Norman's still stormin'

Norman Williamson made his name as a top-class jump jockey – now his Oak Tree Farm is a notable presence as a consignor

Norman Williamson has gone from riding top-level winners to selling them under both codes

Having been a widely admired and respected National Hunt jockey with 1,268 winners in your saddlebag, you turned your hand principally from the winter game to consigning two-year-old Flat horses at breeze-up sales. How did it come about?

It all started through Eddie O’Leary, who is married to Wendy, the sister of my wife, Janet. Eddie, who oversees Lynn Lodge and Gigginstown House Studs, asked me if I was interested in riding a horse at the Doncaster sales. It didn’t matter who was riding because it just flew.

Howard Johnson bought him for Graham Wylie and it turned out to be Abraxas Antelope, later placed in the Gimcrack Stakes. The sales weren’t as professional as they are now, no clocks and timing in those days. I knew I could ride these youngsters and felt I could probably turn my hand to training them as well.

After I retired I joined Margaret O’Toole for my maiden voyage to Keeneland Sales and came home with two breeze-up horses. It was tough setting up, but I enjoyed the whole scene having been around horses all my life.

In the very early days when I was still riding I had a couple of store horses with Mark Dwyer. They duly made a couple of quid and now Mark and I are competitors in the same business.

You have also enjoyed plenty of success preparing store horses, including at the Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale, where this year you sold a son of Kayf Tara for €250,000. How different is this challenge from the breeze-ups?

The breeze-ups are more pressure; the stakes are very high. Somebody once said to me: “You’ve only got one day to do your business.” But I told them you’ve only got 22 seconds, because most people reckon if they take 23 seconds to breeze they’re too slow.

I am not clock-orientated myself but the people involved consigning to breeze-ups are pretty tough.

I don’t ride in the breeze-ups any more but do ride out at home

With stores you’re not worried about galloping them, or sore shins, whereas the breeze-ups can be stressful.

We buy the majority of stores as foals and keep them until three and we are with them all the time. I am still a jumping man at heart and love the National Hunt side of the business.

What do you enjoy most about your new career – the prices achieved in the ring or your graduates’ achievements on the track?

It’s not the prices, though of course you’ve got to be paid to make a living. Never forget it’s a business we’re running. The real satisfaction is watching a horse you liked from day one go on and achieve something for their owners.

I think most people selling horses are rearing them as well and just enjoy being around nice horses all the time – and hopefully making a good living.

I have shares in one or two with my father-in-law Timmy Hyde and brother-in-law Timmy Hyde jnr, including the odd pointer. Obviously, we sell as many as we can.

How big an advantage is riding them yourself – and do you manage to get your leg across all of them at some stage?

In the early days it was a big advantage, but I’m not so sure it’s the same nowadays. I don’t ride in the breeze-ups any more but do ride out at home. Michael Hussey, who’s with Aidan O’Brien, and Rory Cleary, from Jim Bolger’s, ride my breeze-ups. They are very good jockeys in their own right.

I sit on them at home and then tell Michael and Rory what each horse is like and what they can expect when they get on them at the sales.

So it is still an advantage sitting on them at home, because many consignors don’t have that experience.

All my life I have made a living riding horses and am aware when a horse might need a break, more work, or maybe isn’t moving correctly.

What do you look for in a prospective Flat horse, or a potential jumper? And how do you mitigate the risk in what can be a precarious business?

We are all trying to buy a bit of value and of course a nice horse. Some will just go for speed pedigrees because they clock well at the breeze-ups, but I try to find a horse that might go seven furlongs, a mile or even a mile and a quarter.

I love to sit on a horse with natural movement that covers a lot of ground

Also with a bit of size so its career isn’t over in August, by which time hopefully it’s just starting and will be better at three.

With a potential jumper, you need a fashionable sire and a horse with a good action. I love to sit on a horse with natural movement that covers a lot of ground because over three miles and fences they have to be able to jump, which makes it important you have a good-moving horse.

By being patient you might reduce the risk; there’s no point rushing into a sale and telling yourself you need five horses quickly. You travel from sale to sale and have to be patient until the right horse comes along.

Contributer (right) was sold by Williamson at the breeze-ups and went on to win at Royal Ascot

How many horses do you have at your Oak Tree Farm stables near Athboy, Co Meath, between your breezers and stores? And how much of a problem is finding staff?

We have about 50 horses here most of the time. At the moment there are ten breezers and we break some yearlings for JP McManus and pre-train some two-year-olds for him as well.

The rest we have around the place are store horses. Staff for a smaller operation like ours is a nightmare because we need good riders. You can ruin a yearling in a matter of days with a bad rider.

Good staff are difficult to find and I’m sure it’s a worldwide problem, certainly a huge problem in Ireland. We live 20 minutes from Gordon Elliott, 20 minutes from Ger Lyons and 20 minutes from Noel Meade.

They probably employ a total of some 200 stable staff and, I have to say, if I was 17 I’d rather be riding the good horses at Gordon’s than my breezers. But we have some very good girl riders here led by our head girl, Siobhan Byrne.

How big a role does your wife Janet play in the business?

Janet has a huge role, doing all the office work, facts and figures. She also plays a big part in the rest of the operation and most mornings you’ll find her busy in the yard until 11am when she takes over in the office.

Whether it’s breeze-ups or store horses, it’s very difficult to buy a nice horse

She’s also getting very good at buying and selling ponies for our kids, Josh, 12, and Carla, 10, who are mad about them. They spend all summer competing at the shows and love it.

You produced Contributer, who won the Wolferton Handicap at Royal Ascot as well as two Group 1s in Australia. What have been your other big successes?

The best jumper I’ve sold is Oscar Whisky, trained by Nicky Henderson to win 16 races and over half a million in prize-money, including two Aintree Hurdles and two Relkeel Hurdles.

In the past two seasons we’ve sold some very nice horses and to name one for the future I’d say Jessie Harrington’s Sizing Pottsie, second top lot in the Derby Sale last season at €220,000, bought by Tom Malone for Ann & Alan Potts Ltd. He won his Leopardstown bumper and looks exciting.

In France last May we sold War Of Will, by War Front, and he finished a close fifth behind Line of Duty in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. He is trained in America by Mark Casse and is full of promise.

It seems buyers have more choice than ever before at the sales. How have you found the breeze-up market at your level – and is overproduction a problem?

Whether it’s breeze-ups or store horses, it’s very difficult to buy a nice horse and you’re having to put more and more on the line. It really boils down to buying what you think you can sell at the other end.

Overproduction is rearing its head again and it’s time to be disciplined; try and buy the one you think clients will like.

Breezers are slightly different because you might not have the most beautiful horse, but if it does an exceptionally good breeze then you’re going to make more than the individual looks on paper.

Whereas the NH horse needs a pedigree. Overproduction is a problem again, particularly in the middle to bottom of the market with a lot of horses going through unsold.

Also there are less and less syndicates out there to take a chance on a horse for small money.

You seem to attend most of the major sales throughout Europe. Which is your favourite sale and why?

The Fairyhouse National Hunt Foal Sale in November is my favourite. That might sound a funny one to many people, but realistically you have quite a chance of buying a lot of horses, hopefully reasonably cheaply.

There are about 250 foals every day for five days in a row and of course you have to work very, very hard to find what you want. But there’s plenty of value there if you can spot it.

Oscar Whisky is the best jumper that Williamson has sold

You were forced to retire because of problems with discs in your neck. How tough a decision was that at the age of 34?

It was an ongoing problem and I had been seeing a Harley Street specialist for a couple of years. The specialist had been telling me to slow down so I returned to Ireland, where there’s only two or three days jumping a week and that took the pressure off.

I was riding for Edward O’Grady who was very good to me. I took a fall at Downpatrick and for a moment suffered the sensation of not being able to move. Sadly, my man in Harley Street told me, “Your time has come”.

For the first year I missed riding a lot, particularly the camaraderie of the weighing-room. Ruby Walsh, David Casey and Tony McCoy were all great friends.

I felt out on a limb with nothing to do. But you have to get on with life.

As a jockey you were known for your patience and ice-cool style. Which of the current crop of riders do you rate highly?

I rode in a great era of jockeys. There was Richard Dunwoody, Graham Bradley, Charlie Swan, Peter Scudamore, Adrian Maguire, Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Graham McCourt and Jamie Osborne, all fantastic riders. They were not better than the jockeys of today, but there were more of them.

There are some very good young ones and I have huge time for Brian Hughes, who is very cool and reminds me of Paul Carberry, putting a horse into the race without them even knowing about it. Brian always seems to be in the right place at the right time, in the big and small races.

Ruby Walsh is probably the best jockey we have ever seen. Jack Kennedy is remarkably cool for his age, 19. Injury-free, he has a huge career ahead of him.

On the Flat, Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore are exceptional, while James Doyle stands out among the younger generation. I remember James turning up at the Lambourn schooling grounds on his pony as an eight-year-old kid. Now a very nice guy and a credit to the sport.

Brian Hughes is very cool and reminds me of Paul Carberry

How much did you enjoy being part of the media and was TV work ever going to be a follow-on to race-riding?

I did a lot with the BBC which was a big help because I hadn’t a lot going on at the time and the work took me to Aintree and Cheltenham. Clare Balding was very good to me and I really enjoyed the break TV work gave me, but ultimately the horse business took over.

I have to say I think the current ITV coverage is very professional; I just hope Racing UK puts as much into Irish racing as At The Races when they take over in the New Year.

Teeton Mill is the best horse that Norman Williamson has ridden – Photo: George Selwyn

Are you worried about Brexit and the possible impact on free movement of horses and staff recruitment?

We are all worried about the free movement of horses as well as the problems of finding staff, which could be made worse by Brexit.

But really I am not qualified to answer questions on Brexit – I’m not so sure the people who are running Brexit know what’s happening themselves.

I have asked loads of people what they think about Brexit and nobody can come up with a proper answer.

Your greatest claim to fame was your four winners at the 1995 Cheltenham Festival, including Alderbrook (Champion Hurdle) and Master Oats (Gold Cup). Not to mention winning the King George on Teeton Mill in 1998. What was your stand-out moment(s) in the saddle?

Winning the Sun Alliance Hurdle on Putty Road, one of my four Festival winners in 1995 was right up there.

I know the victories on Alderbrook and Master Oats received all the publicity, but I thought I gave Putty Road as strong a ride as ever I did, because he was off the bridle a long way from home.

The most thrilling race was the 1995 Melling Chase at Aintree when three champion chasers – Viking Flagship, Deep Sensation and Martha’s Son – came over the last together.

We are all worried about the free movement of horses

Viking Flagship beat me a short head on Deep Sensation. Not the happiest outcome, being chinned on the line, but a fantastic spectacle – three tip-top chasers in a ding-dong from the second last.

Also winning Haydock’s 1997 Peter Marsh Chase on Gold Cup winner Jodami could not have been better timed as I was just coming back from injury.

You are popularly known as ‘Stormin Norman’. Where did this nickname come from?

Nowadays I’m known by my closest friends as ‘Grumpy’! But the nickname ‘Stormin’ came from the American commander of the Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf, who was known as ‘Stormin Norman’.

He got a lot of publicity in the early 90s and Graham Bradley started calling me ‘Stormin’ in that great Yorkshire accent of his. It stuck with me through my riding and weighing-room days.

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