TRAINER TALK: ROBERT WALEY-COHEN

by Jake Exelby

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Robert Waley-Cohen’s Upton Viva Farm, situated just inside the Warwickshire border between Banbury and Stratford, may only house seven point-to-pointers and hunter chasers, but it contains a handful of talent that would be the envy of most professional trainers. Between them, the stablemates have won over twenty point-to-points, and more than twenty races under rules worth over £1,500,000 in prize money, including a Cheltenham Gold Cup, two King George VI Chases and an Aintree Foxhunters.

But if you think this sounds like a professional operation, out of kilter with the amateur ethos of point-to-pointing, you’d be wrong. Robert’s famous chocolate and orange colours were a familiar sight on the pointing scene long before they were carried to success under Rules. “I was brought up on Exmoor,” recalls Robert as he tells the story of his early involvement in the sport. “We used to go to Holnicote in early May and my father used to give us money, saying ‘that’s for betting, not sweets. And the bookies never turned us away, even though we were under age!”

Robert remembers being told about his father Bernard winning a point-to-point at Holnicote in the early 1950s, and the highlights of his own riding career were placings in the Cheltenham and Aintree Foxhunters. He was third behind subsequent Grand National winner Grittar at the Festival in the 1981, on his own Sun Lion – on whom he won his only race under NH Rules at Warwick – and fourth in both races in 1977 on Barouche.

Long Run is the potential star of the show. The 11-year-old is likely to be the first Gold Cup winner to run in Hunter Chases since Midnight Court in 1984, with the ultimate aim being the Cheltenham Foxhunters, a race that Robert has yet to win. Placed in two Gold Cups since his 2011 victory in the hands of Robert’s son Sam, and also a dual winner of the King George alongside three other Grade One wins, he hasn’t run since sustaining an injury after an abortive trip to France in May 2014, where he was unplaced under Ruby Walsh in the Grand Steeplechase de Paris, the “French Gold Cup”.

“We think he panicked in the hold of the ferry coming home,” according to Robert. “Somehow he got his leg over the breast-bar in the lorry and we had to immobilise him for ten months. We wrapped his leg in bandages so that it was completely rigid, so that the wound on the back of his knee could heal,” continued his devoted owner, “And we have to take them off every week. The problem is that a horse that hasn’t used his muscles (for so long) has forgotten how they work.” Long Run is now “75% of what he ought to be” and the plan is to run in January Hunter Chases, possibly starting at Kelso – where he won his last race two years ago – leading up to a Cheltenham bid.

Warne is another Upton Viva heavyweight on the comeback trail after disappointing last season. Formerly trained in Ireland by Brian Hamilton, for whom he won the Aintree Foxhunters in 2014 with Sam on board, Warne is likely to start off in points. Robert said “Two and a half mile races should suit him as two miles six is his perfect trip – he doesn’t get a yard further!”

Rumbavu is back in training after missing last season. The most prolific point-to-pointer in the yard, his 14 successes include eight Opens, including the 2014 Lord Ashton of Hyde’s Cup and the other four pointers have already been out this year, with Mr Simpkins making an impressive winning reappearance in a Restricted at Larkhill last month, having been off the track since scoring on his debut in May 2014. Well-bred maiden Sing To Me had a quiet introduction on the same card, while the improving Storm Lantern and Makadamia were both placed at Cottenham on the opening day of the season.

Makadamia is a half-sister to Horse & Hound Cup winner and Aintree Foxhunters second Roulez Cool and was trained by David Pipe to win a novice hurdle at Exeter, and by Robert himself when winning a novice chase at Wetherby. She is a daughter of the mare Makounji, a “good horse but a moody cow and a particularly mareish mare!” who won seven races, including the Pendil Novices Chase at Kempton in 1999. But more importantly, she acts as the foundation mare for the Upton Viva Stud, the breeding operation that Robert set up with eldest son Marcus “about 15 years ago.” Nine mares are currently resident at the stud and Robert’s objective is to have “A very small number of very nice horse, it’s not about volume. We’re after good looking, well-bred, successful mares – and there aren’t many of them.”

In addition to the pointers, Robert trains a handful under permit at Upton Viva and has horses in training with Nicky Henderson, Warren Greatrex and Andrew Balding. “I get to train the babies and the old crocks,” he jokes when asked about how he selects who goes where.

Much of the credit for the success of Robert’s team at Upton Viva is down to, Katie Mawle, supported by Al Stewart and Becky Young. While Robert is very hands-on, being at the yard five days a week and riding out with two lots a day, he describes Kate as “More than an assistant trainer. She’s with the horses every day and is in charge of all the feeding, health and fitness.”

“Our horses can do dressage, showjumping, cross-country…” continues Robert. “They’re complete horses. Look at Roulez Cool – he’s now winning unaffiliated dressage competitions. Kate’s horsemanship allows us to devise a bespoke programme for each individual horse – you can’t do that in a big yard.”

“When they’re winning, they’re all my favourite,” jokes Robert when pressed as to his best memory in points and Hunter Chases, “But we had the most fun with Katarino.” A winner of the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham when trained for Robert by Nicky Henderson, the horse went wrong, so was sent eventing before returning to the racecourse to run in point-to-points. He won the Aintree Foxhunters in 2005, followed up first time out in 2006 after a bout of colic and a rushed preparation and then, after missing 2007, a hat-trick bid was only foiled by Christy Beamish. “The trainer blamed the horse’s age,” laughs Robert, “But the jockey (Sam) blamed the trainer for not getting him fit!”

Most of Robert’s winners, in points and under rules, are ridden by son Sam – a true amateur who runs a string of dental practices and only comes to Upton Viva to ride out at the weekend. Not only did Sam win the Gold Cup and two King George VI Chases on Long Run, he almost completed an historic treble in the 2010/2011 season when he also finished second in the Grand National on Oscar Time. He also has the best record of any jockey – amateur or professional – since the Second World War, on the Aintree Grand National course, having won six races over the famous fences. Robert confirms his love of the course. “Aintree is an exciting and unique place. I think it suits a horseman, rather than a jockey.”

After the horses, talk turns to the sport and, as Chairman of the Point-to-Point Authority between 2005 and 2011, Robert was able to influence the direction of point-to-pointing. It was a difficult time, as his tenure started at the time the ban on hunting was introduced. “Hunting had to become a totally different sport,” he recalls. “But people are still having a huge amount of fun. After all, they used to say that hunting would be ruined by the advent of the railways!”

Robert is most proud of creating the PPA, which used to be a sub-committee of the Master of Foxhounds Association, governed by the BHA. “The BHA wasn’t focused on pointing, and it allowed us to take control of our fate.” And what frustrated him most during his time in charge? “The politics, but I can’t give you a quotable example!”

“We’re as amateur as it gets,” responds Robert when I cheekily ask whether it is fair for him to run such high class horses as Long Run and Katarino in point-to-points and Hunter Chases. “What could be more amateur than a father training his own horses for his son to ride? We’re just lucky enough to have nice horses.”

Indeed, Robert has strong views on professional involvement in an amateur sport. “I don't understand why professional trainers run non-family horses in Hunter Chases and, personally, I strongly feel that they should not be allowed to run horses in point-to-points.” Another subject that vexes him is horses shifting between top National Hunt races and Hunter Chases. So would he not do that with Long Run? “I’d do exactly what the rules say,” smiled Robert.

Before I leave Upton Viva on a beautiful winter’s day, Katie Mawle takes me down the road to see the “old codgers in the field. The horses in question are the aforementioned Katarino, Oscar Time – a winner of the Becher Chase and twice placed in the Grand National, and the prolific Irilut, winning of 22 races and a particular favourite of mine. And as we look at the three stars shining in the sunlight, I am reminded of Robert’s answer when I asked what he would change about point-to-pointing. He thought for a moment before responding “I don’t think there’s a single thing.”