YOU know how important the draw is. Low at Chester, low at Sligo, high on soft ground at Haydock. Close to the pace.
On a good table.
The draw was kind to Richard Thompson and Willie Mullins at the Sir Peter O’Sullevan awards lunch in 2017. Drawn next to each other (close to the pace) and lots to discuss. The conversation meandered as it progressed, but inevitably it made its way towards National Hunt racing in Ireland, the quality of the racing, the depth, the prize money.
“I came away from the lunch thinking that it would be great to have National Hunt horses trained in Ireland,” recalls Richard now.
“And that they should race in the Cheveley Park Stud colours. A select group of young horses, concentrate on quality, not quantity, and that they should be trained by the top trainers there.”
Richard discussed it with his late father David, and a plan was hatched.
Of course, the Thompson family were not strangers to National Hunt racing at the time. Famously, David bought Party Politics as a birthday present for his wife Patricia on the eve of the 1992 Aintree Grand National, five days before a general election, and, well, if Carlsberg did birthday presents.
As well as winning the Grand National, the Politico gelding also went on to win the Greenalls Gold Cup and the Rehearsal Chase the following year, and he went back to Aintree three years after he had won the Grand National and, as an 11-year-old, finished second to Royal Athlete.
There were others. Roc De Prince finished down the field in Party Politics’ Grand National, but the Ted Walsh-trained gelding went to Punchestown three weeks later and won the Cox’s Cash & Carry Chase, the La Touche Cup, under Tony Martin.
There was Sounds Strong and Bluedonix, and Baronet, who won the Scottish National in 1998. But they all raced in Mrs Thompson’s colours, pink with purple crossbelts.
Up for it
“It was a new departure for Cheveley Park,” says Richard. “But my dad was up for it. Buy some young horses, good point-to-pointers, have them trained by the best trainers.”
Envoi Allen was bought at the Tattersalls Ireland Cheltenham Sale the following February, Ontheropes was bought at the Tattersalls Ireland Cheltenham Festival Sale that March. Malone Road was bought at the Goffs UK Aintree Sale in April 2018. They all went to either Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott.
Ferny Hollow was bought at the Tattersalls Cheltenham Sale in February 2019, Ballyadam at the Tattersalls Cheltenham Sale in November 2019, Sir Gerhard at the Tattersalls Cheltenham Sale in December 2019.
None of those horses were cheap but, if the objective was to assemble a team of high-class young equine athletes who could go on to be successful at the highest level of National Hunt racing, that objective was realised spectacularly.
“We got A Plus Tard through Alex Elliott,” says Richard, “and it was Alex who suggested Henry de Bromhead. So we had Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead training our horses.”
The Premier League of National Hunt trainers.
“Obviously, the reasons for taking our horses from Gordon have been well documented,” he says thoughtfully.
“It was just a decision that had to be made. There was a bigger picture at play. Gordon and I discussed it, and he understood that. But look, Gordon’s a young man and he’s a great trainer, and you never know what might happen in the future.”
The big-race wins started to roll. Envoi Allen and A Plus Tard and Ferny Hollow, Ballyadam and Quilixios and Allaho.
At the Cheltenham Festival last March, Sir Gerhard won the Champion Bumper and Quilixios won the Triumph Hurdle and Allaho pulverised his rivals in the Ryanair Chase.
They couldn’t be there of course, no owners allowed, that’s what behind closed doors was. Richard knew what he was missing though, having experienced it before, twice on the same day in 2020 too, Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Hurdle and Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper.
“Cheltenham is unique. Leading in a winner at Cheltenham, into that winner’s enclosure. So, to have a Group 1 winner on the flat, like Inspiral in the Fillies’ Mile, it’s fantastic, and it’s great for the future of the stud.
But in terms of atmosphere, a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, it’s a different experience. In that sense, I don’t think any flat meeting can beat Cheltenham.”
There was a National Hunt atmosphere too at Punchestown last Sunday week. Richard Thompson had never been to Punchestown before, he had never been to a National Hunt race meeting in Ireland before but, with big chances on the day, he took the opportunity to make his debut.
“I missed seeing Allaho at Cheltenham, so it was great to see him winning the John Durkan Chase on the Sunday. And Ferny Hollow in the beginners’ chase.
We went there with a lot of hope but, when you go racing, you have to be ready for disappointment. Envoi Allen was disappointing all right, but Allaho was brilliant. He was so gutsy. He just kept digging. And for Ferny Hollow to win on his return. It was a little frustrating not to have him for most of last season, but it was brilliant to see him back. And it was great that the family was there.”
Future plans are taking shape. Ferny Hollow to Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day for the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase; Envoi Allen dropping back down in trip; a short break for Allaho, definitely not the King George, and then building up to the Ryanair again, although maybe he’ll be given another chance at a longer distance at some stage.
“We’ve got big hopes for Ferny Hollow – he could be special, so with him and Envoi Allen, and A Plus Tard obviously going back to the Savills, it could be a lively one for us.”
“We have had 15 Grade 1 winners since March 2019,” says Richard. “And seven winners at the Cheltenham Festival. And this season, to have won a Betfair Chase at Haydock with A Plus Tard, and now a John Durkan Chase as well, and the season is only really getting going. We’re very lucky that we have some very nice horses.”
In truth, Richard Thompson has been around nice horses all his life. A football fan since he was eight, he was chairman of Queens Park Rangers Football Club when he was just 24. His dad took him to his first race meeting in 1975 when he was 11, which was the year that David and Patricia Thompson bought Cheveley Park Stud.
They built up the farm from a 270-acre farm that was in receivership, to the major player in the racing and bloodstock industry that it is today.
“Music Boy won the Gimcrack Stakes that year, in 1975, and he went on to stand as a stallion at the stud. 1975 was the year too of the Grundy v Bustino King George, that was incredible, and I was hooked from the start.”
The Cheveley Park Stud Group 1 winners flowed. Gay Gallanta and Exclusive and Regal Rose and Medicean.
Pivotal was born on the farm in 1993, the first foal by Polar Falcon, he won the King’s Stand Stakes and the Nunthorpe Stakes – he raced just six times, winning four times – before going on, of course, to become a hugely successful stallion.
Pivotal stood at Cheveley Park for 24 consecutive seasons, producing 32 individual Group 1 winners, and he was champion broodmare sire in Europe from 2017 to 2019. He was retired after the 2020 breeding season, and he died peacefully on the farm last month.
“Pivotal was an unbelievable horse,” says Richard. “We were so lucky to have had a horse like him.”
On the racecourse, on the flat, the 2021 season was a successful season for Cheveley Park Stud. Sacred won the Nell Gwyn Stakes early in the season and, after being beaten in the 1000 Guineas, dropped back down to seven furlongs in August and won the Hungerford Stakes.
Indie Angel won the Duke of Cambridge Stakes at Royal Ascot, and Inspiral looked an exceptional two-year-old. The John & Thady Gosden-trained filly raced four times in 2021 and won four times. She looked good in winning the Group 2 May Hill Stakes at Doncaster in September, and she looked even better winning the Group 1 Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket.
“The fact that Inspiral is a homebred filly, by Frankel, makes it all the more special. She was great this year, and we are looking forward to seeing how she goes next year.”
Dutch Art, Mayson, Twilight Son and Ulysses stand at Cheveley Park, while Unfortunately stands at Springfield House Stud in Tipperary. And there’s a balance to be struck between maintaining the strength of the operation, and making it commercially viable.
“We put between 40 and 45 fillies into training every year,” says Richard thoughtfully. “So we need to sell as well in order that it doesn’t get out of control. We were happy with the mares that we sold at the breeding stock sales this year. You need a passion for this game, but you also need a business acumen, financial judgement. My dad had all of that.” David Thompson passed away on December 29th last year.
“I miss my father lots,” says Richard. “I loved discussing everything with him, sport, racing, business. He was a great man. The last race he watched was the Savills Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival last year, when A Plus Tard got up close home to win it.
That was an unbelievable race, it was an incredible performance by A Plus Tard, and it was fitting that it was the last race that my father ever watched.”
Looks like Cheveley Park remains in good hands.
“My mother is the boss, she is the chairperson. She is very involved with the stud, and I have taken more of an interest since my father passed away.
“I spend quite a lot of time watching and learning. My sons take a big interest too. It was great to have the family there at Haydock when A Plus Tard won, and again at Punchestown. We’re looking forward to Christmas now, and to the rest of the season.”
Always looking to the future.