is pleased to work with his first class executive team.

In 1997, Waley-Cohen and son Marcus took on the idea of starting a stud. They searched high and low for the best possible mare they could find and bought Makounji. Waley-Cohen comments: “She won listed hurdles in France, she won the Pendil Chase and was an absolutely top class race mare.”

Makounji ran her last race in April 2000 and Upton Viva Stud, a joint venture for Waley-Cohen and Marcus, was established in 2001. “We set out to accommodate ten mares with their followers, running on a commercial basis.”

The first home-bred horse to run was Shatabdi, who went on to win the Grade 2 Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle at Kempton in 2007.

Waley-Cohen, gives some training statistics: “There are about 10,000 horses in training. In the national hunt world there are around 200 rated over 140 in the Anglo/Irish classification. Of those 200, around 15 are fillies. There are 69 mares rated over 135 currently at stud in the UK. I’ve got 5, which is probably more than my fair share. Rated over 125, I’ve got another four of which there are about another 90.”

“So, out of the ten mares at the stud, nine are rated over 125. One, Shatabdi, is home-bred. She is a Grade 2 winner in her own right; a win was particularly pleasing as it was Sam’s 15th winner which enabled him to ride in the National.”

Upton Viva Stud sells virtually all of the geldings. The mares kept for racing (because they are well bred and put together) and are successful (e.g. Shatabdi), are put back into the stud again.

Waley-Cohen looks to fillies who are from successful families with a history of black-type performances, to be by a proper stallion and then to have proven themselves to a certain degree at a young age on the racecourse.

He explains why he does the majority of recruiting in France: “The Irish don’t sell the best but the French will. Auteuil is the number one national course so you get the best horses from all over France competing because they have very heavily staircased prize money.  If you win one of those races you know you’re not only one of the best in the region but you are the best in France and that is a very big population so you know you’ve got the real article.”

To give some perspective on how the prize money varies in France compared to the UK, Long Run earned £152,913 for his win in the Prix Maurice Gillois Chase as a four-year-old in 2009 but won just £102,618 for winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton in January 2011.

Waley-Cohen gives his opinion on the English Point-to-Point field compared with the Irish production of young horses:

“Point-to-Pointing in Ireland has the same name but it is a very different activity. Most people in Britain are running their horses for the sport and although there are producers present, they are a fraction. In Ireland, producers are dominant.”

“The English Point-to-Pointers are greatly underappreciated but there is a different attitude because they are less inclined to sell a really good horse. The likes of Tom Lacey are a bit of a rarity. The criticism was that the producers in England were not buying horses with a good enough pedigree but they have upped their game and it’s growing slowly.”

“English Point-to-Pointing is not seen as being an adequate trial as it is regional whereas a bumper attracts horses from a bigger catchment area.”

At Upton Viva Stud, Waley-Cohen says he supervises the schooling and gallops but relies greatly on his competent staff led by Katy Mawle: “She comes from a hunting and eventing background and does all the feeding and healthcare. I’m here Friday through to Tuesday so I see the horses 5 days a week but we always talk on the phone on a Wednesday and Thursday! It’s wonderful to have someone that you can totally rely on. I always get a very accurate report from her as to how it went.”

He describes how Sam is introducing them to a watch to measure precise speeds: “I can say I want you to go ‘this speed’ which is not the same as saying I want you to go a ‘strong gallop’. It’s a more precise way of describing the work you want to do.”

He enjoys the elements of training for which he can be ‘hands on’: “I do all the race planning and I’m thrilled to be able to enter horses online, which is something I pushed for when I was Chairman of the Point-to-Point Authority. It means I can do it at any time of day or night when I happen to think about it with infinitely less effort.” He jokes that some tasks are made easier by not having to deal with ‘troublesome owners!’

Waley-Cohen’s commitment extends to driving a distance to check the ground himself before one of his horses sets off on the day of the race. In November last year, he left for Cottenham on a chilly Sunday morning at the crack of dawn. He had to finish walking the course by 8am as this was the time the horsebox needed to leave. “It was raining, blowing a gale and the ground was too firm for Ashtown Boy to run. I could hardly lift a gate that was held on two hinges!” he remembered.

There is pride in his family connection to racing, going back at least three generations: “My great grandfather was a man called Beddington who had Flat horses from the latter part of the 19th century. He had racing colours that were orange, chocolate sleeves.”

Henry Edward Beddington won the 1910 Goodwood Gold Cup with a horse called ‘Magic,’ beating the prolific ‘Bayado.’ He adds: “Bayado was the Yeats of his time and no one thought he could possibly get beaten. We actually have a Goodwood Gold Cup and a very bad painting of Magic with jockey up sporting orange, chocolate sleeves.”

With this history, it is hardly surprising Waley-Cohen’s horses run in brown and orange: “My father, Beddington’s grandson, had horses with George Peter Hoblin. When he registered colours, he inherited the orange and chocolate sleeves. When I registered colours, the obvious thing to do was to go ‘chocolate, orange sleeves.’ The only hitch was, in those days there wasn’t a computerised system and they said ‘I’m not sure chocolate is a recognised colour, so you’ll have to be brown!’

Waley-Cohen still registers the orange with chocolate sleeves as his second colours. Although reverse colours are only called up on extremely rare occasions, a picture of sons Sam and Marcus sporting these can be seen in Waley-Cohen’s sitting room. “This was taken down at the start when they rode against each other at Chaddesley Corbett,” he explains.

Sam rides the majority of his horses despite his busy life as Chief Executive of Portman Healthcare. Being a jockey is his predominant hobby.

In the hallway is a picture of Waley-Cohen and Peter Greenall (who has since inherited the title Lord Daresbury) riding over a fence in the 1983 Foxhunters at Aintree side by side. Directly below is a similar image 20 years on showing their respective sons, Sam and Thomas, also taking to the Liverpool course.

Sam is recognised by the chocolate and orange silks and, although known predominantly in the mainstream media for winning the 2011 Gold Cup, he has a record at Aintree to rival any professional jockey.

“He’s the only amateur to do the Foxhunter/Topham double,” said Waley-Cohen, “His record round Liverpool is crazy. He’s ridden there 12 times and had 3 wins (2 Katarino, 1 Liberthine), 3 places, 3 completes and 3 falls. The three falls were all on horses he had never seen before he walked into the paddock. I think I’ve persuaded him not to do that again!”

Sam will attempt to win at Aintree for a fourth time on April 12th, aboard Roulez Cool (a gelding bred and trained at Upton Viva Stud) in the John Smith’s Fox Hunter Chase.

“Last year, Sam and I finally won a race that we’ve always wanted to win. We had never even had a runner in it, let alone won it.”

Most would think Waley-Cohen is referring to the Gold Cup but it is the Warwickshire Hunt Members Race that means so much to the family.

On Monday May 2nd 2011, Rumbavu held off Medic by two lengths to take the prize. On the same day, Sam had to provide commentary over the loud speaker after a technical malfunction. “They couldn’t get the sound system to work but luckily Sam, who was going to ride in the next race, is able to rise to those occasions!” notes Waley-Cohen.

When asked why he continues to love pointing so much compared with winning a Gold Cup at Cheltenham, he replies: “They’re all competitive races. If the horse is running in their right class, they’re just as hard to win. You get just as much satisfaction from winning a lower-class race with a not-so-able horse. In December at Barbury we were running for £150 before going straight to Sandown to compete for £22,000.  It’s not satisfying to run a horse that’s far too good or far too bad for the class it’s running in.”

This season, the Warwickshire Hunt has moved back to Mollington from Ashorne.

There has been a five-year absence from racing at Mollington and Waley-Cohen looks forward to the upcoming meeting on Monday May 7th: “The Warwickshire was at Mollington before Ashorne so it’s not an enormous departure for us. The racing surface is still intact so we will be racing on proper turf. It’s a wonderful viewing track. There is a stream nearby and what Ken Hutsby has been brilliant about is making sure that we have the best possible racing surface. People rely on the Warwickshire having a good racing surface and we are determined to keep that reputation.”

Irilut, who won the Warwickshire Hunt Open race three times in a row, returning two seasons later to win it for a fourth time, is in retirement in the fields at Upton Viva Stud alongside Aintree Foxhunters supremo Katarino.