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The hillside Welsh horse-whisperer who took on the major trainers… and won

Dai Burchell recently rode off into the sunset, but not before one of Welsh horse racing’s greatest characters dispensed some advice for those left behind.

The legendary trainer – who turned 85 on February 4 – went out with yet another winner.

The aptly named Good Impression won a two-mile novice handicap hurdle at Fakenham to give Dai his 435th career victory.

Now, though, he has handed back his trainer’s licence and the duty or preparing Welsh racehorses for courses around the UK has fallen to others.

Listening to Dai talk horses at his kitchen table, alongside his wife and assistant trainer Ruth, it is easy to be seduced into thinking he is some sort of benevolent Welsh horse whisperer, offering only gentle hands and soothing words as he works his magic.

But then he grabs you back into the real world, with a start, by stating: “A horse is a tool to do a job of work with. That’s all.

“It’s Ruth who hands out the hugs and polo mints. Training horses to win races is more than getting to know them. You have to shape them and that’s what we do.”

Up on Briery Hill, a windswept hillside just above Ebbw Vale, Dai has been shaping hundreds of horses for half a century – even since he left the furnaces in the town’s local steel works at the age of 35.

Since then, the furnaces have long since cooled, but the same could never be said of the former worker’s love of training horses and even fiercer passion for winning with them.

His interest in horses, he says, was there as a child but intensified when he was a teenager and attended the local shows around Monmouthshire.

“We used to go to the Monmouth show at the end of August. They had three galloping races there. My friend, Archie Bull, his horse won and I thought, ‘I want to have a go at that.’ That’s how it started.”

In not only the pre-internet age, but even before regular televised coverage of racing, if you wanted to learn how to do something, there was only one place to start.

“I had a friend, John Watkins, who showed me you could learn from going to the library and getting a book out. He got one out on race courses and that’s how we learned about Chepstow.”

With the help of his friend, Dai began as a nervous, novice jockey.

“We used to walk the course and he would explain where I needed to be to get to the front. ‘Now, kid,’ he used to say. ‘This is where you need to be. When you reach this point, you need to be hitting the front.’

“Well, I remember coming to the last hurdle in one race, I said to the horse, ‘We haven’t got time to take this hurdle, we’ll have to go through it.

“We used to be fearless gamblers, too. If we brought home four pounds pay from the works, you’d give you mother half and bet with the other half.”

His career as a jockey never really took off and although he won four winners, it was training at which others discovered he excelled.

For years, he combined it – off and on – with his job as a steelworker until one day in his mid-thirties he was urged by a local bookmaker to take the redundancy money on offer and give training his full attention.

That was in 1972. After 10 years spent training under permit, he was given a full trainer’s licence in 1982, a year before Ruth joined him as his assistant.

Their first big success came the following year, 1983, when he had a double at Bangor with Kilsyth – one of the couple’s favourite horses – and Beaming Lass.

“That horse (Kilsyth) came to us and I thought, ‘how haven’t they won with this?’ I told the owner, ‘You need put a thousand quid on this horse!

“He said, ‘now steady on, boy’ but I knew what I had in that horse. I put a hundred quid on him and he won at 20-1. We went back a month later and I won again.”

The winners started to accumulate, even though their epic journeys across the land with a heavy horsebox often left them empty-handed.

“We lived according to our means. We worked hard and it just progressed from there.

“We won £2,000 in our second year. Well, you could buy a house in the street for that in those days.”

Few could believe that a trainer operating on the side of a mountain in the Welsh Valleys, with a handful of local horses, could possibly compete with the bigger, grander yards across the border.

But then Dai drove his horsebox all the way to Perth and landed three winners – with a close second in a fourth race – and the sceptics started to take note.

“Owners just couldn’t believe we could train horses here,” he says.

Neither could the media. The film crews and the interviewers – including Richard Pitman – made their way to Briery Hill, where Ruth would welcome them with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, and the search for the trainer’s secrets would began.

He reckons some of that know-how was picked up as a boy, riding ponies bareback over the mountains when his mother thought Dai was at school.

Other times, he just listened hard and paid attention.

“Bill Morgan was a horse trainer who used to help me,” says Dai of one of those he admired.

“He used to say, ‘Anyone can get a horse fit, but it’s how you prepare them in the last three or four days before a race that matters. That’s what wins you the race.’

“It’s about getting to know your horse. We’ve had some lovely owners here but some of them just won’t take advice. You tell them what should be happening but they don’t listen.

“We had a horse here once, I said to the owner, ‘This horse can go to Ascot and win a race there, 2 mile six furlong.’ Instead, he took him home and put him in the field. We got him to win at Ludlow instead.

“We used to have about 12 winners a year, no problem. But when I started there were only about six main trainers. Now, there must be 40.

“We’re on the outskirts and everyone of those can train horses, so it’s hard.”

Aside from the trebles at Perth and Southwell, the doubles all over the country, the three winners at Cheltenham, there have been many favourite horses along the way, such as Wadada, a bay owned by Ruth that won at Chepstow, Southwell, Bath, Worcester, Plumpton and Fontwell Park.

There have been the long line of Welsh jockeys given a helping hand along the way, such as Christian Williams, Nicky Williams, Lee Stevens, Rhys Hughes, Dean Coleman and Emily Jones.

There was also the Happy Retirement Dai Burchell Novices Hurdle, run in his honour, at Chepstow at the start of the year.

But,mostly there have been the stories and the memories that will keep both Dai and Ruth smiling into their retirement.

Is he looking forward to stopping, 20 years beyond pensionabale age?

“Yes and no. I get up early. I am awake at half past four, then out the back at 10 past five to feed the horses. I do that every morning.

“But I haven’t got as much energy as I used to have. I’m thinking okay and dreaming okay, but my energy is going. My legs feel as though they’re not joined to anything anymore and I don’t stand, I lean.”

So, apart from race tips, what else does 50 years of wisdom give you?

“Ryan Price was a character and he gave me some good advice I’ll pass on to trainers. He said have plenty of cobwebs to catch the flies.

“It’s no good keeping a horse in too much luxury because once he goes out, he’ll catch everything.

“It’s a safer sport than it was with animal rights and all the rest of it, but we all have different opinions. All-weather racing has spoiled racing a bit for me. It means there is too much racing these days.

“You also need a computer these days and we’re not the computer generation.”

The other piece of advice? Trust jockeys. At least sometimes.

“John Williams was a good jockey,” says Dai.

“He used to sit and sit in races. He rode a horse at Warwick over five furlongs, was two lengths down, and won it by two lengths at 50-1. ‘When did you think you’d won it, John? I asked him. As soon as the gates, opened, he said.”

The gates are closing now for Dai Burchell, but maybe not for the family.

Ruth and their daughter, Kate, are intending to have a livery yard and the training gene may yet be passed on.

Dai says he will enjoy a month off before sorting out the stables.

“It’s a big job. There’s a lot of cobwebs there after 40 years.”

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