“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle”, Winston Churchill once famously remarked.
That rings true for many of us and none less so than Minehead’s famous couple, Sarah and Philip Hobbs of Sandhill Racing Stables.
Philip was raised on his family’s farm with homebred racehorses which his father trained. He proved to be a successful jockey from a young age and competed with his Pony Club team in the Prince Philip Games. He took to showjumping (and he was later to compete successfully at Hickstead).
But little did 13-year-old Philip realise that the 11-year-old girl he was competing against at Exford Show was to be his future wife, Sarah. It was the Puissance competition and with four rounds already jumped they were the only two remaining competitors.
“My father asked Sarah’s father if we could share the prize money. (Sarah’s father, incidentally, was the famous late Bertie Hill, Olympic Gold Medallist and the first British rider to compete in three equestrian Olympiads and probably best known for partnering the Queen’s horse, Countryman to Olympic Gold in 1956 at Stockholm). Our ponies had already competed in several other classes and my father thought they had done enough. It was agreed and we had to share the £6 first prize!”
Even their ponies were (unintentionally) related. “My pony was a 14.2hh piebald (black and white) pony called ‘Anything’, who jumped into a field with a yearling TB filly and produced Sarah’s skewbald (brown and white) pony called ‘Simon’!”
Philip enjoyed a spell of riding winners at point-to-points and then rode first as an amateur jockey before turning professional at the age of 21. Life-threatening injuries go with the territory but in Philip’s case there was nothing too serious. He was race riding with the likes of Paul Nicholls and Jonjo O’Neill, both of whom are now highly successful trainers.
Around this time Sarah was living with her family at Great Rapscott, near South Molton, following in her father’s footsteps by representing her country in the European Junior Championships in Rome and riding successfully in three-day events. When she wasn’t eventing she was enjoying riding in point-to-points.
Philip and Sarah married in1982 and Philip’s career as a trainer began in 1985 with six horses. North Yard was the very first horse that he sent out. Not only did he win but he was ridden by Philip, and out of his first eight runners came another five winners.
“I organised Sarah some rides under National Hunt Rules and she actually won on our first-ever flat race on a horse called ‘Aswamedh’. She also rode several winners over hurdles before starting our family.”
The success continued; Philip is now recognised as one of the best trainers in the country, having 111 horses in training. There are, however, two people who are not greatly impressed: namely Philip and Sarah’s two little grandsons, two-year-old Hubert and four-year-old Ernest, who show no interest whatsoever in racing or watching Grandpa (or Grandma) on TV!
We are all having to come to terms with the Coronavirus situation. The very day that I was speaking with Philip, he should have been on his way to Aintree, for the Grand National meeting.
“You must be hugely disappointed?” I asked him. Philosophically, he replied, “Well, I don’t feel so bad, knowing that all the other trainers are in the same boat and it is not just me who is in lockdown. In fact, I feel sorry for the small businesses and such like as they will find recovery very hard.”
And as for ‘racing behind closed doors’? (that was when, for a short time, horse racing in the UK was closed to spectators with limited attendees). “Well, I found that to work very well”. But it didn’t last, and Philip, with his members of staff, now reduced to 14, are preparing the horses for their summer holidays.
I asked Philip what he thought were the qualities of a good trainer and he said, very definitely, “organisation”! I must admit I had been pondering how on earth one could manage not only 111 horses in training (= 111+ owners to keep informed!), which races to run them in and, as if that weren’t enough, overseeing the daily writing-up of the ‘white board’ (the lists stating which staff member, or stable jockey, is going to ride which horse), noting the health of each, and myriad other things besides. And, of course, the training programme!
“You must have a good empathy with horses and an understanding of the different personalities of each. But nothing beats experience and that only comes with training many horses that, over time, throw up a variety of problems… but I would say that as I get older!
“When it comes to feeding the horses, science doesn’t seem to have played much part in improving a horse’s performance. It all comes back to knowing your horses as individuals.”
One of the best-known among Philip’s horses was Dream Alliance, who came to his yard as a four-year-old, having been born on an allotment in Wales. During the five years that he was with Philip he won the Welsh Grand National. It was a rags-to-riches dream come true and a documentary called ‘Dark Horse’ was made about him. Now a feature film, entitled ‘Dream Horse’, has been made of the story and it has many Welsh connections, with Euros Lyn directing. Damian Lewis and Toni Collette take the title roles.
Dream Horse trailer
It was filmed at Newbury, Chepstow and Aintree racetracks, with the horses being provided by Wales’ top trainer, Tim Vaughan, and another four or five from a company called ‘Devil’s Horsemen’. This company supply the film industry with horses, one of which is the Lloyds Bank’s famous ‘Black Horse’.
Tim’s facilities at Pant Wilkin were used, even his bedroom! His Assistant Trainer, Robbie Llewellyn, supervised their horses whilst the company oversaw the racing scenes, in which Tim’s stable staff and his two stable jockeys, Charlie Price and Alan Johns, delighted in participating. It was very exciting for Tim and Abbi’s children, especially for 12-year-old Edward who is a champion pony racer in his own right and for 11-year-old Grace, who took the Reserve Champion Show Hunter Pony at last year’s Horse of the Year Show at the NEC.
In common with Philip’s grandsons, Tim’s youngest, six-year-old Henry, prefers to play with tractors.
“The film should’ve come out a week or so ago, in America,” said Philip, “but it has been delayed by the Coronavirus.”
Philip and Sarah much enjoyed the preview, although Philip did find it a little strange to find himself on the big screen being portrayed by somebody else!
There is a trailer currently on YouTube, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkaU4tFh1bw
Thank you to Philip for giving so generously of his time to talk to me during this challenging period.
PHOTO: The Sandhill Racing Stables team