Foxhunters Chase Tips: Phil Rowley on Hazel Hill

Hazel Hill won the 2019 Foxhunter Challenge Cup Hunters' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Hazel Hill won the 2019 Foxhunter Challenge Cup Hunters' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Adam Morgan speaks in-depth to Phil Rowley, who saddled Hazel Hill to Foxhunters glory at last year's Cheltenham Festival and is bidding for back-to-back wins in the amateur showpiece on March 13...

Having made the podium with 100/1 shot Barel Of Laughs the two previous years, Shropshire handler Phil Rowley hit the jackpot 12 months ago, when his stable star Hazel Hill sauntered up the Cheltenham Hill in the hands of the trainer’s long-time jockey Alex Edwards to land Festival glory for the first time in the St James’s Palace Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase.

That victory was affirmation of the talents of Rowley, a man who had been champion point-to-point trainer in 2018, and also brought his prolific-pointer Hazel Hill to the forefront of the racing public’s conscience. 

A well-found 7/2 favourite on the day, Hazel Hill’s victory in the amateur showpiece gave the Rowley team a day to remember, drawing clear of Shantou Flyer and David Maxwell to score by a comfortable four lengths. 

It was a case of third time lucky for Rowley, who had saddled Barel Of Laughs to finish third behind Pacha Du Polder in the race previously and the Bridgnorth man was delighted the horse, affectionately known at home as Ted, was able to have his moment in the spotlight. 

He said: “It was a fantastic experience. It’s hard really to think of the right words to describe that feeling when you look up and he’s still travelling nicely as they started to get racing.  Alex was just beginning to get to work coming around the bend and he jumped the last and you’re thinking ‘Please stand up, please stand up’ and then he winged the last and went woosh… Brilliant wasn’t it. We’re very lucky to have him.

“It was just great to be there with something that had one hell of a chance. We had been going there for a few years, with Barel Of Laughs and a few others, and good old Barel Of Laughs was brilliant, he finished third two years running. However, he wasn’t really fancied, and we were almost just going there hopeful,” continued the winning trainer.

The trainer’s wife Mel Rowley, a vital cog in the operation at the families' Poplar Cottage Farm, added: “When Barel of Laughs finished third we basically celebrated like we had won it, to have a horse walk back into the winner’s enclosure on Gold Cup day was something special. So, if we had never done any better, we had that most amazing experience to look back on.”  

All roads now lead back to Prestbury Park as Hazel Hill attempts to become the tenth horse to win the Foxhunter twice. An achievement that has been achieved by Salsify, On The Fringe and Pacha Du Polder recently, who all went back to back.

“The Foxhunters do seem to go in pairs don’t they, and horses seem to win it back-to-back, so touch wood we can do that again,” said Rowley.

He continued: “Hey we’re going to try and do it again, and there is probably more chance of it not happening again than us winning in two weeks’ time, but they can never take that afternoon last year away from us.”

The journey back to the Cotswolds got off to the best possible start when Hazel Hill returned from a 254-day absence to take a Sheriff Hutton point in facile fashion, beating the former Tom George inmate Rocklander by a comfortable 15 lengths. 

However, things didn't go to plan at Wetherby when one of his chief market rivals for Cheltenham, Minella Rocco, claimed the scalp of the reigning champion in a four-runner affair which Rowley is keen to erase from his memory.

“He probably shouldn’t have even been there. Just the whole situation was wrong,” said the handler.

He continued: “It was a cat and mouse race. Derek O’Connor had come over from Ireland to ride Minella Rocco and gave him a brilliant ride. Ted never runs from the front, but we got left in front, it was just set up for it all to go wrong. Derek didn’t allow our lad to have a breather in the race at all! 

“He was beaten just over a length by a former Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up and everyone goes ‘oh my god what’s wrong with him’. Well there’s nothing wrong with him, it was just a catalogue of small things which went wrong, which no one would have talked about if the trainer hadn’t have run him there! A day to put a line through!!” said the trainer who is keen not to panic too much.

And initial worries that something was amiss following his venture to West Yorkshire were also quickly put to bed by Rowley.

He said: “He was a bit stiff and a bit sore after Wetherby. Having watched it back, he jumped the first three fences perfectly and then at the open ditch Al (Edwards) gave him a kick and he came up outside the wings, which was too big a jump for that stage of the race, he had to really reach for it. From then on, he was a little right-handed so maybe he tweaked something, but he’s been fine since.”

That was only the Milan gelding's second defeat in 14 outings for the Shropshire-based handler, the other also coming in a contest devoid of runners (a three-runner Sandon Point-to-point). Rowley is confident a line can be drawn through that performance and his stable star will be back on track when he returns to the undulations of Cheltenham’s new course, a venue he is two from two at. 

He said: “The Foxhunter will be a completely different ball-game. The race will be a true run race and Alex will be able to get some cover and allow Ted to do what he does best, just jump and travel in amongst horses. The key to this race is to sit and then sit and creep and that’s what Hazel Hill does best and hopefully it will be the same result as last year. We’re very confident that the horse will be right for Cheltenham, he’s come out of Wetherby well and is working fantastically.”

So how does the build-up to this year’s Cheltenham Festival differ to years previously? Does having the reigning champion make things easier?

“Easier! It makes it harder!” answered a jovial Rowley.

He added: “He’ll probably go there as favourite despite getting beat off Minella Rocco and I guess that’s a great place to be, but it’s only natural to feel a bit more pressure than we did when we had Barel Of Laughs at 100/1.”

Nonetheless, Rowley is confident his 12-year-old defending champion is set for a bold bid and could easily see Hazel Hill coming out on top in his rematch with the Jonjo O’Neill-trained former Gold Cup second. 

“There are going to be a lot of horses which could struggle to qualify with all the rain and abandonments, so I’m not sure there is much more we haven’t seen yet to come out of the woodwork. Derek O’Connor will probably ride Minella Rocco and the guy is a genius on a horse, but the old boy won’t get the run of the race in a Foxhunters at Cheltenham and the beauty of Hazel Hill is he can switch off and relax, which is exactly what you need to do to win the race,” said the handler of the reigning champion. 

The Foxhunter is a race synonymous with the amateur side of the sport, but in recent years some of the biggest yards in operation have landed the prize. This has caused grumblings and disgruntlement for some, but Rowley sees no issue and enjoys testing his training skills against the very best.

He said: “It’s quite a controversial topic isn’t it! But personally, I don’t have a problem at all with professional trainers running in the race. I think we need to be very careful, there is a lot of people anti it I know, but if any rule was brought in to stop it then it could be the end of the races.”

“I want to compete against the very best, I want to be able to stand up and take on the top boys, it’s more of a challenge. To get a horse at 100/1 to finish third in a race won by Paul Nicholls is great for someone like me.” He continued. 

Hazel Hill has been an instrumental part of Rowley’s rise through the training ranks in the pointing field and he always saw the horse as a potential Cheltenham horse. However, the son of Milan’s owner took plenty of persuasion.

He said: “The first year we had him we won god knows how many point-to-points and then I said ‘we’ll go for the Foxhunter next year’. Mrs Williams, his owner, was like ‘oh no that will be too big a step for him’.”

Although it was his Warwick victory, when Hazel Hill first came to the attention of the wider racing public when routing a field stacked with top-quality opposition by 11-lengths, which helped change the owners mind.

Rowley said: “It was pretty cool wasn’t it. The field that day was red-hot. David Maxwell had just bought Shantou Flyer for a fortune and there were a few others on the list who were talked about as potential Cheltenham horses in the line-up.  

“Mrs Williams phoned up when the entries came out and was like ‘have you seen what’s entered’, and I rather nonchalantly said ‘yeah he’ll be grand’. Anyway, we’re tacking up at Warwick and Mrs Williams is helping us and even then, she was still unsure, she was so nervous. So, it was just great when he did what he did. We were stood together by the winning post and he jumped the last and she turned and just went ‘ok let’s go for it’ and that’s when I got the green-light to go for Cheltenham!” added Rowley, who has fond memories of that January afternoon in the midlands. 

With only 23 races on the CV, the 12-year-old is lightly-raced, and there could be plenty more to come from him if he was to be successful in going back-to-back at the Festival. 

“We’ll have to see how this season goes; his end goal is to go home to his owner and be a hunter. Cheltenham will decide a lot. We wouldn’t rule out going to Aintree if it’s soft enough, although there’s not much time between the two races and I’m not sure it would be totally the right thing to do. There’d want to be a real cut in the ground to slow it down a bit as they go real helter-skelter there,” said the handler of his flagship horse’s future plans.

The trainer also gave his opinion on why he thought Hazel Hill was so good, and why especially, he was flourishing now as he approaches his teenage years.

“He’s very lightly raced for a 12-year-old, and he was kept within himself in his early career so was winning races comfortably, so has probably plenty in the tank. He isn’t straightforward and has had his problems, but a lot of these top horses do, you just don’t hear about it. But, he’s so relaxed and in his races, he switches off and doesn’t waste any unnecessary energy, which is exact reverse of what happened at Wetherby,” explained Rowley of the characteristics which make Hazel Hill special. 

There are many strings to the Rowley bow, their Poplar Cottage base is the epitome of hard work, with their cleverly designed set-up complimented perfectly by the Shropshire undulations, providing the ideal base to house their business. 

From breaking to pre-training right through to training the point-to-pointers, the Rowley’s do it all from their Shropshire home, with Phil still farming when time allows. 

“We’ve been here 20 years and built it up over that time to what you can see today,” said Rowley of the journey to where they are today. 

He continued: “We used to break plenty of Flat yearlings for various different owners and then we got involved with Highflyer Bloodstock who have been hugely supportive of us. That’s allowed us to get our name out there and meet people and so on and they’ve been able to see how hard we work and how honest we are and allowed us to grow the business really. So, we’re grateful for all the many people who have supported us in one way or another along the journey.

“We’ve had to alter the farming; we’ve got a lot more cattle now instead of sheep which fits in better with the horses. We’re constantly tweaking our routine to see what works best. We’ve got busier and busier over the years and we’re just constantly looking at improving both the facilities and how we do things,” he said of the alterations he has had to make over the years. 

In the pre-training side of the business, Rowley has been entrusted with some bright young talent over the years. The best to walk through the Poplar Cottage gates is undoubtedly Sprinter Sacre, who spent his formative years in Shropshire learning his trade with the handler. 

“Sprinter Sacre is the one who has gone on to be a star. I could be all big and clever and tell you I could tell he was going to be special, but he didn’t do anything differently to what anything else we’ve had does. I suppose though, considering what he went onto achieve, we must have done an alright job! And it’s great to be associated with such a horse.” Said Rowley about his time with the dual-Champion Chase winner. 

Teamwork is a big facet of what keeps the wheel turning at Poplar Cottage and Rowley takes pride in the fact that he has happy, committed staff under his tutelage, who play a key role in the success of the operation. Special praise is reserved for his trusty lieutenant and Head Girl Michaela Tallett, and long-time ally and man in the saddle on the big occasions, Alex Edwards.

He said: “We’ve got a great core here staff wise. Alex and Michaela have been with us for what has felt like forever and are a big help both to me and the team. We just all work and build together to get things done.

“Alex came to us about 10 years ago. He was a professional on the Flat before us and then came here to ride out full time. His first ride for us came on a horse at Thorpe Lodge and they were second and we’ve built from there. Like all trainer-jockey partnerships, we’ve had good times and bad times, but hopefully the good outweighs the bad. He’s our main jockey, a huge part of the operation and hopefully he continues to be happy here,” continued Rowley about the man who partnered Hazel Hill to success 12 months ago. 

Another essential part in the Rowley Racing engine is Phil’s wife Mel Rowley, a true all-rounder in the equine world, who has all the expertise required to ensure the horses get the best possible assistance in their training. The handler also hinted that Mel could be joining the professional ranks at some stage as they continually look to expand their business.

He said: “Mel is a huge part of it all. Taking out a professional licence in Mel’s name has been spoken about, but if that does that happen it won’t affect anything I do; it’ll be her thing in her name.” 

He went on to explain that the nature of point-to-point racing and the extra opportunities to showcase their squad under National Hunt Rules would be the key factor in Mel making that leap.

“It would primarily be because we have a lot of young horses. We find we get limited chances to run them point-to-pointing, so it would open up our options more. When you have 15-20 three/four-year-olds, you can’t run them all in the same race, so it just gives us more races to target,” explained Rowley. 

A family man through and through, everything Rowley sets out to achieve is for the benefit of those he loves and to provide a secure future for his children Isabella and Edward. The former an unmissable character at Poplar Cottage, bouncing around the yard and getting involved with the horses. 

He said: “It isn’t the be all and end all to be champion even though it is what we all hope to achieve at a start of a season, the main thing is to be successful.

“Now success can mean a whole host of different things. I have two children which are probably the most important things in my life, so as long as they are happy and our family are happy and if the business can keep moving forward, then I guess that is more important than sacrificing things to be champion or win this that and the other.” Continued a man with a clear grasp on what’s important to him in life.

Rowley lists a six-timer at a point-to-point meeting at Bangor amongst his achievements as a trainer. As well as winning the point-to-point trainer’s championship in 2018 and being a constant figure at the top of the handling lists between the flags, the Shropshire man also operates at a more than respectable strike-rate of around 25% under Rules. However, this is something he would like to improve….

“25%......That’s not very good really is it. I know point-to-point wise we tend to run at 40%, so we’ve always got stuff to be working on,” said Rowley.

“Percentages are important to me as that gives you an indication of where you’re at. The statistics don’t lie, so I like to see that my horses are running their best and maintaining their form. If you get that right, then Championships will come, and everything will slot into place nicely,” explained Rowley of his philosophy on training. 

With a Cheltenham Festival victory now on the CV, to accompany a trainer’s title in the pointing field, what else does Rowley hope to achieve in his career?

He said: “Maybe a win at Aintree…. I don’t actually know if we have won the Aintree Foxhunters or not, it all seems to be still up in the air and ongoing. Nevertheless, winning by default isn’t the same as your horse crossing the line in front so there is a bit of unfinished business with that race. I guess we just have to see if we get the right horse for the race.  Those Festival races are where you want to be winning and having runners. What the future holds I don’t know…. I just hope it involves plenty of WINNERS!”

Cheltenham Festival Tips
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