DAVID GRIFFITHS already has an impressive list of achievements to name. He rode superstar sprinter Lochsong on the gallops for Royal trainer Ian Balding; his successes as a journeyman jockey included a famous triumph in the Queen’s regal colours and he has played a key role in the careers of young riders like Classic-winning jockey William Buick.
He has also recovered from a broken neck – he did not realise the extent, or seriousness, of his injury for several hours – to forge a successful career as an up-and-coming trainer at Bawtry at the family-run stables that he runs with his wife Sophie and four members of staff. Yet these highs, and lows, will be eclipsed if Take Cover is the fastest horse at next week’s Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival.
The anticipation ahead of Friday’s Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes – first prize £150,000 – is tangible. Like his trainer, Take Cover is an unheralded horse who heads to York in the form of his life after winning the John Smith’s City Wall Stakes on Knavesmire before providing the yard with its most significant win yet in the Group Two King George Stakes at Glorious Goodwood.
In this regard, horse and handler are made for each other and Griffiths will leave nothing to chance when Take Cover does his final major piece of work on the gallops this morning. He will ride his stable star himself, despite the lingering stiffness in his neck. “Just a little spin, a pipe-opener over four furlongs at half-speed. Mind, it will be fast enough,” says the trainer who is determined to show that the smaller yards, the lifeblood of racing, can still compete against the Flat’s high-rollers.
The 40-year-old has come a long way since his formative years show-jumping and hunting in the Cheshire countryside. He left home at 16 to join the riding school at Newmarket before being apprenticed with the then Royal trainer Ian Balding (father of TV’s Clare).
Balding’s precision and professionalism left a lasting impression, though Griffiths was rather surprised to be asked to ride out Lochsong who would become the first lady of sprinting and win a host of Group One racings including the 1993 Nunthorpe.
“I used to ride Lochsong a little bit before anyone found she was that good,” muses the trainer. “To be around top horses, you don’t forget things like that, the attention to detail.”
As well as riding for top owners like Paul Mellon, of Mill Reef fame, and also George Strawbridge, there was the small matter of Griffiths winning a modest maiden at Nottingham on June 6, 1994.
Just one of 100 successes in the saddle, it is the most memorable because the winner, Mountain Ballet, was owned by The Queen and beat Anzum, who would subsequently provide Richard Johnson, the second winning-most jump jockey of all time, with his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival.
“Unbelievable, I was only 20 at the time. Just to wear Her Majesty’s silks, it was a privilege. Perhaps she’ll remember and send a horse to us to be trained!”
In search of further opportunities, Griffiths worked for the late Reg Hollinshead and even had a brief dalliance with National Hunt racing. It did not last. “My weight was a bit funny but I soon got it back down.”
Yet his riding career would soon end in freak circumstances. He was riding on the gallops when a horse lost its cool, bucked, reared up and smacked its head against the jockey’s neck. At first, Griffiths thought he had escaped with just a dull ache. Several hours later, he finally decided to venture to A&E as a precaution before being told that he had suffered a serious fracture and had to wear a special contraption for many months to stabilise his neck.
His riding career over, Griffiths became a pundit for Leeds-based William Hill Radio, teamed up with Thirsk trainer David Barron and then became a highly-respected jockey coach at Doncaster’s Northern Racing College where he recalls meeting a young William Buick for the first time.
“Martin Dwyer, the Derby-winning jockey, called – he was riding for Ian Balding’s son Andrew – and said they were sending up a young lad who they thought was a bit special and could I look after him? It was William, he was five foot tall, six-stone wet through and 16. Martin was right, he was special. He was only with us a short time, he was that good, but you do feel a small sense of achievement when he wins a big Group One.”
From then, Griffiths took the gamble and decided to build a purpose-built yard with the support of father-in-law Garry Noble, who died shortly afterwards from a heart attack at just 50. His memory lives on thanks to a burgeoning yard which has 20 horses at present, 49 winners to its name and the support of owners like Andrew Hollis, of Norcroft Park Stud in Mansfield, who chose to entrust Take Cover with a rookie trainer.
Griffiths takes up the story. “Andrew rang me three years ago to come and see the yard. It was only our second season and we were having a few winners. We always thought he was very fast. As he has got older, he has settled down and isn’t so keen. When he’s not racing, he’s a different animal. He’s like a 20-year-old pony, very placid out in the paddock having a pick of grass.
“We always thought he was very smart and then he won at Haydock in 2012. He has a long break at the end of each season and we give him plenty of time.
“He was eighth in the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot first time out – he hadn’t raced since last November. As everyone then saw at York and Goodwood, he is phenomenally fast.
“At Goodwood, I told Andrea Atzeni (jockey) not to panic if someone was in front of us early doors because I was certain they wouldn’t be able to last out. I’m also pleased Andrea is available for the Nunthorpe. He’s having a great year. He listens to what trainers have to say but he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks. He’s two from two on the horse.
“After the King George, I had about 100 text messages and 50 voicemails on the trip home, it was quite surreal. The yard is buzzing and everyone is looking forward to York. It’s our first runner at the Ebor meeting. It’s brilliant for the owners and brilliant for members of the team.
“As a trainer, you have to realise there are not as many good days as bad days. You can’t have winners every day. You really have to appreciate every winner you do have, whether it be a seller at Wolverhampton or a Group race. It’s just nice to take on the big boys at York and have a chance against Europe’s top sprinters. Take Cover deserves his place in a quality line-up.”
So, too, does his young trainer.