Having a Cheltenham Festival favourite in your first full season as a trainer is some feat, but do not expect James Owen to blink in the spotlight like some inexperienced rookie.
The wider public may not know too much about the man who took out his trainer’s licence just before Christmas last year and who trains JCB Triumph Hurdle contender Burdett Road in Newmarket.
But they can be reassured that one of Britain’s best hopes at the biggest jumps meeting of the season is in the care of someone with a mountain of experience.
In one sense Owen is a back-room boy who has suddenly stepped to the front of the stage.
For the last seven years, Owen’s Green Ridge Stables have operated as a pre-training centre, breaking and preparing horses for some of Newmarket’s top trainers including George Boughey, James Fanshawe, William Haggas and Sir Michael Stoute.
James Owen has a Cheltenham Festival favourite already in his first full season in the form of Burdett Road
Owen trains the JCB Triumph Hurdle contender in Newmarket having taken out his trainer’s license before Christmas last year
That is still largely the case. Almost 60 of his 80 boxes are occupied by other trainers’ horses but that number is dropping as Owen needs more stables for his growing string. Horses who benefited from the Owen equine kindergarten include 2022 Derby winner Desert Crown.
But that is only part of his story. As an amateur jockey he worked for Rod Simpson and Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer Noel Chance, as well as being the champion point-to-point rider in East Anglia nine times.
He worked in Hong Kong preparing young horses and, after a foot injury scuppered his riding career, operated as assistant to John Ferguson during his successful stint as a trainer.
The youthful-looking 44-year-old, who met wife Jenny while working for Ferguson, also made a striking mark racing Arabian-bred horses, being crowned British champion five times. With a c.v. like that, Owen’s record of 27 jumps winners from only 121 runners this season at a strike rate 22 per cent should not come as a surprise — and you can throw a couple of Flat wins on top of that.
Owen said: ‘Being champion Arabian trainer has been a positive. I spoke to Paul Nicholls about it and he said, “Five-times champion, you must know what you’re doing!”
‘We learnt a lot and I made my mistakes with the Arabs. I still make them but the Arab racing has been a great grounding.
‘It is just the same — at the end of the day they are just different horses. You still have to get them to the races and find the right races. Some are trickier to train than a thoroughbred — they’re all different. They have personalities and like to be happy.’
Horses such as Enthused, bought by Owen for £5,500 and subsequent winner of five races, and My Gift To You, whose success at Southwell on Wednesday was his fourth since joining Owen for £8,000, indicate his horses are smiling.
2022 Derby winner Desert Crown is just one of the many to have benefited from the Owen equine kindergarten
It was Owen’s rejuvenation of Father of Jazz and Too Friendly that ensured he got to train Bill and Tim Gredley-owned Burdett Road, winner of the Golden Gates Stakes at Royal Ascot last summer when in the care of Michael Bell, and one of the highest-rated Flat horses to be sent hurdling in recent years.
After joining him from the Dan Skelton stable, Father of Jazz has won three of his four races while Too Friendly landed the Summer Handicap Hurdle at Market Rasen.
Owen said: ‘I told Tim I was going to train some jumpers and he said you can have Father of Jazz to see how you get on with him. We did quite well. Then Too Friendly came back — he was going to go to the sales. I said, “Please don’t sell him, I am sure we can win some prizemoney” and all of a sudden he clicked.
‘He will go for the County Hurdle now if he gets his ground I am sure he will run well.’
But Burdett Road is on a different level. In recent years, horses like him tend to have been sold for huge sums to race abroad but the Gredleys rolled the dice and hope to get a pair of sixes.
A debut win at Huntingdon, when he pulled too hard, and a visually impressive success at Cheltenham under exaggerated hold-up tactics have only fuelled excitement.
Owen said: ‘He was in a different league at Huntingdon. But for him to be a good horse over hurdles, he had to learn to race so we told (jockey) Harry Cobden to drop him in and take his time at Cheltenham. It was not all about winning, he needed to learn and switch off.’
Rather than sell Burdett Road the Gredley’s have chosen to role the dice and hope for a pair of sixes
Burdett Road’s next lesson will be at the track’s Trials meeting next Saturday, when he will be entered in the juvenile hurdle but could take on experienced older opponents in the International Hurdle to boost his education.
Owen, who introduces another intriguing Gredley-owned recruit in Sweet Fantasy at Lingfield on Saturday, said: ‘Even when Constitution Hill was going to run in it (the International), we were still going to make an entry. We wouldn’t have beaten him but we could have followed him round and learnt a lot. Whether it is the right or wrong thing to do, no one can say but they are trials.’
Given Owen’s background, it is a sweet twist that he pre-trained Burdett Road before he went to Roger Varian and then Bell. Unlike in the past, Owen now has a chance to finish what he started.
He said: ‘He was quite a handful to break in but always found things quite easy, although that doesn’t necessarily make them a good horse. It will be a lot harder on Triumph Hurdle day but hopefully he’ll be up to the task.’