Magazine article The Spectator

A Matter of Survival

Magazine article The Spectator

A Matter of Survival

Article excerpt

It's not every trainer who has a supplementary career making him available for lunches, dinners and, I would guess, any bar mitzvahs with a racing tinge to them. Richard Phillips, who houses his 22-strong string in John Francome's Beechdown Farm complex in Lambourn, is a talented mimic in the Rory Bremner class whose impressions of racing personalities have become a must at occasions like the 'Lesters' dinner for the Jockeys Association. Over breakfast on Saturday, he'd just moved from a Mick Easterby anecdote to a Francome story when the real thing walked in to collect the rent cheque. If I'd turned my back I swear I wouldn't have known which one was speaking.

For the moment the mimicry is vital to his operation. As a young trainer without the advantage of rich backers, he admits candidly, `It's a matter of survival. If I didn't do impersonations I wouldn't be training.' He is his own head lad and assistant trainer not just because he likes to keep his finger on the pulse but out of necessity. (He cooks a good scrambled eggs and sausages too). And like every good comic he is a deeply serious man underneath, worried that people will think him a joker as well about the things which really matter to him, like the welfare of his horses.

At 15 he was destined for the priesthood. The parallels are closer than you think, he reckons. `I've got my parish and my problems, and I do my hardest work on Sunday ' But the racing bug was there. At an age when his contemporaries had posters of Gary Glitter and the Bay City Rollers on their walls the young Phillips, son of a Defence Ministry civil servant, had taped up photos of Fulke Walwyn and Vincent O'Brien. To get his start in racing he took Norman Tebbit's `Get on your bike' advice. Or would have done if he had owned a bike. Instead he got up at 4.30 a.m. and ran from Abingdon to Lambourn to start knocking on trainers' doors. Eventually he was taken on by Graham Thorner, after an interview which partially consisted of the trainer, who was peeing into a drain at the time, warning him over his shoulder, `Nice people don't win.'

He retains an enormous respect for Thorner, who worked him into good shape, and for Henry Candy, whose assistant he was for seven years. And when he struck out on his own it was to initially stunning effect. He landed a nice coup with his first success, trained flat winners for Sheikh Ahmed and Lord Vestey and handled the useful Gnome's Tycoon, which was favourite both for the Great Yorkshire Chase and the Mildmay at Cheltenham. …

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