Bethell’s Tour Earns Promotion on Home Front

 In News

By Chris McGrath
for Thoroughbred Daily News

Putting the success into succession is a familiar challenge in the British training profession. In contrast with America, with its racetrack communes, burdens of infrastructure and overheads often make a private yard in Britain resemble a farm: a family concern, to be passed down between one generation and the next. The dilemma is how to dovetail inherited advantages—in terms of reputation, clientele and facilities—with the imperative of putting your own stamp on a progressive enterprise.

Latest to attempt this balancing act is Ed Bethell, who has just taken on Thorngill Stables in Middleham from his father James. Though just 27, he is actually four years older than was his father when taking over from Arthur Budgett, soon after assisting in the preparation of 1973 Derby winner Morston. Bethell Sr. became a highly respected figure on the Yorkshire Turf: though dealing with limited bloodstock, in both quantity and quality, he built an especially remarkable record in historic, notoriously competitive handicap stampedes like the Lincoln and Hunt Cup. Incredibly, he not only won the Bunbury Cup three times but did so with the same horse, Mine (Ire) (Primo Dominie {GB}).

Critically, however, Bethell has prepared for the transition not just by accompanying his father up and down the High Moor gallops. True, he has done that sufficiently to glean precious, homespun tenets of horsemanship; and he is hugely grateful for the fidelity of his patrons, and a flagship as accomplished as Group 1-placed sprinter Moss Gill (Ire) (No Nay Never). But he is no less appreciative also to have been dispatched far afield—from Kentucky to Australia—to observe diverse racing cultures and absorb different ways of doing things.

That reflects creditably on his parents, whose willingness that Bethell should be his own man was underlined by resisting the option, only recently available in Britain, of a shared licence.

“To keep a business going 45 or 46 years is pretty impressive in any walk of life,” Bethell says. “So I hugely admire Dad, and also my mother, for doing that. I did suggest that we should have a joint-licence, because I didn’t want him to give up fully, but he thought it better that I do it on my own. Although he’s still very much involved, I think he quite likes the idea of taking a bit of a back seat. He was 69 last week, and it’s a seven-days-a-week business.

“But he has established a brand, which is something I’m incredibly fortunate to be taking on, instead of setting up on my own with five horses. At the same time I do feel very lucky to have gone around the world and seen other ways of training, other ways of marketing and selling yourself. So I’d like to think I can bring some fresh ideas that might help the business grow.”

Certainly a stint with Gai Waterhouse was literally a world away. A similar experience plainly served Hugo Palmer well, and Bethell was especially inspired by the dynamism and reach of Waterhouse’s public relations.

“I could jump in a taxi in Sydney and the guy would go, ‘Oh, you’re from England. What do you do?’” he recalls. “And when I said I worked for Gai Waterhouse, his jaw would drop to the floor. She’s a total celebrity out there. And she made every single one of owners, whether they had 1% of a horse or a $2-million yearling from Magic Millions, feel like the most important person in the world. That’s probably just a very natural thing, but she was very good to me and taught me a lot. Certainly her technique with 2-year-olds is something I would definitely be interested in adapting here.”

Another to teach him as much about handling people as horses was Terence Collier, who took Bethell under his wing during an internship at Fasig-Tipton.

“Terence is another amazing ‘people person’,” Bethell says. “Fasig-Tipton was fantastic: I just saw a very different way of dealing with bloodstock, and dealing with clients. I was able to see how they set about enticing those big mares for their ‘Night Of The Stars’ in November: it was the year Havre De Grace (Saint Liam) sold for $10 million. Seeing things like that is mind-boggling; but it was also about seeing how the little things, the finer details, can make a big difference.”

Bethell was fascinated to tour the Bluegrass farms and see how weanlings and yearlings were allocated to their optimal auctions. But then one of his first mentors had been James Delahooke, a buyer of champions whose expertise extends through the market and has duly managed, over the years, to find inexpensive ammunition for Thorngill.

“James is incredibly thorough,” Bethell says. “He was quite strict, and never minced his words—I don’t know whether that was a good thing or not. But I loved the way he looked at a horse and I still ring him quite often: he’s such an interesting man, with amazing knowledge of the game. James had a big part to play in buying Penhill (GB) (Mount Nelson {GB}) for just 24,000gns.”

Penhill would return to Tattersalls a couple of years later to realise 230,000gns as a horse-in-training, and subsequently won twice over hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival for Willie Mullins.

But for all the diversity of Bethell’s apprenticeship, perhaps none of his grounding was more relevant than a spell as assistant to Charlie Hills. For one thing, after all those experiences overseas, here was a yard steeped in the influence of a great English horseman of the old school in the trainer’s father, Barry. And, with such a sagacious influence still in the background, Bethell could observe and think about the kind of dynamic awaiting him at home. After all, it’s impossible to avoid sporadic differences of opinion when the headquarters of the business is also a family’s kitchen table: whether between father and son, trainer and assistant, or eventually trainer and retired trainer.

“Working for Charlie was a great learning curve as well,” Bethell reflects. “First and foremost, because I got to work with such well-bred horses. But while I would of course be reporting to Charlie, the ‘guvnor’—I still call Barry that—was around passing his eye over things. And when he came out with certain things, you would stand up and listen.

“Did it open my eyes, for how Dad and I should work? I don’t know. I couldn’t talk about Charlie and Barry’s relationship. Obviously, at the end of the day, Dad created this business and now we’ve just got to find the happy medium. Of course, there are opinions, and there will be arguments every now and then, but I think that’s probably just part and parcel of life.”

The most obvious nexus of the handover is a longstanding relationship with so many patrons, many of whom will have seen Bethell growing from boy to man. Some, indeed, had to see him absorb the harrowing and abrupt loss to meningitis of his sister Jessica, whose memory is honoured by a charitable foundation. It is this extended family that has enabled Bethell to land running: his first winner, at Newcastle last month, was a 7-year-old aptly carrying the familiar silks of stable syndicate Clarendon Thoroughbreds; while Moss Gill himself, now five, has been in the yard throughout his career.

“I’ve known Mr. Van Cutsem a long time and he has been a great supporter of Dad’s,” Bethell says. “It’s heartwarming to have these people Dad has brought together, over the years, continuing to support me. But we also have some new owners, which is even better. I’d like to think the yard is thriving: we have quite a few horses now, and hopefully we can be successful for owners old and new.”

Moss Gill, third in the G1 Nunthorpe S. last summer, made an excellent resumption at Lingfield on Feb. 27 when beaten just a neck by the thriving Lord Riddiford (Ire) (Zebedee {GB}) in a listed sprint. If he was not to win, in fact, he shaped as well as could be hoped, finishing well after seeming ill at ease round that singular track.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be starting with a horse like this, I pinch myself every morning,” Bethell says. “He didn’t handle the hill or the bend very well on [last] Saturday, and otherwise it might just have been a different story. The winner’s definitely improving, and was of course race-fit, but the way Moss Gill quickened in the final 250 metres was just what we wanted to see. P.J. [McDonald, jockey] was extremely happy. He said the horse still had all the fire in his belly, which we knew.

“We might think about stepping up to six at some point. He was just half a stride behind the bridle all the way, and five-furlong opportunities in England before May are few and far between. France would be great, but getting there and back would obviously be tricky at the moment. We’re still thinking about Dubai, and then there’s the Cammidge Trophy at Doncaster, though soft ground would probably be an issue there. I wouldn’t want to go back to the [G3] Palace House, because of the Dip at Newmarket, but if we want to try six anywhere the [G2] Duke Of York might be perfect: we know he loves the place, and you’d hope you might get nice ground by then.”

Among the younger horses, Bethell is excited by Rich Dream (Ire) (Make Believe {GB}), who made an eye-catching debut in what is always a key maiden at York and duly won his only subsequent start at Haydock. “He’s a lovely big horse and we’ve gelded him over the winter,” Bethell reports. “He’s just in steady work, we’ll build up and I would have thought we’ll probably see him on the track around April.”

A maturing talent is Idoapologise (GB) (Havana Gold {Ire}). “He only had a few runs last year, but he’s been accident-prone rather than injury-prone and with a clear run hopefully he might make a nice horse for those big handicaps,” Bethell says. “If I can get him high enough, there’s a fast-run seven furlongs on the July Course that might be right up his street.”

Those three Bunbury Cups were a tribute to the way his father maintained the form of Mine, who made 66 starts in all.

“Dad was always very patient with horses,” Bethell says. “And he got the best out of them, whatever their level. He’s a fantastic horseman. Watching him break in yearlings, you see how well he understands horses; and how he did as well as he did without ever getting the cream of the crop. But probably the most important thing of all, he is always honest. Everything that happens has always been told to the owners immediately.”

Of course, not every horse can be a star and Bethell understands that the priority, with each project, is to make sure that the whole process as enjoyable as possible. In this regard, he has one especially magnificent and historic asset: Middleham Moor.

“A couple of jockeys who came to ride out the other day were saying, ‘I bet you can’t wait to get owners up here’,” he enthuses. “I’m very fortunate that my parents have built up this business in such a beautiful area, and the stables themselves are also a massive selling point. There’s no better place than the High Moor gallop first thing on a summer morning.

“It’s a lot quieter than Newmarket. We can all get on and do our own thing, yet we’ve something like 30 racetracks within a couple of hours. What would have been my unique selling point in Newmarket, where I would have been renting a yard for a fortune? I think the North-South divide is closing hugely now. If you look at the success of people like Mark Johnston and Karl Burke, you can see that we have the proven facilities here to realise the potential of any horse.”

Bethell acknowledges that the timing of the handover, at the height of a pandemic, concentrates the mind somewhat.

“The way we looked at it, as a family, was that at least things can only get better,” says Bethell with a laugh. “With the prizemoney here, there’s probably never a right time to start training. But I’m actually hoping that maybe Covid might just juggle a few things: the model might change a bit, and things might eventually improve as a result. We’re very lucky to have such supportive owners, and I do have belief.

“Having spent time with other trainers, and bloodstock agents, and at the sales, you learn that actually there’s no real rhyme or reason to a horse. You don’t need crazy money to buy a very nice horse. I mean, of course I’d love an owner to come in and spend the big bucks, and hopefully that might happen someday.

“But we do have a wonderful way of life and I consider myself very fortunate to wake up at five every morning to go out and work with the animal I love, rather than sit in an office all day. Mum and Dad have been fantastic, and I’m incredibly grateful to them both. Obviously not a day goes by that we don’t remember Jessica. But probably that has only made me work harder. Because she was taken so young, you do realise that life is short. So I just hope that the business will continue to grow and thrive, and that maybe one day she’d be proud of what we have done here.”

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