Interview: Top Trainer Kim Bailey

  • Kim Bailey in his office
  • Kim Bailey in his garden

Ahead of the 2018 Festival at Cheltenham, we interviewed the Gold Cup, Grand National and Champion Hurdle winning trainer at his Andoversford yard

It’s so beautiful up here, isn’t it? Why did you bring your yard here?

Well it certainly is beautiful, right on the top of the Cotswolds and one of the finest views in the country. The topography is phenomenal. In our old yard we had a gallop that got washed away - and if you haven’t got a gallop you can’t play. We were having to put all our horses elsewhere and it stuffed us in a fair way so we had to make a decision whether to start again which we did, so we ended up here and it’s been a really good port of call.

Although if you’d asked me fourteen years ago whether I would like living in the Cotswolds I would have said over my dead body, but I have been here eleven years now and I absolutely love it. Of course, it works as a trainer because it’s an incredibly central part of the world - it’s very easy for communication. I do a lot of driving, around sixty thousand miles a year, so it is very handy.

But I also find Cheltenham extraordinary - fascinating. There’s always something going on. There are a lot of festivals - music, jazz, gin, beer, food festivals - I get involved in all of them! The Literary Festival is wonderful. Everything is. I love all the restaurants, the pubs, the theatre.

People are incredibly friendly - they actually talk to you, they want to help you. That’s the attitude everybody has and I think it’s a fantastic community. It’s got culture and everything you could want. And it’s got racing as well. The best racing in the world.

You said sharing a house with Nigel Twiston-Davies was one of the happiest times in your career? Do trainers generally like each other?

It was a long time ago and we had a lot of fun! We were both unattached and so life is very very easy when you’re single and er, yes, that was an interesting period and we all enjoyed it [laughs].

The truth is we are all jealous of each other - I am sorry but that’s natural. When people say ‘oh, I am so pleased for him’ it’s an absolute load of b****t. We’re all here to win not to say well done to someone else! When we have a Grand National everyone wishes each other good luck and it’s most probably the only time of the year when we actually genuinely mean it!

Success is about how far will you go for that ten seconds of euphoria?

[Laughs] Let’s put it this way, when I was second in the Grand National I didn’t speak for four days. Of course you have to have the desire to win. You just don’t do second. You can’t. I am a competitive individual, I want to win and finishing second is not easy.

It’s like last year with Charbel. Don’t tell me how annoyed I was - he was going very well. Would he have won? Who knows. The thing is with Altior when he’s under pressure he has this wonderful knack of producing more but it would have been a very close thing, I think. And the interesting thing afterwards is that Nico de Boinville said that he couldn’t guarantee we wouldn’t have beaten him.

You’re unusual as a trainer because you are very happy with social media…

I was one of the very first, perhaps the first trainer to see the importance of it all. I started a website in 1996 and it’s always been something I have done since then, with an update once a month. I have never minded about speaking my mind because when I had my down period in Northamptonshire I very quickly realised that if you’re out of the press you get forgotten. If you say things perhaps you shouldn’t say then people won’t forget you [laughs].

The most important thing in this business is not to be forgotten. It’s a game of fashion and it doesn’t matter how good you were yesterday, it’s only how good you are today that counts. Self-promotion is very important, albeit doing it in a way that doesn’t offend people. I do go out of my way to do it but I also enjoy it - I used to write for Sporting Life - although my spelling might not be good and my grammar worse, the opinion is what’s important.

I used to complain on Sunday mornings when the press used to ring me up after we had another big winner, they would drive me around the bend, and then when we didn’t have any winners and everything was going wrong I longed for the phone to ring. So when they phone up on Sunday morning now I am as nice as anything now - I say thank you for ringing!

That’s why our gate is always open. Open and available. People often ring me up and ask if they can have a look round. That’s why we take on as many people as we can. We invest in additional staff because I want to promote horse racing. We do breakfasts during Race Week, that sort of thing - we’ll get thirty or forty people, owners and so on, up here every day calling in.

Would you say there are qualities that you must have to be a really good trainer?

You must understand animals. You must have a great love for animals - you’ve got to be a bit of a stockman. You see the horses every day so when you look at them you see something different in their eye. I am sure it’s like being a doctor - you can see if someone doesn’t look very well. So it’s about observation. That’s the important thing, you must never miss anything.

You are very clear about making sure a horse is ready for a race…

Exactly the biggest worry was Vindication. He now does not run as he is just not ready mentally and physically. It was a difficult decision as he has won all four of his races, but he’s still very babyish and immature. You have a very great responsibility as a trainer to ensure the horse’s welfare above all else.

We’re very lucky, I am one of the very lucky few to have a yard with enough people working in it but the industry as a whole is suffering from a dearth of workers, no different from any business these days, but in racing its of paramount importance because you have to care properly for these animals. And another problem is that people haven’t been brought up around animals so they don’t always have the natural instinct.

Social media is an interesting one. I ran an old horse called Harry Topper recently. He ran a blinder to finish second but the abuse I got for not retiring him was extraordinary. And you think horses, like trainers, are here to race so if they still enjoy it then they should. But I will very quickly retire a horse if I think they’re not enjoying it. I went racing that day knowing that if he didn’t do well I would have retired him immediately.

You reputedly have a difficult relationship with jockeys?

It has become bit of a joke that I hate jockeys. I don’t know why people say that because I don’t, although if you ask Nigel about my relationship with them he’ll say I do! [laughs]

It’s a difficult one really. David Bass, my stable jockey is an integral part of the operation - he rides for me ninety per cent of the time. He’s here three days a week and perhaps I am slightly more demanding than most trainers. I expect jockeys to be here on a regular basis riding out the horses so they get to know them and in return I give them the rides.

People will argue it’s like a racing driver, you have that natural ability to be spectacular. I am sure if Lewis Hamilton got in someone else’s car he’d still win in it because he’s got that ability to do things that other people don’t.

But I remember the summer when Jason Maguire was hurt and Tony McCoy rode eighteen winners for me - and some of those wins no one else would have won. He was extraordinary. The thing was his attention to detail. He was magnificent. He would watch a video of these horses, moderate horses, and he would come out and say “I think you’ve been riding this horse wrongly, I am going to try something different” and then he would go on to win on it.

It’s intelligence and application not just talent that makes an outstanding jockey. As a trainer it is definitely important to have that great feedback from a jockey - if someone comes back with really good information then you want to use him again. I had one jockey I had to get rid of because I gained nothing from him, talented rider that he was. I would ask and he would just look at me, he couldn’t tell me a thing, physically couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t cope because I need to learn, because I am not the person riding the horse. I can only see what I see and that might be different from what he’s feeling. A lot of the time it’s the same but I need that feedback. They have to be brave enough to tell me what they think too, even if it’s not what I want to hear, because the horse could be running again the following day - even a difference of opinion is good information.

AP McCoy was outstanding and now we have Richard Johnson - who do you think can fill the gap left by them in the future?

Filling that gap there is one obvious person in sixteen year old James Bowen, although having ridden for me I would never have known he was sixteen because he has the maturity of someone a decade older.

So James actually got beaten on that day but he was able to come up with something that no one else who had ridden that horse had ever told us before. He talks fluently, he talks with absolute sense and knows exactly what he’s about - providing he remains injury-free then without a doubt he will go a long way and is an obvious contender for the future.

There’s a lot of pressure on him because he’s already achieved quite a lot but fortunately he’s got very down to earth parents and they have nurtured him brilliantly, they have done an absolutely fantastic job, and he’s got his brother of course but everyone’s known, he’s always been recognised as the better rider of the two and a future star within the racing world for some time.

Bryony Frost is also having an absolute golden time at the moment. Racing has a wonderful way of knocking people back when they are in a golden period, so she’s got to fight through that and push onto next season, but she’s very good, horses run very well for her. I have watched her ride several times and she doesn’t touch the horse, they just go for her.

Will there ever be a female champion jockey?

Possibly, but injury is the worry because women fall in a different way to men and therefore are more injury-prone - technically speaking men fall forward and women fall flat, protecting different parts of their bodies, and so are more likely to hurt themselves, especially at top speed.

I remember when I was a kid, driving around the farm with my father. A friend of his who was travelling with us asked me what speed we were going and when I said: ’35 miles an hour’ he just reached out and pushed me out the back. I was pretty furious. It was a shock but it’s the best way of showing how it feels to fall off when you’re going flat out on the back of a horse.

Injury is the fear in every sport. How do you handle all that and what is your biggest dread?

You dread every sort of injury. We had a lad who was kicked in the head here recently - the horse was being helped into a box and turned round and kicked him. He was knocked unconscious and he sustained a broken nose for his trouble. You don’t want someone to be injured ever, especially here - it reflects on us, for all the wrong reasons.

Of course, if you’re a jockey you have to be tough. It’s like that time AP had his teeth all knocked out. He even refused to have an anesthetic before his next race then the press all gave him a hard time for not smiling when he rode a winner!

Horses getting killed on the course is one of the ghastly things that happen. But I know at least that the horse has been looked after so well and treasured - it will have had a great life. These horses have been honoured and treated with huge respect their entire lives.

The awful dread of death is part of having animals - you know, livestock and dead stock - because you have an enormous amount of love for them. It’s like Sunblazer - he’s such a character. He does things that no other horse does. He sits on his hind legs or he lies in his bed and he won’t get up so you have to muck out round him [laughs].

The kiss of death is if you have two horses in the same race. I loathe that part of my job. It is like being headmaster of a fee-paying school. The pupils are the horses and the teachers are my staff - the owners are the parents, and you’ve got to keep them all happy. [laughs] But of course in a championship race you can’t avoid it. If you have got two of the best horses in the country then they have to take each other on.

Which of these horses are your best hopefuls for Cheltenham?

I think Vindication is one of the best young horses in the country. And Red River is another great horse. Horses have to be very strong mentally because there are some very tough races and there’s no such thing as a horse running badly. They run to the line at Cheltenham - it’s a premiership, it’s like a men’s final at Wimbledon, you don’t give up do you?

So therefore you cannot afford to take a horse to Cheltenham unless it’s mentally attuned. The horses have to be a particular character to manage Cheltenham. And it all breaks down - everyone’s got to be happy. You know, laughing and joking, a happy team. It’s the high point of everyone’s work.

How important is Cheltenham?

Winning at the Festival is of paramount importance and that’s always the ambition. Paul Nicholls was Champion Trainer last year and he only had one winner at Cheltenham - he won one race at the meeting but it was the winner and that was all that mattered. You cannot take that away.

We’re judged on Cheltenham - it’s sad but it is the case. There’s four days of racing and everybody in racing is watching those four days. And we’re going there this year with great horses and a very good chance. I think Red River is the most likely candidate for success because he will improve again and I would like to see Charbel run a blinder as he is such a lovely horse and deserves to do so.

The feeling at Cheltenham is like nothing else. It literally makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Yes it’s stressful but that’s where I want to go and what I want to do - they are the races I want to be involved in. Cheltenham is the pinnacle and you have to embrace it all - the stress and the fuss and the attention, all of it.

What does it mean to win the Grand National?

On that morning we definitely felt we had a chance and then it rained - it just got worse and worse I got more and more bad-tempered as the day went on. They had put the race back for the first time by two hours because of television rights and in that time we had two inches of rain. I remember Claire Balding coming up to me and saying ‘you’re favourite’ and I thought ‘that’s me finished’. Being favourite is the kiss of death for the National.

The Grand National is unfortunately a race that ticks boxes that no other race does and once you’ve won the Grand National you realise it’s all over. The purists and the enthusiasts will appreciate what you have done at Cheltenham but when you win the Grand National then everyone looks at you as a winner.

Are you superstitious?

We are superstitious - every sport is the same. Yes I have certain ties and shirts and routines that I keep to - one thing’s for sure, if I win on the first day at Cheltenham I shall wear the same thing every single day!

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Photography by Jenny Stewart