It is difficult now to countenance that Nigel Twiston-Davies once considered retiring as a racehorse trainer. Early in 2002, he resolved to quit the sport, and talked of going back to his roots in Wales and returning to farming. His friends urged him to reconsider, but he feared he would be unable to compete with the bigger yards and the big money increasingly flowing their way, and that, in the years ahead, might find it impossible to scale the heights for which he had always strived.
It was a rare moment of negativity from Twiston-Davies, but then came one of his greatest triumphs. In April of the same year, he unexpectedly won the Grand National with Bindaree, and, to the relief of all who follow National Hunt, the stable door never closed.
Since then, Twiston-Davies, based at Naunton in the Cotswolds, just ten miles from Cheltenham racecourse, has built a glowing reputation in the sport, and, with a relish for the role of the underdog, masterminded one of the biggest shocks in National Hunt history when Imperial Commander won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2010.
The Commander faced a seemingly impossible task against two of chasing’s greatest exponents, the Paul Nicholls-trained pair, Kauto Star and Denman. It was supposed to be a clash of the titans, a two-horse race, but Twiston-Davies was convinced otherwise, and produced his horse for a giant-killing act few predicted. Imperial Commander won by seven lengths, beating Denman into second, with Kauto Star falling at the 19th.
This year, the 61-year-old trainer faces a similarly daunting prospect with The New One in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle, one of the few championship races to elude him.
The Irish trio of Jezki, last year’s winner, the two-time Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly, and the new kid on the block and hot favourite, Faugheen, would seem to have the race tied up, if most pundits are to be believed. Twiston-Davies’s son, Sam, who will, as usual, be on board The New One, has described it as feeling like “our family against the Irish”.
Yet, one man who knows the Twiston-Davies operation well believes The New One can win the Champion, and thanks, in no small measure, to his trainer’s ability. Peter Scudamore, the former champion jockey now based in Scotland as the partner and assistant trainer of Lucinda Russell at their stables near Kinross, worked with Twiston-Davies for 12 years.
Scudamore, assistant trainer during his time at Naunton, said: “You can look at the form all you like, but Cheltenham is about getting your horse to its peak on the big day. Nigel has that knack, that ability, and that’s why he has had so many Cheltenham Festival winners (15).
“It’s obvious what Faugheen has done, but, in my opinion, if The New One was trained by Willie Mullins, he’d be favourite. Yes, he wasn’t that impressive last time out, but he’s won four times this season and won a lot of prize money. He’s done nothing wrong, really.
“Nigel’s never been frightened of other horses’ ability. He has belief in his own horses, is always very positive about them, and you know he will have them very fit and able to gallop to the line come the big day.”
The positivity Scudamore talks of has always surrounded The New One since the horse joined the Twiston-Davies stable in 2011. After he won at Warwick in January, 2013, Twiston-Davies said he thought the horse “could be the best we have ever had”, and since then the trainer’s belief that he is a Champion Hurdle winner in waiting has grown stronger, even in the face of defeat in the championship contest last year.
In that race, The New One was badly hampered by the fatal fall of Our Connor. He was stopped in his tracks, losing around ten lengths, and many believe that without that incident he would have won, such was his eye-catching but ultimately fruitless turn of foot up the Cheltenham hill. He eventually finished third.
Twiston-Davies, as positive as ever, said: “The whole thing is easier than last year because he is not meant to win – the pressure is totally off.
“Two years ago, when he won the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at the festival, it was similar to now – he could not possibly win as two Irish horses were definitely going to win and The New One might as well not turn up. But he did and he won, and that was quite pleasant.
“We won’t be allowing Faugheen out of our sights on Tuesday, though. The New One quickens off any pace, but there is no way we want the other horse to go off ten lengths in front. Faugheen has done brilliantly, but we can do as good. I think they should be joint favourites.”
But can The New One repay his trainer’s faith? Twiston-Davies’s charge has already won more prize money in Britain this season than any other horse bar Silviniaco Conti. His latest run, however, was far from impressive, struggling to beat Bertimont, who reopposes on Tuesday, in the StanJames.com Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock, although the bottomless ground conditions that day surely played a part in The New One’s performance.
Reflecting on the race, Ruby Walsh, who yesterday opted to ride Faugheen rather than Hurricane Fly for Willie Mullins, said no horse would have impressed in the ground at Haydock, a view echoed by Twiston-Davies himself. “It was terrible ground at Haydock last time. When Sam asked The New One to quicken, it took a little time but away he went as usual, despite hating every minute of it. He won well at Cheltenham in December and in all his races this season, apart from at Haydock, he has been on the bridle at the last hurdle and quickened away nicely – what more could you want?”
Those are the words of a trainer utterly convinced of his horse’s ability, but the last word on the man himself must go to someone who, like Scudamore, has seen the work of the trainer at first hand.
When Splash of Ginge won the Betfair Hurdle last year, its ebullient owner, John Neild, described Twiston-Davies as a “genius” for transforming his horse from one that could finish only fourth in a bumper at Chepstow into the winner of the most valuable handicap hurdle in Britain in less than a year. On Tuesday, that genius may be enough to bring the Champion Hurdle crown back to Britain. You wouldn’t bet against it.
FIVE TO FOLLOW
1. Vibrato Valtat – Arkle Trophy, Tuesday
Un De Sceaux is either going to turn this into a procession or he will come unstuck, such are his bold-jumping, free-going ways. If it is the latter, then by far the best proposition is Paul Nicholls’ grey, who has thrived after a breathing operation.
2. Benbens – Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup, Thursday
Nigel Twiston-Davies has always thought there was a big-race win in this horse, and it could come in the Kim Muir on Thursday, particularly as the horse should get the good ground it needs.
3. Big Easy – Pertemps Network Final, Thursday
Has produced some fine performances this season despite not having his ideal conditions – a fast pace on decent ground – both of which he’ll get at Cheltenham.
4. Toutancarmont – Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase, Wednesday
The French raider, Tourtancarmont, has ten wins to his name from 14 starts since he was switched to the cross-country discipline. His first visit to Britain can be a winning one.
5. Ma Filleule – Ryanair Chase, Thursday
Endured a slow start to the campaign, but ran a blinder to finish second in the Ascot Chase behind Balder Succes. The fact she is a relatively fresh horse could enable her to turn the tables on her Ascot conqueror and that would make her hard to beat.
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