Portman’s Talent Is No Illusion By Emma Berry

 In Latest News, Media Coverage

From TDN

Captain Tim Forster, a trainer whose love of steeplechasing ran so deep that he wasn’t disparaging just of Flat racing but also of hurdling, was a renowned pessimist. His famously gloomy advice to Charlie Fenwick ahead of the American amateur rider going out to partner Ben Nevis in the 1980 Grand National was “keep remounting”. And in a sense it would be good advice to aspiring trainers: to keep getting back up even when it seems the odds are against you.

As it happened, Fenwick didn’t have to heed the Captain’s advice. Ben Nevis won, giving his trainer his second of three Grand National victories and fleeting cause to eschew his avowed pessimism.

One man to have benefited from Forster’s advice, at least in one aspect of his approach to training, is his former employee, Jonny Portman. What his erstwhile boss would have had to say about Portman graduating from training jumpers to placing a much stronger emphasis on the Flat would probably be unprintable, but he would perhaps take pride in the earnest way his protege coaxes the best from horses often recruited inexpensively. And undoubtedly the Captain—who in turn had learned at the hand of Portman’s grandfather, Derrick Candy—would approve of the liberal sprinkling of pessimism which accompanies Portman’s daily activities.

At least that’s what the Lambourn trainer would have us believe. Listen carefully to his words and you will detect his wry humour. In fact, one is compelled to listen carefully in Portman’s company as he speaks slowly and deliberately, often with long pauses—and sometimes even disappearing from the room—in mid-sentence. He’s certainly not one given to slapping his thigh as he roars at his own jokes, but as his stories unfold, it becomes apparent that Portman doesn’t take himself as seriously as he does the business of training racehorses.

“I don’t want to be renowned as being an optimist but I’m a lot more optimistic and positive than I let on,” he says, with the faintest hint of a grin flitting across his face. “But I don’t like to be seen as being optimistic because then one looks silly when it all goes wrong.”

On a slate grey January day with the wind buffeting the Lambourn Downs, it’s a leap to call to mind the colourful high summer meetings which are meat and drink to Flat trainers. But they are not far from the mind of Portman as he assesses his new intake of 25 juveniles among a string which will number 55 when all are present and correct after the winter holidays.

“I hate to be disappointed—I hate disappointing myself and I hate disappointing others,” says the man whose line of business includes some degree of disappointment as an almost daily staple. “But I think it would be silly not to be excited about this year because this is as good as it gets for me. I know I haven’t got really good horses so I know I’m not going to win big races but a lot of the 3-year olds look like they will win something and the 2-year olds, well there must be something in there that can do alright.”

Pessimism, it would seem, is turning to cautious optimism, and with good cause. In a hugely competitive business, the middle-sized to smaller stables need at least one flag-bearer to keep their name in lights and in recent seasons Portman has been represented by two juvenile fillies who have delivered the perfect advertisement of their trainer’s prowess. Moreover, Mrs Danvers (GB) (Hellvelyn {GB}) and Mild Illusion (Ire) (Requinto {Ire}) each went through a sales ring with the figure 1,000 next to their names. The former was returned to Portman’s Whitcoombe House Stables as vendor for £1,000 when catalogued at Ascot as a 2-year-old, while Mild Illusion was picked up for 1,000gns by the trainer at Tattersalls October Book 3.

Portman continues, “My wife’s mother always asks me about this time of year how my yearlings are and, out of routine now, I’ll always say I’m really disappointed with them. My wife is always teasing me about that but I am pessimistic by nature because I worry about it, and I look around the yard and I think how am I going to have x number of winners this year, and I get very down about it. But dare I say it, I like my yearlings this year. And if my mother-in-law was to ask me—I think she’s given up—I would have to say that I do like the ones I have in at the moment.  Have I got a Mrs Danvers? Probably not. Have I got a Mild Illusion? Maybe.”

Mrs Danvers—the second of Portman’s G3 Cornwallis S. winners after Royal Razalma (Ire) (Lope De Vega {Ire})—came to Whitcoombe House following a speculative email sent by her breeder Connie Burton to a number of trainers offering her on a lease basis. Her name continues the theme set by her dam, Rebecca de Winter (GB) (Kyllachy {GB}), taken from Daphne du Maurier’s chilling novel Rebecca. The literary Mrs Danvers was a force to be reckoned with and, while her namesake certainly was when she made it to the track, there were a number of factors that made her unbeaten juvenile season anything but plain sailing.

“The breeder of Mrs Danvers emailed about 25 trainers in January saying that she had a filly that she didn’t want to sell but also didn’t want to put into training herself,” recalls Portman, who was one of only two trainers to respond to the email. “I went to see her and I liked her immediately. She was a bull of a 2-year old, just broken, and I couldn’t find anything wrong with her at all. I said to myself straight away ‘Super Sprint’. I think with horses you have to look at them the whole time and think about what they can do for you as well as what we can do for them. I spotted what I thought she could do for me if she was any good, but of course because she was broken in very late, she was green as grass and she got every bug going. She was very sickly but there was always something about her. I had to rush her through Ascot sales to qualify for the Super Sprint and luckily no one else [at the sale] was interested in her so we got a light weight.”

Prior to her victory in the Super Sprint, Mrs Danvers had won twice in June, her debut coming in the fortnight before Royal Ascot, and in hindsight Portman is grateful for the fact that the filly’s fluctuating health made him decide against aiming for the royal meeting.

“Ascot does stupid things to trainers. It distracts you from a sensible plan, and so it was marvellous that she didn’t make Ascot so we could take our time and plan every run,” he says. “I didn’t expect her to win first time out at 33/1 but I expected her to show me enough. My 2-year-olds rarely win first time—they always come on for the run. An agent rang up after her maiden win to try to buy her for £50,000. I turned him down and said to him that I could see her winning the Cornwallis and he laughed at me. The Super Sprint is always a bit of a lottery but she won the Cornwallis, and that doesn’t mean I’m a soothsayer, but some horses just give you that feeling. She won all those races as a 2 year-old but before every race there was a health hiccup. As I said, she was always a sickly horse, but that in a way helped her, or rather helped me look good, because had she not had all those health issues, had she come to hand quicker, I would have made the mistake that we all make when we have a 2-year old that wins before Ascot—you go and run at Ascot. I would have run her in the Queen Mary and she would have been second behind Lady Aurelia, and I don’t want to come second and nothing would have come near to Lady Aurelia that day.”

In the case of listed winner Mild Illusion, bred by Marston Stud, it’s scarcely credible that her half-sister Mrs Worthington (Ire) had been bought a year earlier for owners Ann Plummer and Tony Wechsler for 270,000gns and sent to Portman, who bought Mild Illusion for a fraction of that price. But that is where stallion fashion comes in: Mrs Worthington is by Dark Angel, while her sister is by the less in-vogue Requinto. Mrs Worthington, an 11-race maiden, was subsequently found to have a kissing spine which hampered her racing career.

“I probably would have missed Mild Illusion if it hadn’t been for Mrs Worthington,” Portman confesses. “Mrs Worthington had ability but she had medical issues that stopped her from being good. I didn’t look at Mild Illusion until the very last minute and I actually liked her more than Mrs Worthington in terms of physical precocity. She looked very neat and tidy and like she wouldn’t take long but I hadn’t expected to buy her because I had no one for her and I thought she would fetch at least 20 grand. I followed her through with no intention to buy her and when she was stuck on 800 quid I was rather insulted and I bought her for a grand.”

He adds, “The people who need a pat on the back are her breeders because the biggest problem is the breeders who consign horses at the sales and are convinced that their horses are worth more than they are. These breeders were probably gutted to sell a future listed winner for a grand but it has helped their mare and they made her buyable. There’s nothing worse than going to a sale and not being able to buy anything because owners have stupid reserves on horses and then they don’t sell them but have no intention of putting them into training either. Their stock is only worth what people are going to pay for them on the day.

“I know the sort of horses I want to train and what I am prepared to spend on them and we have done okay. I guess I could have been bolder, and if I had Jamie Osborne’s testicles maybe I could be a millionaire by now, but I am cautious and if I suddenly owed the sales company a lot of money I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I’m never going to be reckless at the sales. The wonderful thing is that it is very possible, with a lot of hanging around, to find a nice horse. It’s amazing how many trainers aren’t prepared to look at something which isn’t going to fetch a lot of money.”

Portman’s success is not restricted to ‘cheap’ horses—though in December the £800 yearling Annie Quickstep (Ire) (Epaulette {Aus}) completed his list of winners for 2019 when winning at Lingfield for Mark and Connie Burton of Mrs Danvers fame. But this willingness to consider horses overlooked by others has certainly reaped dividends, just as it has done for the trainer’s uncle, Henry Candy. While Portman has settled not far from Candy’s turf of Kingston Warren, his early intention was to set up in Chantilly, where he had worked for Jonathan Pease after a stint with Luca Cumani in Newmarket.

“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about what Luca’s approach to a problem or to a horse would be,” he says. “One thing that unites us is that we all have problems, whether you train Group 1 horses or lesser horses, and we all need to sort them out. What sorts good people out from the bad is how well you sort your problems out. I felt Luca always did this very well and tended to spot them before they happened. That’s what you learn. I didn’t learn how to train horses, I learned how to think about training horses.”

Portman continues, “I wanted to train in France and Jonathan Pease was my mentor but he wasn’t behind it at all, so I thought I’d look rather silly trying to start up if he wasn’t backing me. He suggested I came home and started training jumpers and that’s what I did, and it’s been okay.”

Another member of the Pease family, the trainer’s mother Rosie, has provided notable backing to Portman, however. She has had a number of horses in training with him as well as being the breeder of one of his best horses to date, the G3 Oak Tree S. winner Annecdote (GB) (Lucky Story). But it is his own mother, a former point-to-point trainer, whom Portman credits with having played the most important role in his early introduction to the world of Thoroughbreds.

He says, “My mother probably taught me the most. She was very horsey but if she’d been a trainer she would have upset all the owners. She was brilliant with legs. When the Captain [Tim Forster] had a horse that got a leg, he would ring my mother on the way back from the races and say, ‘If you can get him patched up he might make you a nice point-to-pointer’. And she worked tirelessly patching these horses up, she was brilliant at it. She taught me hard work and horse sense and the art of prayer—and those are the three things you need.”

Again the wry grin makes a fleeting appearance as Portman adds, “I’m not religious but I like to stay in touch, just to keep on the right side of Him. One does feel that so much of what happens is divine intervention.”

Perhaps he’s right. But there’s much to be said for making your own luck. In the horse business that generally comes about through hard graft, of which Portman and his wife Sophie are clearly not afraid. Sooner or later those efforts are recognised by others.

Portman expresses a degree of surprise when relating the tale of receiving an email from a first-time prospective owner who wished to spend a decent sum to buy a horse to send to his yard. Having asked the man why he had chosen him as a trainer, Portman was told, “Because I looked at your website and you’re not a show-off but you’re capable.”

He adds, “Sometimes I think I should write a blog as occasionally I like to be amusing but you end up doing nothing and hoping that your horses will do the talking.”

In an industry in which self-promotion is increasingly as expected as it is vital, a quietly cautious trainer could be in danger of being overlooked. For Portman, with or without help from above, his horses’ actions have certainly spoken loudly as to his inherent ability.