Hobbs is another eyeing up France

In only five of the past thirty two seasons has the champion British National Hunt trainer not been based in Somerset. We are lucky in Taunton to be surrounded and supported by a family of other top flight trainers who have yet to win the championship and yet have invariably been close to winning the title. Perhaps chief amongst the many is Philip Hobbs.

Hobbs was born into an equestrian family, his father having been  a permit holder, and went to school at King’s College Taunton. As a teenager he shone as a showjumper and amateur jump jockey before turning professional forty five years ago. Ten years later, after a successful riding career, he turned his hand to training, beginning with just six horses. Great oaks from small acorns is a most apt phrase;  for now six have become  over a hundred, cared for by a staff of forty on 500 acres high above Minehead, within shouting distance of the sea.

By any yardstick, Hobbs’s training career has been an unqualified success. A list of a few of the great horses he has handled makes for impressive reading; , Detroit City, Dream Alliance, Captain Chris, Defi du Seuil, Flagship Uberalles, Garde La Victoire, Kibreet, Menorah, Monkerhostin, Rooster Booster, Thyme Hill and many, many others. Unusually, most of these horses have been sourced by Hobbs himself rather than a team of bloodstock agents who supply most of racing’s other heavy hitters. Dream Alliance of course is the subject of the recently released film, Dream Horse, in which Hobbs is played by Nicholas Farrell.

Last year was a rarity in that he trained fewer winners than in the previous season, although most trainers would have been pleased with two Grade I winners. This season has seen him bounce back with a strike rate to date of above 30%, a fact greeted universally with pleasure, for Hobbs seems to be a man who inspires kindness and not enmity, exemplified by the fidelity to him of his owners. One of those early winners was Iberio, a German bred horse, which, despite the name, will not end up as chorizo. Although the bumper he won was a modest one, Iberio is a horse that may well be worth following. Another with a German sire, Zanza, in common with many in the yard, had a quiet time last year and may be worth a vote of confidence this time round. To complete the patent, consider St. Bart’s. Perhaps not quite as exotic as his name, this gelding, nonetheless, has a good strike rate over fences and is bound to improve. Three others to follow when chasing the bigger prize money could be Kalooki ,Deise Aba and Everglow.

In common with many others in his profession, Hobbs has begun to campaign horses in France. I was present when Balthazar King triumphed in the 2013 Grand Cross de Craon in front of a crowd as large as a Bank Holiday at Cartmel – quite rare in French racing. Despite his fifth place in the Grand National 5 months earlier, the French crowd had largely ignored him. Jockey Dickie Johnson described it as a very rough race, but quality will out. Balthazar King won that race by 2 1/2l at a generous price of 15/1, of which his owners and trainer availed themselves handsomely. The Tote refused to pay out more than €3,000 for each bet, the rest coming by cheque afterwards! Balthazar King returned the following year to win again at a less generous 15/8.

Today, Hobbs was tilting at an altogether larger prize on the first day of Auteuil’s November spectacular. The Grand Prix d’Automne is a showpiece staying hurdle worth €350,000, at which Hobbs had aimed Thyme Hill, winner of five of his eight hurdle starts, including  most recently the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle at Aintree this Spring. The field had attracted two of France’s best in Galop Marin, winner three times already of this race, and L’Autonomie, winner of 16 of her 21 races, and over €1.2m in win and place prize money.

Predictably for Auteuil in the autumn, the ground was heavy, illustrated by all the runners switching to the very outside down the entire back straight, where the watering system reaches its limit. Thyme Hill took the shortest route on the inner except around this part of the course, lying mid-division, and well in touch if good enough, until around the 13th of the 16 hurdles, when Galop Marin asserted.

Despite Thyme Hill not fighting out the finish, the winner, bought for just €13,000 at Tattersalls Ireland Mixed Sale, produced a gripping finish, with L’Autonomie opting for the stands rail searching for better ground. That move may just have cost the race with a winning distance of 1 1/4l. But what value Mme Patrick Papot has enjoyed from her Irish purchase! Galop Marin has won nearly €1.4m from his 13 successes – a figure Thyme Hill could only dream of in the UK or Ireland. Meantime, Thyme Hill finished a distant fifth but was rewarded with prize money of €17,500, more than enough to cover expenses.

Who’s to say Hobbs may not be back to tilt at this race again in 2022? In Michelin Guide speak, il vaut le voyage.

“In peace nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility” said Shakespeare, or, as Ian Duncan Smith  more recently put it, ”do not underestimate the determination of the quiet man”. Both authors might well have had P J Hobbs as their exemplar. Not for him racing down the running rail whooping and hollering for the benefit of the TV cameras and a chance at self congratulation. Instead a gentle smile accompanied by a firm handshake for his many well wishers. Not for Philip the morning phone call to the fellow trainer with whom he shared a dorm at school to ask “is yours off today, or is it just out for a run”. But horses doing their best for the pleasure as well as the benefit of us all.

Understated quality is a term that well describes Philip Hobbs. There would not be too much polyester hanging alongside the tweed jackets in Philip’s wardrobe.