Inside the Cotswolds country club where horses are just as welcome as people
Unlike the throngs of Londoners who arrived in the Cotswolds in their Range Rovers during lockdown, buying homes for upwards of £10million and pissing off locals with their double car parks, Ben is a dyed-in-the-wool local. His father was a farmer – he worked on Jeremy Clarkson’s farm, Diddly Squat, and it was his retirement that led Clarkson to take it up – growing up surrounded by horses and pulling pints in his local.
Ben originally dreamed of being a jump jockey but lost the sight in his right eye in a farming accident, when a rusty piece of barbed wire pierced him. “After that it was about being a coach,” he says.
Initially, he worked for champion obstacle course trainer, Nicky Henderson. His own yard followed in 2013, the year after he married Sophie, with just eight horses owned by friends and family.
And in the beginning, Ben Pauling Racing couldn’t be wrong: Barters Hill, a sweet bay named after the area where Ben used to race his ponies, put them on the map by winning his first seven races for become one of the best novice hurdlers in the country; in 2017, Willoughby Court was its first Cheltenham Festival winner.
“Everyone cried – we were watching a dream come true,” Sophie says. By the time Le Breuil became their second Cheltenham winner of 2019, Ben Pauling Racing’s owner demographic had expanded to include celebrities and entrepreneurs, including Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company.
“Harry Redknapp became an owner just before going on I’m A Celebrity; I was touched that we were one of the first calls he made when he came out of the jungle,” Ben says.
An annus horribilis followed. A virus has made its way into the yard, sending the horses out of shape; the following year, Covid hit. “When racing resumed there were no spectators so I had to call the owners with the results. If it was a win, great, but dealing with disappointment and frustration when you can’t enjoy the show is difficult.
It is certain that the atmosphere of this year’s Festival will be more electric than ever. “There will be titanic battles on this famous hill to make hearts beat faster.” He entered six horses this year, including the two from Redknapp.
Naturally, there will be after-parties at Naunton Downs.
A key difference with Soho Farmhouse is that there are no plans to turn Naunton Downs into a private club. Everyone is welcome; the only VIPs are the owners of racehorses, who will be able to observe their galloping animals in the warmth and comfort of a glassed-in living room, a glass of champagne in hand. “I’m going to have to suppress the urge to tell them to get up and get out,” Ben admits. “But I realize other people don’t want to be in the rain all day like me.”