In the town of Pembroke on Wales's south-west coast, a couple of betting shops have been having an unexpectedly difficult winter and will struggle to reach their target profit for the year unless the Cheltenham Festival goes particularly well. The reason is Tobefair, a locally-trained racehorse so cheap he once changed hands for nothing, which has somehow turned into a winning machine.
Trained in the hills east of Carmarthen by the previously unsung Debra Hamer, Tobefair is owned by a syndicate of 17 friends who are regulars at the Cresselly Arms in Cresswell Quay, just outside Pembroke, about half an hour's drive from the eight-horse stable where their pride and joy resides. They bought into him for "a bit of fun", hoping to perhaps pick up a little race along the way.
On Thursday, Tobefair is expected to start the favourite for one of the most hotly-contested races of the year, the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham. There are rival entrants representing Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, the champion trainers of Britain and Ireland, and others owned by millionaires such as JP McManus and Michael O'Leary. But it is Tobefair who heads the betting at 15/2.
"You wouldn't believe the fun and excitement we've had," says Michael Cole, a former dairy farmer who used to own all of Tobefair but sold shares of varying sizes to 16 friends to keep down his costs. Seven years ago, he was gifted the new-born Tobefair in exchange for nurturing two other foals over a three-year period for a nearby stud.
Cole had racehorses in the past, without much success, and cannot have imagined his luck was about to turn when Tobefair was beaten by 64 lengths in an early race at Exeter and then 100 lengths at Chepstow. At that time he decided to bring in some co-owners, including 10 women who bought an eighth share between them. Cole kept 50 per cent.
Soon after, in June 2015, Tobefair went to Worcester and somehow achieved his first victory. "I thought: 'At least that'll cover some of the costs,'" Cole says.
Incredibly, it was the start of a seven-race winning streak that has carried Tobefair to where he is now. Racing's handicapper has kept giving him more weight to carry but the doughty seven-year-old has carried on regardless, slogging it out for three miles and getting to the front when it matters. He is more than four stones higher in the weights than when his run began. "It's been brilliant, I just can't believe it," Cole says. "Even getting to Warwick was brilliant," he adds in reference to Tobefair's January success there.
"I can't get my head around it. He keeps stepping up in class, you think he's bound to come up against better horses this time and he keeps on winning."
Those seven successes have been riotously celebrated at the Cresselly Arms, a 250-year-old, ivy-covered hostelry so traditional beer is still served straight from the barrel and no food is offered.
"It's like a fairy tale," says John Evans, who, with his brother Colin, is landlord at the Arms. The pub, he says, has its own share in Tobefair.
"Everybody's been having their flutter on him and when he's won, the roof's nearly come off," Evans reports.
"I'll definitely be at Cheltenham but we've already got a lot of guys who can't go, who will come to the pub on Thursday to watch it. To be honest, what I want is for the jockey [Trevor Whelan] and the horse to get round safe and anything after that is a bonus. That's what we all want."
The key to Tobefair's improvement may have been the move to Hamer's yard after his previous trainer, Lucy Jones, retired. Hamer has pottered along below the radar in her 16 years with a licence, her best season yielding a total of 10 wins, but Tobefair is strong evidence she deserves to get better material. He remains unbeaten since joining her.
"You train what you get sent," says Hamer, who, with her husband, rides out three horses each day and delayed taking on two additional members of staff until just a few years ago.
"They've either got it in them or not and, if the ability's there, it's your job to bring it out. A horse has the same ability, whether he's with Nicky Henderson or Jonjo O'Neill or us. The job is the same for all of us: muscle 'em up, get 'em clean in their wind, bring them to peak fitness."
Hamer is clear Tobefair is "special" and two qualities in particular have struck her: his appetite and his attitude. "He can't wait to eat! We do laugh when he comes home from racing.
"A lot of horses can be a bit finicky then but he's licking his lips as soon as he sees the food. He loves his racing, which is a key thing. He keeps digging deep and he always seems to pull out just enough to win. Which is great, I don't want to win by 17 lengths, a length and a half is grand.
"I'm sure he knows, he looks across and sees if something else is there. At Chepstow [in December], he was nearly caught and then he actually stuck his nose out. I couldn't believe it. I think Cheltenham will suit him. It's a tough, old track and there's that last hill. You've got to have something pretty special to win there, which he is, but there'll be a lot of other special horses too.
"He's got a great following, they're all enjoying him. It feels like the whole of Pembrokeshire is behind him now, but there's going to come a time when he'll be beaten, we all know that. So we enjoy the wins for what they are."
The fun is not entirely shared by local bookmakers, one of whom reportedly had to send out for extra cash when Tobefair last won. "We've got two shops in Pembroke and another in Haverfordwest," says Coral's spokesman, Simon Clare, "and every time the horse runs, all of them see one-way traffic. He's accumulating a fanbase with each win, although I gather there's almost two camps in Pembroke; some of our regulars have never backed him because they think they've missed the big day and the next race is the one when he'll finally lose.
"But the vast majority of them are just backing the horse. One of our managers says it's great in terms of the buzz in the shop and the interest, but it has actually hit the shop's target, which is based on the profit they make. So it's classic bookmaker stuff - we're half happy for people but we're also thinking: 'Oh, Christ'."
Sunday Indo Sport