When Nigel Twiston-Davies rings up one particular owner, he sometimes says, ‘Nigel, it’s the other Nigel…’
The thinking being that Nigel is not a name that horseracing is awash with. A report recently claimed that Christian names like Norman and Stanley are in danger of extinction. We have not quite reached that point in racing with Nigel – there’s Tinkler too, of course – but are not far off it.
The two Nigels – Morris is his owner – are often in the headlines, with Bigbadjohn doing his bit recently when lifting Wincanton’s Desert Orchid Silver Cup to cap a terrific 24 hours for his owner, who was on target at Cheltenham’s opening meeting of the season the day before with Relentless Dreamer, who pipped Twiston-Davies’s Cogry by a neck.
Explaining his interest in racing, and how he became an owner, Morris says: “My parents met over a copy of The Sporting Life! Going racing was part of my growing up.
“I love all sport but racing and Chelsea have been the enduring passions of my life. Racing is an incredible sport, with so many dimensions. I actually just like looking at horses.
“In my twenties – this was the 1980s – I literally woke up one morning as the owner of a third of a horse. I’d always liked the idea of getting more involved and three of us got together and all of a sudden, we had a horse with Mick Ryan.
“She was very useful as it turned out, and the experience taught me all of the things I didn’t know. She won three times and we sold her for a profit.”
Morris later decided he fancied going it alone, and he believes the key is being clear about what you want to get out of being an owner.
“I thought a lot about that,” he says. “I came up with some criteria: I wanted an up-and-coming passionate trainer, successful with an open approach that allowed me proper access. I prefer National Hunt and I like staying chasers – unraced horses with potential to become just that.
“I had a look at about half a dozen places and chose Rebecca Curtis. I got Relentless Dreamer – so named as that’s what you’ve got to be – and Tara Road.
“Rebecca was the right choice and it’s been a great journey over the last five and a half years. She’s had a difficult patch but we’ve had some good times. She’s an exceptional trainer and I’ve learnt a lot.
“Her yard is in a spectacular setting and I’ve really enjoyed watching the horses develop; for me that’s an important part of the ownership experience.”
Morris continued: “About a year ago I decided that a couple of the horses needed a change of scene. Someone advised me to consider Nigel Twiston- Davies, and whilst it’s a bigger stable, like Rebecca, he’s a trainer that fitted what I was looking for.
“What sums them both up actually is that Nigel phoned me after the horses arrived just to tell me they’d done so in magnificent condition. Bigbadjohn was one of them.”
Around the same time, Morris decided he also fancied a couple of Flat horses, to help provide an interest all year round, and he was mightily impressed with the set-up of Andrew Balding, opting to take his business to the Kingsclere trainer.
“My advice to anyone choosing a trainer is to take your time, be clear about what you want, get to understand their set-up and see if you have a rapport and trust the trainer. Owning a horse is a big commitment, after all.”
A fellow Balding owner was Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and Morris says: “I never met him but knew his horses at Andrew’s. I went to Chelsea on the Wednesday after his death, when there was a minute’s applause. He seemed a thoroughly genuine person – it brought back memories of the death of Chelsea’s Chairman Matthew Harding, which also occurred in an October in a helicopter crash after a match.”
On the day of the Leicester helicopter tragedy Morris was at Cheltenham to watch Relentless Dreamer win, which he labels his most magical moment as an owner to date.
Bizarrely, Relentless Dreamer fell in a bumper on his debut at Ffos Las.
His owner recalls: “He seemed to stumble, and then collapsed on the line. I ran over, and the screens went up. Richard Johnson was amazing, even though he was visibly upset. It was the most miserable day, raining, cold, the last race of the day.
“It says a lot about jump racing fans that the biggest cheer of the day was when he got up. It was a massive relief, and just over five years later he’s winning at Cheltenham. He has been described as a dour stayer but he’s a brilliant, clever jumper and like a number of Kayf Taras has benefited from being given time. He’s got better with age, and Adam Wedge gave him a brilliant ride at Cheltenham.
“It was then good to see Bigbadjohn bounce back the day after. He can be a spectacular jumper and likes good or good to firm ground, he can’t go in soft, and it’s just one of those frustrations – last winter was the wettest on record. You can make a plan – but can’t do anything about the weather.”
While that weekend was as good as it has got for Morris, there have been other memorable days too, like Tara Road winning first time out, Bigbadjohn landing the Reynoldstown at Ascot, and Joe Farrell, in whom Morris has a quarter-share, winning this year’s Scottish Grand National.
Three-year-old Lissitzky, meanwhile, is hopefully a decent stayer in the making, having won one of his four starts and being second in another. He seems to reserve his best for the track, rather than the gallops, unlike one of Morris’s now former horses, Holy Cross, who looked spectacular on the gallops but less so on the racecourse.
Another one that got away, in sadder circumstances, was the promising Murphys Way, who suffered a heart-attack on the gallops.
Setbacks are part and parcel of ownership, of course, and Morris admits you need a lot of patience. Three-year-old Peggy McKay – “named after my mum” – ran a promising first race in June but then knocked her leg in the stalls on her second start and has been off since.
“It’s difficult enough just to get a horse to the races, they’re flesh and blood after all,” says Morris, whose admiration for prolific winners like Winx knows no bounds.
Morris, whose favourite jockeys, aside from Johnson and Wedge, include Barry Geraghty and Oisin Murphy, has eight in training at the moment, five jumpers and three Flat horses, plus that leg in Joe Farrell.
Funding his horses is the day job with Dentsu Aegis Network, a multinational media and digital marketing communications company, whose headquarters are in London, and for whom Morris is Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer.
Travel is a necessary and frequent part of the job, and Morris landed back from Singapore only just in time to see Relentless Dreamer win at Cheltenham.
He adds: “I was on a plane to New York when Lissitzky had her second run, at Windsor, and when I turned my phone on when I got there I’d had a message to say she’d won, which was a very pleasant surprise!”
Off the track, there’s plenty about being an owner Morris enjoys, and he continues: “I like it at the stables, seeing the horses work and grow, and being a part of the sport rather than just turning up at the races. It’s nice to feel part of a horse’s development, and I enjoy making a plan and it coming off.
“You have a voice as an owner. It was my idea to go to Cheltenham with Relentless Dreamer – Rebecca agreed – and the first part of the plan worked.
“He ran in the novice handicap chase at the Festival last year and was run off his feet. Paul Townend got off him and said it was one of the best jumping performances he’d experienced at Cheltenham and that he was gaining two lengths at every flight. Had a horse not fallen in front of him two out he might have been placed, instead of coming seventh.
“The idea is to run over three miles three furlongs at Cheltenham next, and I’d love to get him in the National. I think over those fences and nearly four and a half miles he’d be really good around there.”
A relentless dreamer winning the National with Relentless Dreamer. What a story that would be.