The Racing Life of Mike Edwards
Updated: May 16
‘I had great times in a great area.’ Michael Edwards reflects on his years living in the North Cotswolds, right in the middle of a number of famous racing yards. Not quite the epicentres of Newmarket or Lambourn but nonetheless in the thick of the sport he grew to love.
‘I've also had a great life. I loved living surrounded by all the racing round Guiting Power – there were Grand Nationals and Gold Cups won by local horses, including when Nigel Twiston-Davies brought his three winners down to The Hollow Bottom the next day and blocking the road. Not all the locals appreciated it, but I always did.'
Known to all as Mike, he was born and bred in Cheltenham. As well as racing, he has made a living out of being a sports travel consultant and organising tour groups. ‘In my younger days, I travelled the world especially with the rugby union and cricket. I'm lucky to have made a living out of sports administration.’
He has had a full life too: he was the chairman of Gloucester Cricket Association for five years and has only recently retired from being the fixture secretary at Cheltenham Rugby Club after thirty-eight years. He was also a churchwarden for twenty-one years.
Yet, horseracing takes precedence. Mike lights up, a firefly of racing memories. He vividly talks about working in the racing yards of yesteryear. ‘I remember when David Nicholson was still stable jockey at Chris Taylor’s and then he started to train at Condicote as Chris retired. The Duke came and bought a lot of the tack. He gave me a tenner for helping him, which was a week’s wages then’.
Mike (leading up in photo right) looked after a big chaser called Norther, a winner of the 1965 Welsh National when trained previously by Taffy Jenkins, who ran in the ‘67 Aintree Grand National, which was famously won by Foinavon after a big pile-up caused by Norther refusing up at the twenty-third fence. ‘Norther came to us as a horse who was finished but Chris Taylor turned him around. He put copper blade bracelets on his legs and that helped his arthritis. He won two races for us, one at Southwell and the other at Uttoxeter, and now I wear the same copper bracelets to help me.’
Smiling abundantly, Mike is lost in the memories and creates a picture as clear as any painting. ‘As lads, we had one day off a week,’ he reminisces over his many roles within the racing. He’s ridden out racehorses, looked after them at home, led them at the races; he’s even trained his own point-to-pointers and has ‘done his bit for ROR’ by rehoming, loaning out and even personally caring for his retired racehorses. Mike emphasises that his love for racehorses is as strong as in his days when working in the yards. Nowadays, his work often finds him near the Newmarket he loves. ‘When there, I often park up and watch the strings go up Warren Hill and the other gallops just to see such magnificent horses. I try to go to Leopardstown and Punchestown and always get up early to watch the strings on The Curragh for the same reason. I love seeing quality horses, especially Derby horses.’
Mike, 77, was never a jockey but rode out regularly, remembering boxing up two-year-olds onto Cleeve Hill. His weight eventually got the better of him and he went to work for Rosie Hambro in a small stud in Guiting Power, where he lived for a further thirty-six years.
By now, Mike has left the Cotswolds but still resides in Gloucestershire, having moved to Mickleton. Mike met wife Julia, a Londoner, at a disco. She’d grown up next door to the former Alexandra Park Racecourse and is a retired nurse. They have three daughters Verity, Kim and Rowena, two grandsons, Connor and Rohan, and a pointer-type rescue dog called Audrey. In the oblong garden of Mike and Julia’s cosy home is a small shed filled with books, curios and mementos. Pinned onto one wall are many photographs that sum up every angle of Mike’s racing life: sepia, grainy ones of him leading up alongside the all-colour versions of racehorses winning in his own colours.
Did you have a horsey childhood? Not at all. I had no contact with horses but I was interested in horse racing on the TV; our early TV was black and white so that’s how my mad interest in horse racing grew. I played cricket and football, and rugby when I grew a bit older, so I’ve always loved sport.
How did you get into racing? My Family moved to Cambray in the centre of Cheltenham Town and across the road was a car dealer called Geoff Turk. He trained a few racehorses from the stables at the rear of Whittington Manor. Every day, I rode my bicycle from the town down the A40, which was very quiet in those days, and I met the head lad, Alan Bryant.
Before that day, the only horse I touched was the milkman's horse. Alan showed me round and showed me how to pick out the horses’ feet. I’ve never forgotten that as I picked out the hooves, I felt the happiest that I’d ever felt before in my life. I was so thrilled that I was touching a racehorse! I started going there regularly and, looking back, I owe it all to Alan – he really encouraged me from that early age. I started going there regularly and when I left school, I wanted to get a job full time so I rang up bigger trainers. I went to a bloke called Chris Taylor, an old Etonian who was all Sir and Madam, in keeping with the military style of horseracing at the time. To get there, I rode my bike out to Bishops Cleeve; I was 16 or 17, six foot tall and hairpin thin, weighing about nine stone.
Which trainers did you work for? I worked for Chris Taylor for about twelve years, starting at the bottom of the pile and ending up as his head lad. I remember when I started there, there was a girl who was working in the yard for about six weeks called Jenny Harvey, who later married the jockey Richard Pitman and became Jenny Pitman. I remember Richard coming on his bike to chat her up whilst he worked for John Roberts in Prestbury.
After Chris Taylor finished training, I worked for two years for Tim Horgan; he was an Irish horse dealer up at Woodmancote. We worked with every kind of horse imaginable from ponies to top class horses. It was a great experience that I enjoyed at the time.
I also did a bit of riding out for Bill Denson and later on, I went to work mornings for Colonel Gibson. He trained at the Ham down in Charlton Kings and he was the first in the area to have a swimming pool for horses. We swam horses there all the time and I never forgotten Persian War being there for rehabilitation. He was a three-time Champion Hurdle winner and second on his fourth attempt. He was probably the greatest horse I've ever touched in my life. What a cracker he was, a lovely chap: he never made the racecourse again. To be honest, it was a blessing because he was worn out. Whilst working there, I met some very very nice people, who all eventually went off to work in racing all round different areas of the country.
Towards the end at Chris Taylor's, his wife Sarah got me a couple of interviews in senior posts. One was with John Edwards’ in Herefordshire and the other was head travelling lad for Peter Walwyn, who was just starting up then. But, being a home bird and a mummy's boy, I didn't go to any of those interviews. I went to Rupert Ward in Minchinhampton as a head lad for four or five years.
I then moved to Sue Richardson but I was very part time and left racing soon after.
Ally Stirling on Kilbeggan Blade
Which racecourse is your favourite? I'm a traditionalist and my favourite racecourse, despite living in Cheltenham, is Newmarket – there's nowhere like it, I like both to Rowley Mile and July courses.
Which is your favourite racecourse that has shut? I do remember Birmingham quite affectionately and I did like ‘Ally Pally’, the old Alexandra Park for the great atmosphere during its evening racing. I went to a lot of them that are now closed – Wye in Kent; Manchester; Hurst Park down by the river was one of the London tracks where the stands are still there but falling down; even Folkestone.
Which was your favourite famous racehorse? Mill House – the finest looking chaser I've ever seen in my life. I saw him win his Cheltenham Gold Cup and his Hennessy, when he beat Arkle out of sight. One thing that sticks in the memory will always be seeing him out hunting in his retirement; he was still a great horse and flying the fences.
Which was your favourite racehorse that you looked after? Barnie Beatle, a cracking little horse and the only one to win for me at Cheltenham and Aintree. In fact, he was the first ever winner I led up: he won on the Flat at Warwick and the Aylesford Maiden Plate, ridden by Taffy Thomas. I can't remember the exact year, but it would have been about 1963-4.
What was your favourite part of working in racing? In my days as a lad, it was definitely going to the races but nowadays having been an owner, the worst part is going to the races! I'm worried to death about my runner, I'm actually more worried about what will happen to them than about if they will win.
What do you remember about the Cheltenham area during your time working in racing? I had a great time: the racing scene round Cheltenham was brilliant. John Roberts is the only trainer to send out a Gold Cup winner from the boundary of Cheltenham. There have been others from around the area but no one else from within Cheltenham. He trained from Mill Lane on the edge of Prestbury but sadly, it’s now been built on.
It was a great area for racing legends. There were Owen O'Neill, Johnny Gilbert, John Roberts and Frenchie Nicholson, who always had a young lad as an assistant trainer. In order, they were Brough Scott, Michael Dickinson and Mouse Morris. He always had a lot of great apprentices too, including Pat Eddery before he was famous and Paul Cook, who was a local boy who went on to be a top jockey. Another one, Tony Murray was a quiet lad but a really good friend of mine. These men went on to win Derbies and train Gold Cup winners but before that, we used to go to the local dance place, The Blue Moon. I remember Frenchie Nicholson coming one night to check if it was a suitable place for his lads to go to!
What is the inspiration behind your design of racing silks? My colours were chosen by a well-known guy in Cheltenham sporting circles, Peter Jubb. We were in partnership together with the horse Master Jubb, along with former England Rugby International player Mike Rafter. Peter was a mad Cheltenham Town FC supporter and the colours are red and white stripes, the same as the Club’s.
Which racehorses have you owned? Kilbeggan Blade was definitely the best, Boher Lad and Master Jubb all won. Halexy, who was once owned by Sir Robert Ogden, was a fine horse though he never raced for me – he was all ready to go but an old injury returned and he got a leg the day before he was due to run. He was a real family horse and would run away with Verity up Caroline Hicks' gallop but always stopped at the top. I owned him till he died of a heart attack in the field at the age of 24.
Now, I have a share in Elfride, a young horse with Richard Phillips and am also in partnership called the Dozen Dreamers, owning Corrany, which is a charity syndicate raising money for the Motor Neaurone Disease Association. My days of sole ownership are over. It's now more about yard visits and the social. Richard Phillips’ is a good yard for that – I can go weekly and watch the horses on the gallops. Richard is great to talk to and is mad on the history side of racing and all the stories.
Boher Lad winning under Charlie Todd
Which have been your favourite winners as an owner? My wins under National Hunt Rules have been great but Kilbeggan Blade winning that point-to-point Grand National in 2012. It gave me so much pleasure. Ally Stirling rode him and it was a turning point in my opinion on women jockeys. After that, I was more than happy to have them riding and I became less old fashioned in my outlook.
How has racing changed over time? A lot. I’d dread to go to Cheltenham Racecourse in March now and seeing all the corporate stuff. I love, say, Ludlow on a Monday and being in a farming crowd. I even miss racing being run by the autocratic, ex-military like it was when I was young. Now, it's too many people having a say in ridiculous decisions, whereas it used to be very clear cut. From a spectator’s point of view, there are too many people there with drink and drugs adding to the negative corporate side. I do realise it's gone that way to bring in the money and save racing, however it's a shame.
I don't go to Cheltenham Festival anymore because of that. I first went to a Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1960 when Pas Seul won and went to fifty consecutive Gold Cups, excluding three when it was abandoned due to snow and foot and mouth and that sort of thing. I may go to the other meetings at Cheltenham but not the Festival; it's too busy and now too spoilt. I miss the Irish priests who used to go, wearing their collars. Back then, it was very much more traditional.
The layout of the racecourse is different now: the four-miler used to go round the back of the stands where the car park is now. They used to come down where the Hunter’s Lodge has been built and back onto the racecourse and the Champion Hurdle used come right in front of the stands and go round. There was a big farm in the middle with polo grounds. I wasn't keen on the cross-country course at first but now, I think it's been a fantastic addition.
The feeding was so different and was an art. We used to grind oats and work the chaff cutter. There were no nuts until the end of my career in racing. We fed a lot of broad bran, mashes, linseed: you knew what was going into the horses then. I remember there were lots of additives too and reps from Day, Son and Hewitt would come round selling them; they were all ex-racing people with a lot of experience.
I remember the time before all-weather gallops, there were grass gallops up on Cleeve Hill. A gallop man had a shed by one of the pylons and every morning, he’d mark out with pieces of fern where to gallop. Yet, he only lasted for a couple of years before the Racecourse put in a gallop in its centre.
Who was your racing hero? Fulke Walwyn because his horses always looked magnificent and were so fit.
Nowadays, I always admired Davy Russell and Sean Bowen who is a real horseman, a really nice chap and from a big racing family. Stan Sheppard and Charlie Todd both of whom won three on Boher Lad. Both are excellent jockeys, and are well-driven, brilliant young lads.
What do you like about being an owner at Richard Phillips'? I’m so involved with the whole yard, everyone knows you and talks to you, Richard is a master of public relations and he's very knowledgeable and a good communicator.
What has been your best day is racing? My ambition was to have a runner in the Newmarket Town Plate and I ran my horse Boher Lad in it in 2016. Alan Phillips, the former trainer, trained and rode him and they finished sixth. The Sheikh from Qatar won it and it was rumoured his average income was £200 billion a year. Mine was obviously nothing like that but to rub shoulders in the Newmarket paddock with the likes of him was really my dream come true. I've been able to tick that off now.
We made a real day of it. Verity, my eldest daughter, came in high heels and had to take them off halfway through the afternoon because she was falling all over the place. Everyone thought she was my much-younger girlfriend!
Mike with daughter Verity