“It’s been a complete whirlwind,” says Guy Leach, one of those owners who have been supporting racing for decades without attaining any kind of fame. His involvement, while enjoyable, has generally been confined to Mondays at Chepstow and Tuesdays at Wolverhampton, where whirlwinds are rarely to be found, but now, thanks to the magnificent Pyledriver, Leach is a Royal Ascot winner with every reason to hope for a big result in Saturday’s Derby.
Along with his brother, Huw, and Roger Devlin, a friend from long-ago university days, the Cardiff-based Leach has been owning “bits and bobs for about 20 years”. Flashy colts and Classic entries were never supposed to be on the agenda. They thought they had hit the big time when Pistol took them to the Cheltenham Festival in 2013, where he was a 25-1 shot in the Fred Winter.
“He flattered to deceive a bit,” Leach recalls of Pistol, his voice a blend of affection and ruefulness. “He won two of his first three races but he loved lolling along against poor company and when he was up against the big boys, he didn’t really like it.”
Something maybe a bit better than Pistol was what they were hoping for when they bought a hurdling prospect from Philip Hobbs in the summer of 2015. La Pyle had won on the Flat in France but could not translate that success to Worcester or Fontwell. Leach reckons an accident in training held her back.
The friends decided to cut their losses and put her up for auction, changing their minds only when the late Kevin Mercer, of Usk Valley Stud, looked at her pedigree and liked what he saw. He encouraged Leach to try something new and breed from her.
Her first foal is Pyledriver, a 50-1 winner of his debut race at Salisbury last summer who has continued to beat the odds. A big horse, he still looked a work in progress when sent to Royal Ascot recently, where he finished clear of a couple of fancied Aidan O’Brien runners in the King Edward VII Stakes, known as the Ascot Derby.
Naturally enough, his owners have had a few offers along the way but are happy to sit tight for now. “There’s three of us, so even if it’s a sizeable number, it has to be divided three ways,” Leach says.
One early approach was tempting but would probably have meant the colt disappearing overseas. Mindful that La Pyle would produce more foals, they wanted him running in Britain and hopefully advertising the quality of his family.
Pyledriver runs in the name of Leach’s engineering firm, Knox & Wells, which has managed to continue operating at around 80% capacity during the coronavirus crisis. But the lockdown rules in Wales mean he will not be able to attend Epsom on Saturday, even if racing does relax its precautions to allow owners to be present.
“Our two daughters will be here, we’ll open the French doors, sit out on the terrace, have a glass of wine with them and we’ll be shouting away. We’ll still enjoy it.”
It is a pity to be missing a once in a lifetime experience but Leach is philosophical. “A friend of mine said to me, why couldn’t you be at Ascot? But if you’re living on the 10th floor with two kids and a dog and you see people swanning around at Ascot … it’s not a fair world. So I accepted it, to be honest.”
The bookmakers have Pyledriver sixth in the Derby betting at 16-1, a shorter price than he was for Ascot. “I’m realistic on the chance,” Leach says. “There’s obviously a lot of other good horses. But we’re just delighted to be there and he just keeps surpassing all expectations. You just hope he gets a clean run.”
Saturday’s Northumberland Plate fell to Caravan Of Hope, trained by Hugo Palmer, who also had the third home, Collide. Now based in Newmarket and with no trace of a north-eastern accent, Palmer nonetheless claimed this as a local victory. “I’m a Newcastle United fan, I grew up just north of there, I went to university there,” he said. “The Plate is one of those races I’ve dreamt of winning.”