Weekend Interview: Thousand reasons for Brian Ellison to celebrate

Veteran Brian Ellison has recently saddled his 1,000th winner out of Spring Cottage Stables but his ultimate ambition is to become the first British trainer to land the Melbourne Cup in Australia.
Veteran Brian Ellison has recently saddled his 1,000th winner out of Spring Cottage Stables but his ultimate ambition is to become the first British trainer to land the Melbourne Cup in Australia.
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BRIAN ELLISON has never shied away from a challenge or hard graft – the shipbuilder’s son would not have saddled a landmark 1,000 winners without a steely determination.

He also has no intentions of resting on his laurels as he enters his 65th year. Asked mischievously if he could double this total, there’s a pause as Ellison does some mental arithmetic.

“Why not?” he informs The Yorkshire Post. “One hundred winners a year – we’re already on 68 for this year – for 10 years. Yes.” He then adds: “I wouldn’t want to go back to what I used to be, struggling along with a couple of horses and not knowing how to pay the bills.

“Going back, I would never have dreamt about training a thousand winners and never gave it any thought until last year when the wife (Claire) said we were on 900. She was the one keeping count, and it was a bit of a relief when Robero won at Newmarket because we had had two both beaten a short-head at Nottingham.”

Even though the dual-purpose Malton trainer speaks matter-of-factly, and with characteristic economy of words, his wife interjects and reveals that Ellison did well up when the magnitude of Robero’s win hit home (the family and staff watched the race on TV). “He was choking up,” she disclosed.

And with good reason.

This is a self-taught trainer who has emerged from a humble upbringing in a poorer part of Newcastle – he was born, appropriately, on Pitmen’s Derby day in 1952 – to become one of the most respected figures in his sport after leaving school at the age of 15 with no qualifications to begin a life in racing, even though he had no riding experience whatsoever.

Yet these early years on Tyneside were formative. One of eight children, paper rounds – morning and night – paid for his bicycle.

When he joined Middleham trainer Harry Blackshaw when it became clear that this squat-like figure was too small to play for his beloved Newcastle United, his first pay cheque was £4.50 – and £4 was “digs money”.

Undeterred, the enterprising Ellison was soon looking for ways to boost his meagre income, including menial domestic jobs, before beginning a moderate riding career notable for his association with Tex, a horse good enough to beat the iconic two-mile chaser Tingle Creek 40 years ago.

However, it was no easier when he took out a training licence at Malton’s Spring Cottage Stables in 1989. Winners, horses and money were at a premium.

His stories were both elaborate – and convincing – when he met his bank manager for a fighting fund for the sales.

Ellison admits he was struggling – before fate intervened and he returned to his native North East. Here he met his future wife and they started rebuilding the business to such an extent that they could purchase the aforementioned Spring Cottage Stables at the turn of the Millennium.

They have not looked back. From 20 horses in 2000, they now have a 100-plus string – with more stabling planned – and state-of-the-art water walkers to help keep their horses sound. The yard is unrecognisable.

So are the quality of horses in training thanks, in part, to the favourable publicity generated by one of the unluckiest horses in National Hunt annals.

In successive years, the luckless Latalomne was running away with Cheltenham’s Queen Mother Champion Chase approaching the second last fence. On both occasions – 2002 and 2003 – the tricky downhill obstacle claimed the runaway leader, falls which haunt Ellison to this day.

He has not forgotten. It is why the Champion Chase, and Arkle Trophy for novices, are the two jump races that the trainer would most like to win – he says nothing beats the spectacle of two-mile steeplechasers in full flight.

Equally, his Flat ambitions are very personal. He has made no secret of his desire to win the Northumberland Plate – the aforementioned Pitmen’s Derby – and came agonisingly close this year when Seamour was collared in the shadow of the post this June. His next target is the Betfred Ebor at York in seven days’ time. Ellison ticked off one of his ambitions when the unheralded Moyenne Corniche won this heritage handicap five years ago and says Seamour will need to be first to stand a chance of making this year’s Melbourne Cup, the race that he wants to win more than any other.

First Seamour. “He should have won the Plate. He went too early and it was a mistake to run him at York next time out. They went no gallop, crawled round. It didn’t suit him. He’s in great form. He’s flying.”

Now the Melbourne Cup, the ‘race that stops the nation’. Ellison’s love affair began in 2005 when his great stayer, Carte Diamond, was being prepared for the contest in Australia when the horse was injured when parting company with his jockey and crashing through a running rail.

Though the aforementioned Moyenne Corniche and Saptapadi ran with credit in the race five years ago, Ellison harbours dreams of becoming the first British trainer to land the spoils. “Unless you go there and experience it, you can’t grasp it. When Carte Diamond was injured, he was headline news followed by 10 people being killed in Bali.

“We could learn from it. You have to think of the owners who put the money into the sport. Go to Sedgefield – people who own the first three all get taken back for a meal. Other courses have improved. Some just offer coffee in a paper cup and a biscuit.

“That’s not right. When I take owners, you have to impress the women more than the fellas. You take them to York and they will want to go back. We have to do more for them.”

It is the same, says Ellison, with training racehorses. Evolution rather than revolution is his mantra when asked what makes a good trainer. “You need to be dedicated,” says the man who is invariably up at 5am to feed his horses before morning gallops.

“You need to listen to people. You need to listen to horses. You need to be very open-minded and prepared to change things. And you need happy staff. If you go into an office shouting and swearing, it’s not good for morale. Same with stables. Horses sense it. Training has changed. In the old days, you did road work to build up stamina. Now it’s all speed. In a novice hurdle, you used to lob along. Now you jump off and go quick from the off.”

As for Ellison’s racing heroes, dual-purpose trainers like Vincent O’Brien, David Elsworth and Jimmy Fitzgerald roll off the tongue while his admiration for jockeys Steve Cauthen, Jonjo O’Neill, AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh is heartfelt.

A sometimes frustrated rider, Ellison was asked what took him so long when stable star Top Notch Tonto because his first Group winner on the Flat in 2013. “Jockeys,” came the reply. He is more mellow now. “I’m actually all right with jockeys now,” he says.

He is less enamoured, however, with Newcastle United. Would Brian Ellison swap training for the St James’ Park hotseat? “I would make them a better team than they are now,” he declares. “There are too many lightweights – but I’ll stick with racing.”

After all, training another 1,000 winners is probably the easier job – and more rewarding.

The Brian Ellison story...

BRIAN ELLISON and his seven siblings grew up in a humble Newcastle home – their father was a shipfitter while their mother was a hospital cleaner.

He left school at the age of 15 to work for the then Middleham trainer Harry Blackshaw. Ellison was too short to become a footballer, his chosen career, so he opted to be a jockey, even though he had never ridden a horse.

A moderate rider, his first winner as a trainer came courtesy of Corbetts Diamond at Hexham in 1989 – ironically the horse had been disqualified days before in its previous outing at Worcester.

Yet a slow start to his training career led to Ellison moving from Spring Cottage Stables in Malton back to his native North East where he met his wife, Claire.

However, the chance to purchase Spring Cottage Stables in 2000 proved irresistible and marked a turning point in his fortunes.

Now established as, arguably, the pre-eminent dual purpose trainer in Britain because he is equally adept with National Hunt and Flat horses, his 1,000th winner came courtesy of Robero at Newmarket on July 15.

Notable horses include 2011 Ebor winner Moyenne Corniche, Grade One-winning hurdler Marsh Warbler and stable star Top Notch Tonto.

One of the most popular Yorkshire-trained horses because of a distinctive white face, ‘Tonto’ provided Ellison with his first Group winner on the Flat when winning at Haydock in 2013 before finishing a second in the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on Champions Day.