TRAINER TALK: PHIL YORK
by Jake Exelby
THE MASTER OF MORNSHILL
I first came across Phil York riding in the Staff College Members race at Tweseldown in 1993. He hadn't ridden a winner at that stage of his career but is now the most successful of all current point-to-point riders, with a total of 291 winners at the start of the season.
"Pootle Flump!" he cries, as I mention the name of the mount in question. "That was the first time I ever completed the course," he continues. Indeed, Phil believes that it took 20 rides over the course of eleven years before he finally managed to get round. He explains why it took him so long. "I had about six rides as a 16-year-old before taking a break for a few years. I probably shouldn't have ridden, I was a just a hooligan who didn't do as I was told!"
Phil's first winner was a much safer conveyance than the horse named after the cuddly children's TV character. Paco's Boy was a seven-time winner under rules, latterly for Martin Pipe, who ran twice in the Grand National. "My first win on him was in a two-runner Members at Tweseldown in 1995," he recalls. The pair won three races together that season, following up in Opens at Tweseldown and Parham. "He was a fantastic horse, what an education he gave me. It didn't matter what I did, he'd get it right."
The highlight of the 49-year-old trainer-jockey's career to date is his second place in the National Jockeys Championship in 2011, when he rode 34 winners to finish just three behind the prolific Richard Burton. "Everything went right that year," Phil tells me. "I managed to get level with Richard at one point but couldn't quite catch him in the end." So how did he come so far after such an inauspicious start? "Practice is everything. It's all very well riding bad horses, but you've got to get on a good one every so often like Paco's Boy."
So how long can one of the senior figures in the weighing room go on? "I have no idea, because I've got no intention of giving up. I think there's something wrong with my birth certificate," he smiles, "I'm only 18 really!" However, he turns serious for a (rare) moment as he recalls a heavy fall at Kingston Blount last season. "I dislocated my shoulder as it hit the ground," he winces. "Luckily the doctor on duty was a shoulder specialist. He stood me against his Landrover, twisted my arm and put the shoulder back in. The pain disappeared just like that." Phil obviously learnt well from the expert as he recalls a more recent painful experience. "In early October, one of my young horses lashed out and kicked me in the shoulder, dislocating it again. I was white with pain but I just twisted my arm and pushed it back in myself!" No wonder Phil claims "to always heal well and fast."
The step up from jockey to trainer-rider came naturally. Father Ray, owner of most of his son's early mounts, is a licensed trainer based just around the corner from Phil's yard at Mornshill Farm, Effingham, Surrey. Phil takes up the story of how he started giving the orders from as well as taking them. "Dad has had a permit (to train under NH Rules) for over 20 years. (Wife) Karen and I moved here 19 years ago and there were just three boxes when we arrived. I was a groundworks contractor at the time, but decided to pack in my job and train a few, to earn a living that way. I built six more boxes myself and the owners started coming."
Probably the best horse Phil has trained and ridden is Dante's Storm, a winner of ten points and three Hunter Chases from just 13 starts and fifth under a typical barnstorming York ride in the 2011 Cheltenham Foxhunters.
Dante's Storm was moved to Alan Hill's yard at Phil's suggestion to prepare for his Foxhunters bid because "His legs were made of glass. He could only run three or four times a year. Our gallops here are flat, with sharp bends, so we wanted to send him somewhere with an uphill gallop, where he could do some proper work. He was still fragile though!" Dante retired at the end of last season and is now enjoying life as his owner Ian Cobbold's hack.
At the other end of the scale, one of Phil's funniest stories relates to the tiny October Sun. "He was a silly little rat. His stable name was Adolf because he only had one ball," his trainer admits. "We were told he was a colt, but he was a rig one of them hadn't dropped." Plans to run him in points were met with resistance. "He'd never jump the open ditch at home he'd just pull himself up and peer over the fence."
Taking a tiny horse to the undulating Mollington course with its stiff fences may not have been a sensible choice of debut venue, but Phil was up for the challenge. "I stuck him right up the leader's tail jumping the ditch, then wouldn't let the favourite come past me." The favourite fell, the leader ran out at the second last, and Phil popped the last and won. So much for perseverance.
Asking Phil to pin down his current stable strength proves a task too far for me. "I don't keep count of my owners, staff or horses I don't actually employ anyone, they just come here for a laugh," he teases. What is true is that Phil has a fair few owner-riders in his yard one such is the promising Chris Dennington, who is still eligible for Novice Riders races. "My owners have got to be like him", laughs Phil. "He just smiles at the girls and has no brain whatsoever." The look that Chris shoots me suggests that he's heard this before and worse.
Looking round the stables, there is a balanced mix of seasoned performers the likes of the ex Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Hunters Lodge who unseated on his recent reappearance Charing winner Spirit of Chartwell and the talented but error-prone Do You Follow Me and promising young horses. "I've got a lot of youngsters that I've no idea about yet", confesses Phil. "In a way, I like it like that."
One for whom the trainer has high hopes this season is the ex-Irish Kereen Catcher, who he bought from Ireland and who led early before pulling up on his recent debut at Barbury. He sought the advice of Martin Oliver, a regular source of winners for the York yard. "Martin told me he was 'rubbish', 'useless' and 'worse than I thought' but I'd already bought him by then!", chuckles Phil. "But he's got a lovely travelling stride and jumps anything boldly. And he came from the same trainer who sold (2014 winningmost horse) Tempelpirate to Tim Underwood."
Due to turn 50 next Spring, what ambitions does Phil have left to fulfil in the sport? "I'm not one for sitting on a committee discussing whatnot," he confirms. He wanted to resurrect the defunct Tweseldown course and hold a point-to-point there this year but his plans were thwarted (hopefully only temporarily).
As for certain aspects of the sport that frustrate many involved with it, he is remarkably sanguine. He answers my enquiry on the seemingly endless prize money debate with a series of questions of his own: "It's an amateur sport, so where do you draw the line? Would it make any difference if there was no prize money? And what would happen if we ran a £10,000 Open?" My wife answers for me: "A horse like Quinz or Consigliere would still win it!"
Phil is not opposed to taking on good ex-National Hunt horses like the two mentioned above. "It gives horses like them somewhere to go. Look at Paco's Boy he educated a novice rider. And it's good to watch talented horses." He feels the same about professional trainers running horses in Hunter Chases. "Why should they be any better? I've lined up with all sorts of horses
and won!" What would he change? "I'd have more Veterans Riders races," he jokes. "Seriously, when a rule comes up, you work out how to deal with it. I try not to think of what's wrong."
So I leave the ever-cheerful Mr. York on a positive note, asking him to sum up what he thinks of point-to-pointing. "All of it is absolutely fantastic. The people are great and everyone's on a level playing field. It's just great fun." After spending a couple of hours with him, I wholeheartedly agree.