Bothway's heart set on National win
Gentleman farmer had his own Foinavon moment as a leading point-to-point jockey
When Milansbar lines up in Saturday's Randox Health Grand National, it will be all about his jockey, Bryony Frost, bidding to become the first female rider to win the race, but victory would also be the crowning achievement for his 80-year-old owner Robert Bothway - a retired Norfolk farmer and countryman to the core.
Though Norfolk has a vibrant point-to-point community - in which Bothway once played a prominent part - not since his cousin's father-in-law owned the 1959 winner, Oxo, has it tasted success in the Aintree spectacular. This year, though, the connection goes beyond just the owner as Milansbar was also bred there.
For much of his life until he sold all but 100 acres, on which he keeps a herd of red deer, six years ago, Bothway has combined farming the land, milking cows and running a flock of sheep with his many other passions - training and riding point-to-pointers, showing horses, hunting hounds, training greyhounds and dabbling with trotting horses.
He has won ploughing matches, hound shows, grain competitions, the East Anglian Greyhound Derby at Yarmouth and in-hand showing classes at the Royal Show. On National Service in the Royal Horse Artillery, he rode in the Royal Tournament.
He came to racehorse ownership later in life at a stage when it was not so easy to do it himself, otherwise he would have done it himself. However, he has also won the Highland National and Warwick Classic with Milansbar.
As a point-to-point jockey, he rode 58 winners in 20 years, no mean feat in the 1950s and 1960s, and once rode in seven races at Hetherset. He had two rides for the Queen Mother on Kingsville Star, falling once and finishing second the other time, and he carried the Oxo colours to victory on a horse called Prickley Mick.
He even had his own 'Foinavon' moment at Marks Tay when riding 50/1 shot Billy Crick. He was going for a clear round when the nine horses in front of him either fell or were brought down at the third last. "I found a gap and lobbed over the fence to win," recalled Bothway.
His sole winner under rules was at Fakenham when he had to crash diet to do 11st 10lb. The horse won so easily it could have won with an extra stone, but he felt so bad, he went home to bed instead of joining the celebrations at which his then-girlfriend met her future husband.
"The whole thing was a bit of a disaster," he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Bothway's only ride in the Cheltenham Foxhunters was on Polly Flinders, trained by Ryan Price, which buried him at the sixth fence. On his feet before the mare, he reckoned he would never get another chance to ride Cheltenham, so he remounted to complete the course and received a bigger cheer than the winner. Of course, they bred them tough in those days. His father sent him to boarding school in Dorset to "stop him walking home", and when he was reluctant to walk on an ankle he had fractured when he fell off a haystack, his father drove him into the middle of a field, dropped him off there and told him to walk home when he was ready. He was soon ready.
His most painful injury was dislocating his shoulder. He had to drive to Newmarket and back in a lorry before he could go to hospital to get it put back in.
Bothway met Milansbar's trainer, Neil King, in the hunting field, and his relationship with King is more father-son than owner-trainer.
"When Neil trained in Newmarket, he had an open day at which he tried to sell Milansbar because his owner-breeder was keen to cut down," said Bothway.
"Neil rang and said, 'Jump in the car. I've found just the horse for you'. He was like a show horse, full of manners and a kind nature. He had run in a couple of races for Henrietta Knight, and his first run for us was at Folkestone's last fixture.
"AP McCoy was scrubbing away on something round the last bend while Trevor Whelan was motionless on Milansbar. He won his first three races for us."
Now that King trains near Marlborough, Bothway drives down from Norfolk once every three weeks, stays in a pub and, after seeing Milansbar out first lot, spends from 9.0 until King calls him in for his supper on a tractor; harrowing, rolling, mowing.
"I do more tractor work in Wiltshire than I do in Norfolk these days," said Bothway, pointing out that last year the gallops were harrowed and rolled before Cheltenham, but this time, he has not been able to get on them for the wet.
"I wouldn't be in the position of having a National runner if it wasn't for Neil. He rides the horse every morning, Christmas day included, and I think Milansbar and Bryony are a marriage made in Heaven." Never too serious for too long, Bothway was unable to resist ribbing his trainer. "Neil wasn't there for either of his two best wins," he said, "so we're trying to leave him at home next Saturday."
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