Every trainer dreams of unearthing a horse to take them to the big festivals, or to breathe the oxygen of publicity that comes from a televised winner. It’s what drives a legion of handlers somewhat less successful than the likes of Philip Hobbs and Paul Nicholls, the flag bearers for the sport in the West Country. That strength in depth of horses trained in the four westernmost counties of the UK is illustrated by the extraordinary support for grass roots Point-to-Points at venues as obscure as Great Trethew and Bratton Down.
And one fresh dream was ignited today at Aintree when Alan Jones, training a handful of horses in rural Timberscombe, Somerset, produced four year old filly Lady Excalibur to win here second bumper in the elegantly-titled Jewson Southport, Bispham Road EBF Mares Open National Hunt Flat race, concluding the card.
Lady Excalibur might reasonably have expected to be enjoying maternal duties had she found flat racing to her liking. This well-bred daughter of Camelot didn’t cut the mustard for Richard Hannon, and eagle-eyed Jones picked her up for a trip down the A303 in June, since when she has won a Stratford bumper, and been a 3/4l second at Uttoxeter in the summer. Jones must surely be anticipating yet more success when she jumps a flight.
Alan Jones has a colourful past. He holds the dubious record for being the tallest rider of his generation, but being from circus stock, he may have considered this quite normal for a profession in which weight and height are critical criteria. At 6ft 2 1/2, he was, as they say, vertically challenged as a rider. Yet a few winners as an amateur led, inevitably to a tilt at the professional game. In the mid-eighties, he was even conditional for Kim Bailey, then enjoying considerable success in Lambourn.
He’d probably be the first to admit his training career is still awaiting that lift-off moment, since he took out a public licence in 2000. However, from a select number of runners each year, winners flow on an excellent strike rate. Of his seven runners to date this term, only two have failed to reach the frame. In short, this is a man who knows his job, even if owners are not flocking to his door. The north coast of Somerset near Minehead doesn’t necessarily encourage large numbers of racing visitors, although Philip Hobbs seems to haver found a knack.
The tapestry of racing relies on handlers like Jones, whose eternal quest to find a horse to represent them at racing’s top table keeps the sport alive for new entrants. Long may it be so. Excalibur was King Arthur’s sword, that unlocked his leadership of the gallant knights of the Round Table. One Alan Jones will be hoping Lady Excalibur doesn’t sink into the lake of mediocrity never to be seen again.