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An Interview with Max Comley - point-to-point trainer

Max Comley has successfully trained pointers in the Cotswolds since the 2019-20 season, his first runners preceding the coronavirus pandemic by only a few weeks. He did not allow the abandonments and lockdowns to ruin what he had started. Turning those stagnant months into something positive by tweaking his training methods, taking in breakers and pre-trainers and making improvements.

‘I’m situated in a good part of the world,’ says Max. ‘We have all this racing nearby, and friendly neighbours let us use their gallops.’ As well as having their private gallop, Max’s string hire Nigel Twiston-Davies’ and Martin Keighley’s mile for ‘serious pieces of work’. ‘Both are a change of scenery and just down the road,’ Max, 25, justifies the away days.

Max lives in the picturesque village of Naunton, a hundred yards from his base at Brockhill Lodge, which was purpose built and brand new when Max took a small number of horses into its barns. Girlfriend Elen Wylie is very involved with the yard and together they have grafted into the top ranks of the amateur division. Yet, it’s evident that there’s a lot more to come in the future. Did you have a horsey childhood? My parents both do office jobs so I wasn’t from a horsey background. I started riding when I was about four when I was dragged along to my sister’s riding lessons. She’s been terrified of animals ever since, whereas I’ve always loved it. What’s your first racing memory? I grew up in walking distance from Cheltenham Racecourse and, once I’d caught the riding bug, my dad took me for a walk around the edge of the racecourse – he’d never pay for us to go in! We watched the horses go past for ten seconds and watch them again, then wait half an hour for the next race and do exactly the same!

How did you get into racing? Up the road from where I grew up, there was a small point-to-point trainer. He only had two to three pointers and hunters. When I was about ten, I used to go up there before and after school. I’d muck out the boxes in return for riding out his horses at weekends and school holidays.

Were you a jockey? My childhood dream was to be a professional jockey but I was too tall and too heavy (even at sixteen I was between ten and a half to eleven stone) so I admitted defeat and went down the point-to-point route.

Which trainers have you worked for and in which roles? When I finished school at sixteen, I went to James Evans’ full time for that summer. He was busy all year round as he trained over Flat and jumps. Once the new jump season kicked off, I joined Kim Bailey, staying for three seasons.

From there, I went to Dave and Julia Mansell in Corse Lawn, Gloucestershire and did everything from pointers to sheep. Once, after getting smashed up in a race, I didn’t take any sick leave but did the tractor driving, rolling the fields instead of doing the horses. It was a good job; good fun and a good leg up as I was passed rides that Dave didn’t want. I got used to riding different types of horses and won the Novice Rider’s Championship in 2019. For that season, I’d also gone freelance, still riding out for Dave but also for Ryan Potter, Simon Lewis, Mike Daniels and Hannah Lewis so I got quite a few rides. I stopped riding then because I seemed to be getting taller, broader and heavier every day. Trying to keep my weight at eleven stone was turning out to be hard work and unhealthy.

How did you begin training? I never sat down and decided to start training but I’d moved house to Rendcomb, near Cirencester and next door, there was a small yard. I’d had a leg in a horse with a few friends and finishing race riding meant I found myself at a loose end. I was riding out for Kim Bailey and Martin Keighley but I didn’t really know what to do. I said I’d train our horse before and after work for a bit of fun, to keep me busy and keep my foot in the door. I had no intention of training but our horse ran well and more friends and owners I’d once ridden for said they’d put horses with me.

I bought Knockaderry Flyer and set up a syndicate and it all went from there. He started running well and I was sent those horses I’d been promised. Two horses turned to four and before we knew it, we’d outgrown that yard.

As well as that, I was doing a bit of team chasing, and bumped into a chap called Neil O’Hara, who also loved his team chasing. After mentioning I was at a crossroads as to whether to carrying on training about four or more, he said he was building a yard in Naunton, that he’d definitely accommodate us with boxes and a gallop. He couldn’t have been more helpful and it has proved a good training base.

Has training been a learning curve? It has been a big learning curve. After moving here, we had a few hiccups and it took a while to learn how to use the gallop. Then, it was covid year and there was only three months of the season before lockdown. It was the worst time to start up a serious business but we got through with lots of support from people, especially owners.

We adapted to the new place and that time without the pressures of racing did us a lot of good, getting through the teething problems. We had lots of pre-trainers, breakers and youngsters and we learnt to get them fit to a certain degree but not race fit, learning what we can and can’t do on our gallops. We also bettered our schooling ground, and increased its friendliness for young horses, which became the bulk of our business. We now give youngsters the best education with the best facilities. We worked on all the little things: building a schooling lane and fencing round the outdoor school. It was time well spent.

Favourite racecourse under Rules: I used to like Towcester but that doesn’t exist anymore so it’s Southwell, which is a very fair track and Cheltenham is the obvious one as I grew up round there.

Favourite racecourse between the Flags: Andoversford – I thought I used to ride it quite well and we’ve trained a few winners round there. It’s a nice course to have on our doorstep; a quirky one that suits quirky horses. Sadly, it doesn’t have the best racing or biggest fields, never getting the support it deserves. They’ve done lots to improve what used to be patchy ground and the fixture is now later so it takes the weather better – the going is fairly even now, no longer ranging from bottomless to quick on the same day.

Horse you’d most like to train: I love two milers so something like Masterminded or Sprinter Sacre is my dream horse. I followed Al Ferof through his years at Paul Nicholls’ and Dan Skelton’s – he was my ultimate favourite growing up.

Race you’d most like to train the winner of: Cheltenham Gold Cup – that’s the one everyone wants.

What do you love about pointing? Under Rules is very professional and polished but pointing is more agricultural and laidback. I love the friendly atmosphere; people go because they love the racing – they’re not there to get drunk like many spectators on racecourses. Pointing is a community; it’s about being round horse people.

What aspects of pointing could be improved? With pointing and the sales aspect, I’ve always thought that the UK is five years behind Ireland – a winner of an Irish point is making at least four times as much than a winner from here. We’re slowly catching up but we should do more to push English pointing to generate money. The sales companies could sponsor more races and encourage more young horses coming up through as, I think, that’s where a positive future lies. The older horses are fantastic and pointing serves their purpose, like my former Knockaderry Flyer who was too high in the handicap and won four points, but there’s no money to be made in them for trainers, whereas money could be made from the younger ones.

Another thing that puts people off, apart from prize money, is not being able to get a recording of a point-to-point for a week. It seems silly that we can put a man on the moon but can’t get a video sooner. Peter Wright, who runs pointing, does a brilliant job but certain modern developments during covid gave the impetuous of change but it’s gone backwards.

In your opinion, is there a future in pointing? There’s definitely a place for it – it’s the grassroots of racing where young jockeys and horses learn their trades. At the moment, it isn’t sustainable and that’s why meetings are being lost. To keep it going means changing the way pointing is branded; to keep it moving forward with the times. Live screenings and encouraging more viewers are vital. I don’t think either would stop people from attending and paying that vital entry fee but further interest would be generated. Pointing is shooting itself in the foot by not pushing itself to a wider audience.

What trainer do you admire the most? Laura Morgan is fantastic and definitely one to watch for the future. Paul Nicholls is an obvious choice for the way he campaigns his horses and runs his operation. I’d love to be half as good as him and have half his horsepower. The way he trains is amazing and he’s a cracking bloke.

What are your plans for the future? To definitely train under Rules. Pointing is great but unless you’re a big sales yard, it’s hard to make your way. It’s difficult to create owners’ enthusiasm when you’re running round for £300 in a Mens’ Opens against former 140-rated horses. It costs the same to train a pointer as under Rules but for lesser reward.

Also, as soon as we get licensed, we’ll get a lot more support from owners. We know people who have previously been owners but are now unwilling because of the low prize money in pointing.

Favourite meal: Roast lamb.

Favourite drink: Black coffee.

Favourite snack: I’ve got a sweet tooth so any chocolate, cake or sweets.

Ideal night out: in my younger days, it would’ve been 21 Club in Cheltenham but it’s now closed. So, probably now, it’s a good meal down the Plough Inn at Ford.

Favourite movie: Chicken Run.

Favourite music: My music taste is so varied so anything really, but James Blunt is my favourite.

Other interests: I don’t have time for many hobbies but I try to do a few things away from horses. A couple of years ago, I learnt to play the piano, which I do so badly but it’s a bit of fun, and in the summer, I do a bit of rowing.

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