Venetia Williams: Grumpy perhaps, but definitely great
"A few years ago, Williams was in my top 10 'grumpiest people in racing' along with Ryan Moore, Richard Hannon's secretary and Charles Cyzer. But more recently, she seems to have become increasingly comfortable in her dealings with the media and a much easier person to deal with. Yes, she still only reveals what she wants to, but she can still be an engaging person to listen to and her results speak for herself."
Will Hayler met up with the Grand National-winning trainer this week and found a more relaxed, affable personality than in previous years
According to public relations theory, the sponsored 'media day' goes like this.
1) Journalists and broadcasters go to stables to meet trainer and horses with some free food and drink.
2) Journalists and broadcasters write and say nice things about said trainer and give a nice plug to the race sponsors.
3) Everyone lives happily ever after.
Some of my colleagues take a fairly cynical view about these events - and justifiably so. But personally, I love them. In the last few years, I've been lucky enough to be able to meet the likes of Michael Stoute, Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Martin Pipe, Henrietta Knight and Luca Cumani in their yards. It has always been a great pleasure and an opportunity that I have been glad to take. Under no other set of circumstances would some of these trainers allow a person who earns as little money as I do through their front gates.
Furthermore, appreciative as I was of the plate of beef stew and the can of Coke, nobody is going to make me write nice things about those involved if I don't like them. Arena Leisure invited me to a very pleasant barbeque at Windsor last year, but Folkestone is still one of the most depressing racecourses in the world and Worcester should be closed down and the fixtures given to a track with reasonable facilities for the public.
Of course, I can't speak for others. Maybe someone did get the free calendar that came in the post from Goodwood last week and decide to write about how wonderful a racecourse it is (an odd piece to write in January, but each to their own). Personally, mine went in the recycling box. Thanks though.
On Tuesday, wearing my Guardian hat, I took up the invitation from Aintree to travel down to Herefordshire to meet Venetia Williams and Mon Mome, the winners of last year's Grand National.
Williams is one of the few trainers who have put the phone down on me twice (and not with any good reason that I can remember, although she could well disagree with this view - maybe she thought I was a heavy breather...)
A few years ago, she was in my top 10 'grumpiest people in racing' along with Ryan Moore, Richard Hannon's secretary and Charles Cyzer. But more recently, she seems to have become increasingly comfortable in her dealings with the media and a much easier person to deal with. Yes, she still only reveals what she wants to, but she can still be an engaging person to listen to and her results speak for herself. Okay, she wasn't born in the gutter and has the advantage of being able to train from her family's considerable farming grounds in Herefordshire, but it is still through hard work that she has deservedly been able to keep expanding and improving her string.
Williams is a big fan of keeping her horses out of their boxes for as long as possible. All of the fields around her stables are divided into small paddocks and most of her horses are quickly paired up with a paddock buddy, with whom they will spend most of their time in the field. She had some pretty harsh words for trainers who "exercise their horses for one hour a day and put them in the box for the other 23".
The money that saved from grooming the horses - she claimed to have "the dirtiest horses in training" - is instead spent on having staff maintain the paddocks, take the horses out and bring them back in at the end of the day.
Williams has an impressive record when asking her horses to run up sequences of wins: Noun de la Thinte was winning for the fourth time in six weeks when scoring at Southwell earlier this week; Ping Pong de Sivola finished first, second and second when running three times in seven days last season; Never So Blue managed three wins in eight days the season before; while, going back to 2005, Jolly Boy set the record when winning five times in 19 days. Perhaps the explanation as to how she is able to keep her runners fresh enough to build up such sequences can be found in her training techniques.
The fact that her horses aren't over-trained (although they often look particularly fit in the paddock) probably also helps to explain why she has struggled a little since the snow earlier this month and why it may take her time to hit top stride again. But she'll also have half an eye upon handicap marks for the Cheltenham Festival, where she had a 577-1 double last year with Kayf Aramis (Pertemps Hurdle final) and Something Wells (led home a one-two for the stable in the Jewson Chase).
Not that she told me who this year's plot horses are though. Frankly, I'd have had to think about taking her out of my top 10 'shrewdest jumps trainers' if she had. Now where's that can of delicious John Smith's? Mmm, John Smith's. Yes, that's John Smith's, generous sponsors of the world's greatest etc etc...
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