What do Gregory Peck, Sir Alex Ferguson and the Queen Mother have in common? They all tried and failed, along with thousands of others, to win the world’s most famous horse race as an owner. By comparison Trevor Hemmings seems positively greedy. He will set a record of four wins if his horse Many Clouds, favourite to repeat last year’s success, wins the Grand National at Aintree on Saturday.
The spotlight in the aftermath of the race usually falls on the winning horse, jockey or trainer. Leighton Aspell would complete a Grand National hat-trick should he ride Many Clouds to glory, but if it happens top billing this time might go instead to Hemmings, one of the most popular figures in racing.
Hemmings, 80, is much more than an owner and breeder of racehorses. He is a businessman, philanthropist, friend of the royals, and owner of Preston North End Football Club. He started his first business with £12 and is now one of the wealthiest men in Britain.
“There’s no reason why Many Clouds won’t win again,” says Hemmings at his home on the Isle of Man, where his horses enjoy a long and relaxing retirement when their racing days are over. “He’s a very, very good horse.” He showed it by jumping superbly in his final prep race at Kelso, winning so impressively that he became outright favourite for the National at 8–1.
Hemmings might set a record for celebrations, too, if Many Clouds wins. “Every time I’ve won the National I’ve had a special celebration in Kanturk in north Cork, that’s where my Irish stud is, the horses’ nursery. Then another near Chorley in Lancashire, that’s the infants and junior school where the horses develop. And one here in the Isle of Man. If there’s anybody left to invite I’ll have one in London too. I don’t mind a party.” There’s even a drink made for the occasion: Many Clouds is the name of a brown ale brewed in the horse’s honour near Lambourn, in Berkshire, where Many Clouds is trained by Oliver Sherwood.
Hemmings has been a horse man all his life. “I like to see them growing up,” he said. “I’m not one for buying a £500,000 racehorse because it might win me a race next week. Look at Ballabriggs [his 2011 National winner]… I had him all the way from a little fella. What’s nicer than that?”
Having been evacuated from London as a young boy in the Second World War, Hemmings settled in Leyland, Lancashire, where he saw a daily reminder of the First World War. Horses that had made it safely home from the battlefield lived out their days, two decades later, in a field near his home.
He decided to go into business when he was still a teenager, working on the railways and studying at night school. “I started out in building and got my first business going with £12,” he says. “I built up the company then sold it on. I kept doing that and the companies kept getting better, and bigger. Maybe it was a bit easier to open doors back then, but I made sure to open them. And I worked all hours.”
He took on a contract to build holiday homes for Pontins; years later, he bought the company. Its founder, Fred Pontin, was himself a Grand National-winning owner, and through him Hemmings furthered his interest in racing. He met Ginger McCain and Noel le Mare, trainer and owner of Red Rum, and told himself that one day he, too, would win the Grand National.
While Hemmings’s beloved horses enjoy a quiet retirement, he keeps himself busy. “I’m up at six every day, I still have plenty to do,” he says. He owns a company that runs 500 pubs, has a dozen hotels, a large property portfolio, and working estates in Ireland, England and the Isle of Man. Then there are the horses – 37 in action this season, with 16 different trainers, plus all those coming through or retired, and several shires and Suffolk Punches in the Isle of Man.
And, of course, there’s the football club and the charity work, much of it conducted through Princess Anne’s trust for carers. (Hemmings provided Zara Phillips with the horse on which she won an Olympic silver medal in 2012.)
He set up a support centre in Preston for victims of sexual assault, and was awarded the Royal Victorian Order for his work in helping the Princess Royal’s charity. He says racing is an expensive hobby but doesn’t stop to calculate how much it costs him. “I give ten times more to charities in a year than I spend on horses, so my perspective is good.”
He also likes to see others win at the bookmakers’ expense. When Hedgehunter became his first National winner in 2005, bookies in the Isle of Man took a big hit. “Ballabriggs did it again to them in 2011, and last year Many Clouds was 25–1 – that really took them to task. Over in Ireland, where Many Clouds grew up, the betting shop ran out of cash. That’s what I like – share it out, that’s what it’s all about.”
The staff of Preston North End have enjoyed some nice wins, too. Phil Brown, the manager at the time, had never been so happy after an away draw at Portsmouth five years ago – not because of the result, but because of his bet on Ballabriggs. Hemmings has been involved with Preston as a director, on and off, since 1970, and became the owner in 2010. Every year he invites the club staff to his private box at Aintree.
What if Preston were playing on Grand National day? “I’d follow the football on the radio, and attend the National,” he said. “I didn’t start as a horse owner until 1984, a while after I was first involved with football, but I’ve been closer to racing, more involved day by day.
“And I’ve always loved jump racing. I have had my best days in racing at Aintree, although now and again we have sadnesses as well as the upsides. The main hope every time is that horse and rider come back safe. But I don’t think racing deserves all the protests about safety. Sometimes I think people who protest don’t fully understand what they are protesting about.
“My favourite moment would be any of my Grand National wins. If you see me after, it’s as though I own everything in sight, everybody saying well done, shaking your hand. I love it. I’ll be there again at Aintree to have a good go.”
Coverage of The Grand National begins on Saturday from 2pm on Channel 4 and from 5pm on Radio 5 Live