Jan Perrins talks to former jockey, Cheltenham specialist & trainer Andy Turnell at Broad Hinton: what does he think of the Grand National now?
It is three years since Andy Turnell suffered a severe stroke, curtailing his career as a racehorse trainer, and even though he is a little disappointed at the progress he has made, he is not bitter.
“I always wanted to be a jockey and that is what happened and then I wanted to be a trainer, and I achieved that too, so I cannot complain,” says the man who was third on Charles Dickens in the Grand National behind Red Rum and L’Escargot as a jockey, and who won it as a trainer with Maori Venture.
Andy and his wife Gilly live beside the 50-box yard in Broad Hinton where he finished his training days. Sitting in Andy’s kitchen, overlooking the stunning view of fields and fences below the Marlborough Downs at Barbury, it is easy to understand why they didn’t want to move away from their base.
The yard is now split into three, with Bill Smith focusing on Arab racing, David Flood and Dai Williams on thoroughbred racing. It works well and as well as helping him keep in touch with racing, Andy explains, it ‘keeps the wolf from the door’.
A fall in his office after a momentary black out, a while after the stroke, broke Andy’s leg, and it’s the ‘lameness’ that is annoying him and has curtailed his riding out.
But thanks to the incredible facility that is Oaksey House in Lambourn, and the Injured Jockeys Fund, and the Riding for the Disabled Aassociation, Andy does admit that he is progressing: “The physios and everyone at Oaksey House have been a tremendous help. John Lawrence - who became Lord Oaksey - rode out a lot for my father and he was like a godfather to me.”
Andy's National winner Maori Venture (Photo courtesy The East Hendred Museum)Andy’s father Bob Turnell was also a successful trainer. Andy had his first public ride for his father, at 15 and rode a dozen winners on the flat before his first win over jumps - aged only 16 - on Jim Joel’s hurdler Mayfair Bill at Wincanton in December 1964.
Another horse that gave him a boost was Paul Mellon’s hurdler Fine Art. Mellon was a patron of Ian Balding, but Andy’s father obviously had the respect of this prestigious owner too.
Andy Turnell - jockeyBy any measurement, Andy had a successful career as a jockey, his 494 winners included third place in the Grand National, winning the Scottish Grand National, the Fighting Fifth, Bula Hurdle and twice placed in the Champion Hurdle on Birds Nest.
Andy is particularly proud of his record at Cheltenham, one year in particular having the most wins at the racecourse for the year. When you consider he was riding during the era of the likes of John Francome and Mike Scudamore, a good friend, it was no mean feat. Andy was acknowledged as a particularly stylish rider, riding with shorter stirrups than others, but with exceptional balance.
Riding in the Grand National then was as exciting and challenging as it is now: “When I first rode in the National Mike Scudamore told me it was easier than it had been as the fences were modified in the 60s to put more of a belly in them. They had all been very upright like the Chair.”
“So when people say it’s easier now, it has been evolving for some time, but any improvement to make it safer has to be a good thing and it still takes some jumping!”
“The National is such an institution that all jockeys and trainers enjoy it. We used to all stay in the same place outside Southport. As a jockey, you would rather ride anything in the National than be sat in the weighing room, but it was a different world then.”
Andy helping saddle up Killimordaly at Worcester in September 2015 - his last season with a trainer's licence - Sally Randell who took over his yard is on the right“I remember Josh Gifford having some champagne on the day and saying he had heard it would help you lose weight,” laughs Andy. “There would be none of that now.”
“But there was always a different atmosphere in the weighing room for the National. People’s character would change. Those who were normally chatty would be quiet and vice versa. It is still so hard to win because it doesn’t matter if you are the best jockey in the world, you still need the horse underneath you.”
Katabatic's 1991 victory in the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Champion ChaseSurprisingly perhaps - but said after some consideration - it is not Andy’s third place in the National as a jockey or his win as a trainer that gave him the greatest pleasure of his career. It was winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Katabatic, when he was at the peak of training career in the 1990s.
He was then based near Wantage at East Hendred, a yard he particularly enjoyed. Listening to Andy talk about Katabatic, he was obviously a favourite. He also won the Grand Annual Chase.
Andy sent out Cogent to win the Hennessy Gold Cup and enjoyed other major wins with the likes of Country Member and Squire Silk during his career.
Like all sports, horse racing has benefited from scientific advances and sponsorship. Does Andy feel that the small guy can still compete with the likes of Paul Nicholls, Willie Mullins and his next door neighbour Alan King?
Andy Turnell watching an open day at the Broad Hinton yard“As long as you do the right thing and can have owners who listen to your advice, yes, I think there is a place for everyone."
"Look at Colin Tizzard, a West Country man, a farmer, he is a good example of how you can start small. I have a lot of respect for him - he is a good judge of horse.”
The day we met Native River had just won the Denman Chase at Newbury, enhancing his Gold Cup credentials, but Thistlecrack - now ruled out by an injury - would have been the one for Andy at Cheltenham, as he is the more experienced horse: “A lot will depend on the ground though.”
Sadly, Andy cannot enjoy a day at the races as much as he would like, due to his ‘lameness’ but while we spoke he had an eye on At the Races which was on the TV all the time, occasionally he would look out of the window – keeping an eye on the yards. Racing is still his life!