This time last year Steve Wignall and his partner in the Options O Syndicate John Flannery were nearing a magical occasion at the Cheltenham Festival.
JP McManus, Gigginstown, Rich Ricci, Alan Potts and Graham Wylie all had runners in the Champion Bumper. But none of them had a horse that could better Wignall and Flannery’s Ballyandy.
“For small owners like us, to have a Festival winner was unbelievable, it was a great day,” recalls Wignall, whose interest in the horses was sparked by his dad’s love of the sport – though in terms of owning fourlegged friends to become more involved in a sport, greyhounds came first.
“We began with greyhounds and three of us started a syndicate,” he says. “Dean Childs was our trainer and we had a bit of success. Lorrys Options was stayer of the year in 2009.
“As a progression we fancied having a horse and were recommended William Haggas. We bought three, including Dever Dream, who turned out to be decent. She won first time out for us, which was definitely a magical moment – we were just happy to be having a runner, never mind a winner! She won four times for us before we sold her on to Pearl Bloodstock.
“To give us an interest all year round we were recommended jumps trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. Double Ross was our first purchase with Nigel and he has turned out to be a legend.”
At that time there were three in the Options O Syndicate, Larry O’Rourke’s name lending itself to the ‘O’ in the name, but in these days of Ballyandy, winner of the Betfair Hurdle last month, and Foxtail Hill, a winner on trials day at Cheltenham in January, it’s just Wignall and Flannery splitting the bills and sharing the fun.
“It’s not just personal enjoyment, owning horses gives plenty of enjoyment to family and friends as well,” continues Wignall.
“We’ve owned about 15 horses and had around 35 winners. We still keep our hand in on the Flat but we have found we can compete a bit more easily over jumps.”
In addition to Double Ross, Ballyandy and Foxtail Hill, there is Dawn Missile and recent buy Snobbery on the Options O roster.
Apart from the Festival success, Wignall has cherished the other five Cheltenham winners to have come their way, three courtesy of Double Ross, plus Foxtail Hill’s recent victory, while Ballyandy has won two there in all.
“Cheltenham is the pinnacle, and to have six winners there, for small owners, that’s superb,” admits Wignall. “Nigel and his team are top class and I would recommend them to anyone in need of a jumps trainer.”
Ballyandy – in the Supreme or Neptune after providing his owners with another magical moment at Newbury last month when winning the £155,000 Betfair Hurdle, Britain’s richest such race – and Foxtail Hill, who went up 7lb to 140 for his latest victory and is set for a handicap chase, are in line to give their owners a couple more shots at Festival glory this month, though it has not all been plain sailing.
“Foxtail Hill has had his problems, and the downside to owning horses is when you have problems,” says Wignall. “We lost Minella Reception in the Topham last year, and Florrie Boy suffered a tendon injury and has been retired.
“The best things are of course the winners, and we’ve had plenty of highs and been lucky, though the whole package is enjoyable. Cheltenham winners are just the icing on the case. William and Nigel have both looked after us very well, and I would like to thank them both for their help ”
Despite day jobs in running Options Energy Services – a leading provider for the utilities, communications, highways and traffic management, and renewals sectors – Wignall and Flannery have the flexibility to ensure they frequently get to see their silks carried on the racecourse, and here’s hoping for as magical a March as they experienced last year.