27 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 62

The turf

A matter of survival

Robin Oakley

It's not every trainer who has a supple- mentary 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 Testers' dinner for the Jockeys Associa- tion. 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 assis- tant 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 under- neath, 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 prob- lems, 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. More successes followed with jumpers like Frogmarch and Time Won't Wait, a horse he picked out at the Doncaster sales `because he had the head of an Arkle despite the body of a Mr Bean'. He could just see that head in the winner's enclosure. He won first time out, beat Viking Flagship on his second outing and has scored ten successes for the stable. 'I thought I had the knack,' says Richard. He won three races on the trot, too, with Willie Makeit, despite the seller telling him after the deal was struck, 'Next year I'll sell you his sister.' And what's she called? 'Bet He Doesn't.'

The joke has since turned on what seemed to be the young trainer's inevitable advance. Time Won't Wait tumbled at the last with a big Aintree race at his mercy. Next time he was back to his best he was taken out by a faller. One after another his good horses developed problems and he has been the best part of a year now with- out a winner. It has been a real struggle. But his owners have kept faith with a man who has always believed in making their racing fun. He does not see syndicates as a necessary evil but as racing's future and he bothers to an extent few others do with groups like the Dozen Dreamers, the Mug Club (`for people who like food and wine and not going racing too often'), and the Something for the Weekend set (I enquired no further!). `The owners are OK so long as they can take the mickey,' he says. And he has a nice line in self deprecation. 'If I were you, I'd take it away,' he tells them. But watch- ing him with his string, one chum Brendan Powell riding the promising hurdler Noble Lord and another, the Jockeys Association secretary Michael 'Corky' Caulfield on the big ex point-to-point Deep Refrain, the professionalism was obvious. This is a man deeply concerned with the health of his horses, a thinking trainer whose wry one- liners are a mask for his serious purpose.

Time Won't Wait is just back in and doesn't need too much work anyway. At eight he should be at his peak. The six- year-old Delight, who used to work with Alderbrook when with Kim Bailey, has potential, the ex-flat horse Zygo, his trainer assures me, 'has an enigma' and Brendan Powell clearly rates Noble Lord. This is a stable which simply has to return to win- ning ways. And most of his impression vic- tims will give a hearty cheer when one of the most likeable men in racing does lead in his next winner.

Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.