Michael Banks: the small-time trainer with a live Cheltenham contender
A Steve Dennis interview with the trainer of Clerk's Choice from November 2010
Michael Banks is not used to this. There are journalists in his kitchen, reporters on his telephone, he’s having to navigate previously uncharted waters as far as the programme book is concerned.
Across the yard, the unwitting catalyst for all the recent changes pokes his head over the door of his box and basks in a sunbeam. Banks has been a permit-holder for 37 years and he’s never had a horse like Clerk’s Choice.
Clerk’s Choice was no more than an unremarkable name in the racecard before he demolished his rivals at Cheltenham last month, thrashing the well-regarded pair Royal Mix and Barizan by 21 lengths and the rest. Now he’s rated 162 and has gained currency as a Champion Hurdle prospect. Heady, head-turning stuff.
“I’m used to my horses running in 0-105 handicaps,” says Banks. “Someone on Racing UK was talking about Cue Card, and said how nice it was to see one of the smaller stables with a very good horse.
“If Colin Tizzard has one of the smaller stables, what does that make me? I’m tiddly!”
Good horses such as Poly Amanshaa, Cambo and Domappel came and went, Banks juggling his hobby horses with his day jobs of farming, stewarding, building a grain empire and eking out a couple of wins a season, keeping his hand in, keeping his blood up.
“I had a lot of fun, had Bob Davies, Macer Gifford, David Skyrme, Jim Culloty riding for me, but went into semi-retirement after Barry Skyrme, who looked after my horses, retired and I just had the odd horse on the Flat with Willie Jarvis,” he says.
Business commitments and the call of the stewards’ room put pressure on his time and, six years ago, Banks let his licence lapse. He was still on the lookout for the ‘odd horse’, though, and, having switched his focus from the horses-in-training sales to the yearling sales, found one.
“I was chairman of Huntingdon at the time, and the clerk of the course Fiona Needham was a ‘spotter’ at the yearling sales for Tom Goff,” says Banks.
“I told Fiona that if she saw something that was a bit more dual-purpose she should bear me in mind, and she said she’d seen something she liked and Blandford Bloodstock duly bought it.
“I paid £18,000, which made him one of my cheaper ones over the years. It took less than a minute to give him a name – Fiona found him, so he was Clerk’s Choice.”
Clerk’s Choice was a fair sort on the Flat, winning at Sandown, but Banks reckoned he had gone a bit over the top towards the end of his three-year-old career and decided to bring him back home to Manor Farm in Waresley, halfway between Bedford and Cambridge.
“I bought Clerk’s Choice primarily as a Flat horse, but I thought I’d give him a whirl over hurdles,” he says. “If he’d gone to the horses-in-training sale someone would have snapped him up as a potential hurdler, so I decided to find out for myself.
“He took to it immediately, he was just a natural, every time he schooled he got better and better.”
Banks entertained thoughts of the Triumph Hurdle but the hard winter put paid to that; he reckons it the best thing that could have happened. Clerk’s Choice learned his trade carefully and well, and if Banks rued the loss of his new star’s novice status with a week of the season to run he put it behind him, looking forward instead to a career in handicaps.
Cheltenham changed all that. Banks is trying not to get carried away and occasionally succeeding, but Clerk’s Choice continues to improve and a breathless Hall said “better than ever” after he had completed a gentle piece of work for the photographer, twice round the bottom field and up the side of another, skirting the edge of the plough.
“The gallops man says that when he schools he never needs to even get his mallet out, because he knows he’ll never touch a twig.” Banks adds, slightly cagily, that he’s turned down six-figure offers for the four-year-old. It can’t have been a hard choice to make.
“He’s not for sale,” he says, as forthrightly as you might expect from a captain of business who was awarded an OBE for representing the British grain trade in Brussels and spent two years as president of the European grain trade.
“Putting my business hat on, perhaps I should think very seriously about it. But with it being a hobby, a thrill – no. Anyway, if I sold him I would have trouble from my wife Rosalind, from Minnie and from a few other people who’d say ‘you’ve been waiting for this all this time and now you’re getting rid of it’. Money doesn’t buy you everything.”
He smiles. His stewarding days are over, the milestone of his 70th year having ended his tenure at Huntingdon, Warwick, Newmarket and Leicester and, although he’s happy to talk business, the conversation keeps coming round to pleasure.
“The improvement in ‘Clerk’ from the middle of May, when he was turned out, has been amazing. Good old ‘Johnny Greengrass’ has had an incredible effect on him,” says Banks.
“I thought he’d run very well at Cheltenham, make the first three. We thought he was good, but I didn’t think he’d win, didn’t think he’d win like that. It was the best day of my racing career. To walk into that hallowed place was a real thrill. Now we potentially have a very good horse. I’m not saying he’s a champion, but for people like us, just fiddling around . . .”
He leaves the rest unsaid, in the process speaking volumes. Banks, a craggy, jovial man with a good laugh, now has to pilot his stable star through the rest of the season, and in doing so he echoes the late Tim Forster, another stranger to half the programme book. Haydock this weekend is next, ground permitting, and then horse permitting, the net will be cast wider.
Clerk's Choice has already won at Banks’s beloved Huntingdon – “That’s the good thing about winning at your local track, everyone’s so pleased for you, although he wasn’t a very good price!” – and if there is a little sadness in the knowledge that he’ll never win the race that honours Banks’s father, it’s assuaged by the limitless possibilities of the future.
“He may run in the International Hurdle back at Cheltenham,” says Banks. “Maybe the Christmas Hurdle, but he won’t run in January and will probably have one run at the end of February before going to the festival.
“In any case, I’m sure he’ll stay 2m4f and that gives us the option of the Aintree Hurdle. The Champion Hurdle is not the be-all-and-end-all.” If there is a vague absurdity hanging in the air at the uttering of that final sentence by such a man, in such a yard, Banks doesn’t let it show. He seems to be getting used to this after all.
What happened next . . .
Clerk's Choice was a disappointing fourth of five as odds-on favourite at Haydock, albeit less than five lengths behind winner Carlito Brigante, and the following month he was fourth behind Menorah, Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti in the Grade 2 International Hurdle at Cheltenham. After a three-month break, his next run was in the Champion Hurdle and he put up a career-best performance to finish sixth behind Hurricane Fly. In all, he won four times over hurdles and twice on the Flat in the Banks colours.