It seems unlikely that many of the owners who gather at next week’s Cheltenham Festival will be sharing stories of their time on a picket line in South Yorkshire during the miners’ strike. But one of them at least will be able to do so, thanks to the presence of Andrew Gemmell, whose Paisley Park is widely fancied to win the Stayers Hurdle on Thursday week.
His history as a trade union official is just one of the ways in which Gemmell differs from your stereotypical owner but he is a match for anyone in his enthusiasm for racing and sport in general. Blind since birth, he latched on to radio commentaries as a reliable source of entertainment while he was a boy in the 1960s and that passion has lasted so well that in recent years he has circled the globe on his way to Kentucky Derbies, Melbourne Cups, cricket Tests and tennis finals.
Gemmell has also bought himself little slices of the action from time to time. If you have heard of an ownership syndicate in horse racing, he has been in it, from Million In Mind through Favourites Racing to Highclere and others, and he has had shares in some talented animals that way. Things have gone less well when he has struck out on his own; a handful of not-very-flashy animals have carried his own blue, pink and maroon colours.
But then came Paisley Park, the handsome, athletic bay who bolted up by 12 lengths in his January prep race at Cheltenham. His is a story to make any owner groan with envy at Gemmell, who gave a budget of £100,000 to the trainer Emma Lavelle and asked her to find a promising young animal. When owners do that, they can hardly be surprised that the final bill often comes to £100,000, but the canny Lavelle shelled out just £60,000 in 2015 for Paisley Park and he has already won that back three times.
Unbeaten in four races this winter, the horse returns to Cheltenham as one of the hottest favourites for next week. Bookmakers will give you no bigger than 7-4 about him and, despite himself, Gemmell is starting to anticipate what it would be like to own a Festival winner, almost half a century after he first attended the race-meeting to witness The Dikler win the Gold Cup.
“I’m feeling really nervous,” he confided over lunch in a north London pub last week. “You’re excited to have a horse in a big race but when you’ve got the favourite, it puts extra pressure on you. I’m really optimistic but I’m also bracing myself for disappointment.”
He last experienced this kind of tension in 2015, when he bought into the Ascot Gold Cup winner Trip To Paris and accompanied him to Australia, where the horse ran second in the Caulfield Cup and fourth in the Melbourne Cup. For most of the buildup to the Flemington race, Gemmell was the only syndicate member in the country and so found himself telling his story again and again to media outlets, just as he is once more doing back home.
To be in this position again is a great thrill for the 66-year-old who, as a teenager, persuaded the school handyman to place his bets. It was an intoxicating time for a young racing fan, Arkle beating Mill House at Cheltenham every spring while Lester battled Scobie around Epsom each June. Right Tack in the Guineas of 1969 was a notable early success for Gemmell. Four years later, he did not immediately warm to Red Rum, having obtained 20-1 about Crisp, famously collared by the great horse in the Grand National’s final strides.
Work intervened but Gemmell found ways of keeping in touch with racing while serving in the social services department of Westminster city council, where, if a race was particularly important, he would sometimes risk listening to the commentary by phone. “How long are you going to be, Andrew?” he recalls his boss asking. “About four furlongs,” he replied.
He became a shop steward and Nalgo official and remembers clashing with Shirley Porter, “when she was selling the cemeteries cheap”. His union branch was twinned with an NUM branch near Doncaster, explaining his brief involvement in the miner’s strike.
An inheritance has since allowed Gemmell to make his entry into racing as an owner, though he was beginning to think of pulling his horns in before Paisley Park started winning large dollops of prize money. His betting has also helped top up funds from time to time.
“I study the form as much as I can. I’ve got friends who read stuff to me. I watch a lot on the television and take in as much as I can. I try my best to keep up to speed with everything. I’ve got one friend who rings me on Saturdays with all the Racing Post news.”
When Paisley Park is running next week, Gemmell will base himself in the paddock, where he can hear the commentary and a handful of close friends can keep him updated by watching the big screen. “The horse is extremely well, touch wood. Everything’s gone right this year, so we can’t really complain, win or lose.”