Obituary: Trevor Hemmings, racehorse owner and entrepreneur
Trevor Hemmings’ love of horses was born when, as a child, he was entrusted with the Chorley greengrocer’s cob – to whom he attached a cart of potatoes, dampened to increase their weight as they were sold by the pound.
There was something prophetic about his early memory, a young Hemmings – who has died at 86 – delighting in horses while sharpening the business acumen that would earn him a future somehow foretold by the name of his first equine love – the cob called Klondike.
It is certainly accurate to depict Hemming’s adult years as a ‘gold rush’ – but the circumstances of his early life were a world away from the billionaire businessman and three-time Grand National-winning owner he was to become.
Born in Woolwich in 1935, he was the working-class son of a Royal Ordnance factory worker, with the company’s Second World War relocation to Lancashire necessitating a family move to Leyland when he was five.
Hemmings witnessed his parents’ struggle to balance financial stresses with a determination to avoid debt – something which perhaps shaped his own principles.
On leaving Leyland Secondary Modern School at 15, he was faced with four employment options – Leyland Motors, working alongside his parents at the Royal Ordnance factory, the declining weaving mills or the police force. Instead, he went to night school at Lancashire College to study business, alongside a variety of daytime roles, such as cleaning diesel trains and boiler-making, before beginning an apprenticeship in building.
From there, he forged a lucrative path in the construction trade – first profiting from house-building before forming an alliance with Fred Pontin and the expansion of Pontins Holiday Parks.
Gaining a seat on the Pontins board, Hemmings negotiated the partial sale of the company to the bookmaker Coral, in return for 500,000 shares in their business.
Coral later lost its casino gaming licences and the value of those shares plummeted. But in 2000, Hemmings bought the company back from Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, then sold it on a second time at a price of £46m.
That business acumen was serving him well, including as a one-time majority shareholder in Center Parcs, introduced to Britain by Scottish and Newcastle.
Also in the millennial year, Hemmings spent £100m on 361 pubs previously owned by S&N and acquired the leisure division of the retailer Littlewoods for £161m.
But the portfolio was not done yet, for Hemmings had big plans for Blackpool, buying town-centre land including the famous tower and Winter Gardens.
His hopes to build a Las Vegas-style ‘supercasino’ at the tower foundered on the absence of Government approval, but in 2010, he Hemmings bought the financially-troubled Preston North End Football Club.
After decades of investment and trading, at the age of 85 in 2020, Hemmings’ wealth was reported to total £1.02bn.
Yet throughout, alongside the mammoth work ethic, his love of horseracing was preeminent.
His first Grand National triumph came in 2005, when the Willie Mullins-trained 7-1 favourite Hedgehunter surged clear by 14 lengths under Ruby Walsh.
Hemmings described it as “the happiest day of my life with the horses” – and one he felt would never be repeated. He was wrong, though – because in 2011, the Donald McCain-trained Ballabriggs gave him his second National success.
Hemmings’ third win over the Aintree fences was provided by one of his classiest performers, Many Clouds, trained in Lambourn by Oliver Sherwood.
A winner on his bumper and chase debuts, Many Clouds landed the Listed Colin Parker Chase at Carlisle – following up with a three-and-a-quarter-length success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.
Many Clouds could finish only 16th in the 2016 National, but tenaciously recovered his form to win again at Aintree the following December, this time on the Mildmay Course.
Then came a January day at Cheltenham which presented the triumph and tragedy of National Hunt racing in the space of seconds as Many Clouds produced a remarkable performance to beat previously unbeaten top-class chaser Thistlecrack by a head.
Yet then, after the most gruelling of uphill finishes to the Cotswold Chase, the 10-year-old tragically collapsed on the Cheltenham turf and died.
At his peak, Many Clouds held a rating of 167, just a pound below the rating achieved by Hemmings’ three-time Cheltenham Festival winner Albertas Run.
As the pandemic took its toll on leisure-industry finances last year, Hemmings announced he would be dialling down his investment in racing.
He vowed to keep around 25 horses in training, a relative handful compared to previous years when he would have a team of more than 100 in his famous yellow-and-green quarters.
“It’s an expensive hobby, and I don’t know how much I’m writing off exactly. Perhaps I wouldn’t want to do it if I knew,” he said.
He sent his horses to dozens of trainers over the years but enjoyed his most regular success with Sue Smith, based at High Eldwick on the West Riding moors above Bingley. They shared 131 winners from more than 800 runners.
His philanthropic contributions were never made public, save for his funding of Preston’s SAFE centre for victims of sexual violence, but there were hints of a silent largesse at work.
Zara Phillips’ event horse High Kingdom, on whom she won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games, was owned by Hemmings and given the stable name ‘Trev’ – a hint at the rider’s fondness for the man himself.
Nor did he ever forget where he came from, his business interests always mirroring working class roots.
His investments in pubs, British holiday parks, football clubs and neglected northern towns suggested his attention never strayed too far from erstwhile peers.
Beginning with so little, his sound investments and industry accrued massive wealth, yet he remained unknown to the average person.
He and his wife, Eve, had three sons and a daughter.