For some racehorse owners, simply having a runner in the Cheltenham Festival is enough. Graham Wylie is different. He’s in it to win it.
The distinctive beige and black silks of Andrea and Graham Wylie have become a familiar sight at the sharp end of National Hunt racing, and the husband and wife have joined this week’s pilgrimage to the famous racecourse in Gloucestershire hoping to see them carried to glory.
They’ve been there before, of course, notably with the mighty and enigmatic stayer Inglis Drever – three times a winner of the World Hurdle, the race another titan of the turf Big Buck’s hopes to regain on Thursday. Boston Bob is Wylie’s entry in that particular contest this time round, although like most of his formidable Festival team, that is just one of a number entries he may fulfil.
Inglis Drever is the best place to start with Wylie’s enduring love of racing.
It was back in 2004 that The Scotsman last interviewed Scots-born Wylie at length about his aspirations as an owner ahead of his first Festival, and true to his word that “I’m in it for the long haul” he has not missed a Cheltenham since.
Newcastle-based Wylie made his name and his fortune as a co-founder of the global computer giant Sage, and after the briefest of retirements (“I ‘retired’ on the Friday and started afresh on the Monday”), he has prospered in a number of other business ventures.
I meet him at the Jesmond headquarters of his latest baby, Speedflex – a cutting-edge fitness system being rolled out throughout the UK and Dubai after success in the United States. He talks first with excitement about the machines and hiring his friend Alan Shearer to be the brand’s ambassador, and when it comes to racing he is equally passionate.
“I’ve been to Cheltenham when I’ve won and I’ve been to Cheltenham and been well beaten – it’s not a nice feeling,” said Wylie. “Seeing your colours come in way down the field or being pulled up…you can get quite deflated when that happens.”
In Wylie’s first experience of Cheltenham in 2004, Inglis Drever finished second under now-Flat jockey Graham Lee in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle, but when he returned to the track 12 months later to tackle the longer distance of the three-mile World Hurdle, he reeled in Baracouda up the hill for a memorable success.
A horse blessed with an abundance of courage as well as stamina, he would always be played late, and seeing him slicing his way through the field quickened the pulse. Although injury prevented him defending his crown in 2006, he returned with gusto to show the rest who was boss in 2007 and 2008.
The trainer for all three of those World Hurdle crowns was County Durham-based Howard Johnson, the close friend who had first tentatively suggested to the Wylies that they might like to buy a couple of horses and then took them on a journey made especially remarkable given that he trained in the north-east rather than the traditional power bases in the south of England and Ireland. Wylie and Johnson seemed destined to enjoy a long and fruitful association on the racecourse, but the trainer’s world was turned upside down in 2011 when the authorities upheld a catastrophic list of charges against him over his care of one of Wylie’s runners – Striking Article.
Johnson, on the advice of a vet, allowed the horse – one of the rising stars of his yard – to undergo a pelmar neurectomy, unaware that the procedure is banned under the Rules of Racing on welfare grounds. The horse ran eight times subsequent to the operation, and sadly had to be euthanised after a race at Musselburgh. It was then that the offence came to light, and Johnson took a heavy fall for it – a four-year ban – something that still rankles with Wylie.
“It hurt us a lot,” said Wylie. “It hurt more because Howard genuinely did what was right for the horse.
“I remember he ran at Wetherby in a three-mile novice hurdle and he absolutely hacked up. And then he hurt his leg after that so we lost that season. He got his leg right and we took him to Wetherby again, for a novice chase, and he hacked up again. Howard said to me that day ‘this horse is something special. If I need to sleep in the box with him I will!’ But the horse came out of his box one day and he was limping quite badly, so Howard tried everything to nurse him back. And in the end the vet recommended this operation – he said it was quite legit and you can still run him and ride him. When we found out it had been the wrong thing to do they threw the book at Howard.
“I think they [the BHA] were making a case, making a statement. I felt particularly upset for Howard. Four years was a long time for him. So it wasn’t a pleasant experience. What was also shocking is that the ban was to ban him from any race event, worldwide. He’s a sheep farmer now. He always had sheep and cattle, so that is what he went back to. But you go to his farm and there is tumbleweed blowing through the stables where the horses were – it’s very sad.”
This enforced parting of the ways with Johnson did, however, force Wylie to re-evaluate his racing operation and, applying the same kind of no-nonsense logic which had taken him so far in business, he decided to divide his string between the champion trainer in Britain, Paul Nicholls, and the leading handler in Ireland, Willie Mullins.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision,” he recalls. “I said to myself, I like what Willie is doing in Ireland – as champion trainer – and I like what Paul is doing with his horses. I’ll send my horses to the champion trainers, then there is no ambiguity. I chose them simply because they were champion trainers.”
With horses in such capable hands, Wylie’s judgment has been thoroughly vindicated, and both yards will be mob-handed at Cheltenham this week, with Mullins the odds-on favourite to be the leading trainer at the Festival. The Wylie runners within their collective armoury are Felix Yonger, Briar Hill, Sure Reef, Solar Impulse, Katgary, Ivan Grozny, Shaneshill, Black Hercules, Prince De Beauchene, Boston Bob and Gold Cup contender On His Own.
Mullins pair Briar Hill and Felix Yonger get name-checked in particular as we discuss Wylie’s raiding party for Cheltenham, particularly the former who was an unexpected winner for him at the 2013 Festival in the Champion Bumper. “Last year I went there thinking I had just two horses which were Back In Focus and Boston Bob, both on the Wednesday. When I spoke to Willie on the Tuesday I asked ‘how are my two horses?’ He said ‘fine…and Briar Hill is good as well.’ Willie said he had declared him for the Bumper and that Ruby Walsh would be riding him. I said ‘that’s great, you must fancy him?’ But Willie said he’d shown nothing at home and he was only running as Ruby didn’t have a ride in the race. It didn’t sound particularly promising, but he won by seven lengths at 25-1.”
Briar Hill is far from that price for the Neptune Investment Management Hurdle tomorrow, trading at around 6-1, and he goes there with a live chance having built on last year’s Festival win with three easy wins in Ireland.
Ivan Grozny us another one of Wylie’s up-and-coming stars and still holds an engagement in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. “I have said to Willie if Ivan Grozny is not 100 per cent don’t worry about Cheltenham, we can keep him for another day. There is always Aintree and Punchestown [Festivals]. Cheltenham is not the be all and end all. Willie has a few of mine lined up for there too.”
It is clear that Wylie places 100 per cent faith in the judgment of Nicholls and Mullins, and with good reason. “Of course, you have to. If you think about it: when do I see the horse? I see it on the racecourse if I get there. They spend day in day out with them, every day, as do the stable lads, and the jockeys ride them, so they all know the horse far better than I ever will, so you leave the judgment to them. They will know whether it is the right or wrong thing to do.”
“Other owners: some are just at Cheltenham for the day, and they will have a horse in the race that isn’t suited to Cheltenham but it’s in, which is fine, but I take a far more pragmatic view. If the trainers feel the horse is best held back for another day, then that is fine with me.”
Wylie is also no stranger to the Scottish tracks, and it has always puzzled me why he rarely mentions his Scottish roots despite being born in Hawick. “I don’t play the Scottish card because, it’s slightly embarrassing to say this, but I was only there for two weeks. My parents were Scottish. My mother was born in Hawick, my father was born in Stirling. My mother was a seamstress and my father was a coal miner. They met and married when my mother had a boarding house in Whitley Bay, and when I came along she insisted on having me in Hawick. I’m 54 now, nearly 55, but for all bar two weeks I’ve lived in or around Newcastle. So although I’m Scottish legally, I’m more a Geordie. Through my parents and all their family, I was always brought up with a Scottish background. I don’t like to go overboard – my wife says my attitude changes when I go over the Border!”
Wylie laughs at the first winners he had with Nicholls. He was stopped for speeding that day on the way to Ayr and thought it was a portent for a desperately unlucky day. “Paul had three runners for me that day and all three won!” he said.
Cheltenham is still the track that excites Wylie most though. “It has to be my favourite track,” he said. “My wife and I always book up for five days every year and go down there. We’ve started to take the children racing too. We go and enjoy ourselves, even if we don’t have a runner. I’ve enjoyed it because I’ve had success there but I’ve also had barren years. You do learn to understand how hard it is to win there and appreciate the wins when they do arrive.”
This week, look out for the humble but determined figure of Wylie in the winner’s enclosure.