20 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 68

Staying the course

Robin Oakley

A t only 42, the amiable face of /-1.Southwell trainer Paul Blockley carries a weight of experience. Though he doesn't fuss about it, there have been knocks along the way. Any silver spoon found in his mouth would probably have been sold to purchase feed or tack. His parents died in a car crash when he was young, and he lost foster parents early too. Fostering, adoption and care homes did not provide a smooth life pattern but he was working for Henry Hutsby at Stratford as soon as he could leave school, and before that as well when he could bunk off. There were a few rides — 'If it fell in its last seven runs then Blockley would ride it' — but not much success in the saddle.

Training was always the aim, and yard experience followed with Ken Bridgwater and Kim Bailey before he became assistant to Tom Bill. One lad from those days, Robert Barrington-Erie, reckons much of the Cheltenham and Aintree success of the yard at the time was down to Paul Blockley. 'He was different in the way he did things, especially the care he put into feeding the horses — boiled barley, sugar beet, Guinness, which he would mix up himself.

'His horses always looked good and while riding work at most yards could be very repetitive he would always keep them interested — a trek through the woods, jumping a fallen log.'

When Paul began training in his own right there was more adversity. He began well, near Beverley. 'Then I decided the money was down south and moved to Hednesford, Earl Jones's old yard. I bought expensive horses and the money didn't come in. Bills weren't paid and I was into a downward spiral.' The Jockey Club withdrew his licence.

Out of racing for a while, he did anything to find the money to revive his ambition, breaking-in horses for others, running a livery yard near Worcester, working as a horsebox driver. There was a second start, at Malton. This time his biggest owner, with eight horses, died at only 39. 'That knackered me again; it was too expensive to continue.' It was off to Belgium, which he liked, but, after a fallout with the authorities there, Paul figured on the Forfeit List and was declared a disqualified person. He and partner Jo Hughes — whom he describes as 'my right arm: I wouldn't want to do it at all if I couldn't do it with her' — grafted again, buying and selling point-to-pointers, and 'working night shifts wiping backsides in nursing homes'. Only to find, when he admitted quite openly that he'd gone racing while under that official cloud, that he was disqualified for one more year. But after a spell as assistant to Russell Wilman Paul he started again this year in his own right, and the Comeback Kid has done it in style.

His first runner, Red Power, won the Brocklesby at Doncaster. Hidden Dragon gave him his biggest victory yet, taking the Great St Wilfrid Handicap at Doncaster. And Hit's Only Money has won three times and has been aimed for weeks now at this Saturday's (20 September) Ayr Gold Cup. Winners are well into double figures, with a nice crop of two-year-olds, and the 3m chaser Returned Unpaid demonstrated that Paul can still do it over obstacles too. There is obvious teamwork, with assistant trainer Jo, travelling head girl Faye Bramley and talented apprentice jockey David Nolan, a hungry enough rider to take a ride over jumps at Newton Abbot and drive to Carlisle for another in the evening on the Flat, sharing in the backchat.

The two barns beside Southwell Racecourse are not the most picturesque position in racing. But there is cheery bustle, a tarmac yard where last year there was mud, and plans for tree planting and a new paddock. There are 39 horses in, including six promising jumpers, and with the birds singing and a September sun shining as Hidden Dragon and Hit's Only Money took turns rolling in the sandpit there was an inescapable sense of a man doing what he was put on this earth to do. These were happy horses and there is nothing Paul wants to do more than train them. 'It's like a drug to me,' he says, and you could see that in the watchful eye as we chugged around in his red Land Rover while the horses trotted and cantered on the Southwell sand, sometimes led by the daredevil Jack Russell 011ie, described as the fittest dog in England. (You could not say quite the same these days of his owner. Having given up both smoking and riding out after a heart attack, Paul nowadays sports a fair-sized example above his belt of what the Australians call 'a veranda over the toy shop'. The diet begins tomorrow,)

There is pride in horses like Hidden Dragon, acquired from the Aidan O'Brien yard. 'You've only got to look at him and you fall in love,' says his trainer. And there is confidence: 'Send us the horse and well do the business.' There are no fancy targets this year, but the hope for the future is an average of a winner a week, and, one day, a Group horse. Coup de Chance could be one to watch for over hurdles, the grey Silver Emperor should make a nice threeyear-old and Hit's Only Money was bursting out of his skin. He has to be a real hope at Ayr this week with some give in the ground. I will be away in Morocco. but I will be

tempted to give Paul a call that morning to see if he's spotted the yellovvfinch on Ayr Gold Cup day. Every time he sees him in the yard, he says, he has a winner.