'I'm more worried about my sons driving than racing' - Meet the Twiston-Davies clan
Ahead of Cheltenham 2017, Marcus Armytage shared a drink with three members of the Twiston-Davies dynasty - trainer Nigel, and his jockey sons Nigel and Willy - at their local pub in Gloucestershire to discuss why they love and dread the Festival...
Marcus Armytage: What was your first Festival memory?
Nigel Twiston-Davies: My first runner was Mrs Muck in the Champion Hurdle. I owned and bred her and Sam Morshead rode her. She finished nowhere!
Willy Twiston-Davies: Dad can’t remember what he had for breakfast so there’s no point in asking him for memories. I remember Fundamentalist winning the 2004 RSA Chase. I tried to back it but wasn’t allowed. We had his colours – blue with a yellow ‘V’ made in my size and I used to ride my pony round the village wearing them.
Sam Twiston-Davies: I remember Ollie Magern running there. He ran in every race there was, including the Gold Cup, but he never won there. I rode in Shetland Grand Nationals in Mouldy’s (Raymond Mould’s) colours, green with white stars. My first ride there was Irish Raptor in the Kim Muir. We pulled up.
MA:What about Baby Run - he was the horse that got both Sam and Willy going as jump jockeys but gave them very different Festival memories?
Nigel: He’d been in the yard and had broken down very badly. He was effectively retired. Because I’ve got fields it didn’t cost me anything to chuck him out for a couple of years. We had no idea it would work out like it did but he turned into a brilliant schoolmaster. When we had the treble on the last day of the 2010 Festival, Sam winning the Foxhunters meant much more than the other two (Imperial Commander in the Gold Cup and Pigeon Island in the Grand Annual). That’s probably my best racing memory along with Sam winning the pony racing championships at Aintree on a pony which had only cost £3000. It had no chance but beat a 1-20 shot.
Willy:Baby Run was either first, second or fell.
Sam:He gave me my first winner at Cheltenham when he won the 2010 Foxhunters. I was a 17-year-old amateur and still at school. He’d finished third with me a year earlier.
Willy: I was two lengths clear at the second last when he put in an extra stride and I was unseated. He probably put that stride in because of his legs on the good ground. I just wanted the ground to open up and was still in tears when I went to bed that night. Zemsky won it. Every jockey says he’d have won when you fall going well late on in a race but with hindsight I’m not sure Zemsky wouldn’t have beaten us anyway. Baby Run then made up for it by winning the Foxhunters at Aintree three weeks later.
Sam: I went to Aintree after we’d won the Foxhunters and got no further than the sixth so it was honours even on Baby Run.
Nigel: We were all gutted for Willy that day at Cheltenham. It was awful for a 16-year-old boy. As his owner I’d have also won the £50,000 bonus for any horse winning at Haydock, Cheltenham and Aintree. He did the other two. That would have been life-changing!
MA: Willy, you have just returned to the fold at Naunton after a five-year sabbatical on the flat. How come you took that route?
Willy: I had a series of injuries. Battlecry slipped on a bend at Stratford and I broke my femur. I came back too quick and broke my ankle. Six weeks later I returned and broke my collar bone. Carl Llewellyn, Dad’s former jockey and assistant, got me a summer job with Richard Hannon. I went there weighing 9st 7lbs. Back then if I needed to be 8st 10lb I could be.
MA: It looks like you have stepped up a gear recently?
Willy: At the start I was doing it for fun and I was riding bits and bobs. But I was schooling horses at home and came to the conclusion that I might as well ride them on the track. Before, I was cherry picking the good jumpers, now I’ll ride whatever and do what I’m told.
MA:As a father, do you worry having two sons riding over fences?
Nigel: No, they’re good at what they do. To be honest, I worry much more about them driving 50,000 miles a year.
MA: When you won your second National in 2002, you said you were on the point of packing up. Fifteen years later, you have 88 winners this season and a strong team for Cheltenham. You must love it?
Nigel: Without the boys being involved I wouldn’t be doing it. I’d have packed up a long time ago. What’s the point of putting yourself through all the grief you get training horses – there are easier ways in life at making a living. I’m the world’s worst communicator. My owners are all friends so that’s fine but I can’t talk to strangers. I’m shy. I’m in totally the wrong business. I wanted to be a farmer. But, that said, I’m enjoying it better than ever because of the boys.
Sam: I ride for Dad when I can. There’s a really good team of jockeys at home and, of course, Willy now. Having grown up with Dad I know exactly what he’s thinking and how he likes them ridden. Riding for Paul (Nicholls) was a new chapter. It took a while but I think we understand each other pretty well now.
MA: Nigel, character-wise, which of your sons is most like you?
Nigel:Willy looks most like me but is his mother - I can’t read him! Sam’s more like me. It’s the little things. Sam and I will be 10 minutes early for everything. I always know exactly what Sam’s thinking.
Sam: Yes, to get by in racing you have to put aside the shyness.
MA: Presumably Cheltenham is the be all and end all, and you all love it?
Nigel: I hate it. I love Aintree because you can relax. There’s so much pressure to do well at Cheltenham. You think you need a winner and it does make a huge difference if you do. But I appreciate it is very important in our business. It’s our flagship event, it’s a fantastic course just 12 miles away but I won’t be relaxed next week.
Sam: It’s hyped up from a long way out and we’re all expected to perform there. It’s where you’re judged the most so you turn up, do your best and hope that’s good enough.
Willy: For me I’d get the same feeling going into Royal Ascot. I’ll enjoy going to Cheltenham to ride for Dad but Ascot probably meant more at the time and I’d probably have to win the Gold Cup to ever come close to the feeling I got winning the George V Handicap on Gold Mount at Ascot. That was career-changing; I was on my own with nothing much going for me. I’m not sure I’ll ever top that and doing it for a jump trainer (Alan King). All the Flat jockeys cheered me back into the weighing room.
MA: So what are your best chances?
Nigel: Ballyandy in the Supreme. We could have run him in a handicap but he’s got one shot at this Grade One as a novice and in the handicap you’d be up against 24 runners. He’s improved massively this side of Christmas, won the Bumper last year and proved at Newbury that he is best off a really strong pace. The New One is as good as ever. Everyone agrees it is not the strongest Champion Hurdle ever and we really believe he could finally do it.
Willy: How can Yanworth be 3-1 in it and The New One 14-1 on their Christmas Hurdle form?
Nigel: Bristol De Mai hurt himself at Newbury and came home and lay down for a week. He’s been in great form since though, and I love his chances in the Gold Cup. He just needs a stamina test and he’ll get that on Friday.
Sam: I’ve got quite a few chances without any jumping out at you. I agree with Dad. Ballyandy looks the pick of them. Last year he was just about favourite for the Bumper, this year there’s a bit less expectation. I like Diego du Charmil at a good price. I’d say Paul Nicholls’s best chance is Wonderful Charm in the Foxhunters.
Willy: I’ll have a few chances but the best of them is probably Foxtail Hill in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase. He’s the 8-1 favourite after winning his last two, including at Cheltenham last time. I need to ride three winners over fences before Aintree so I can ride Blaklion in the National. I could do with this being one of them and it would be fantastic to ride a Festival winner less than a year after winning a race at Royal Ascot.
Nigel:Yes, not many have ever done that. Imagine mentioning you in the same breath as Lester Piggott!
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