An empty magnum of champagne rests on the mantelpiece in the Mathias family’s farmhouse, drained of its celebratory fizz. This indulgence is testament to the philosophy Fred Mathias took to the racing careers that gripped four generations of his farming family.
“Dad always said that when you get a good day’s racing you should celebrate it because there will be plenty of bad days,” says Philip, a livestock producer who gave up racing after he ruptured a kidney in a fall two decades ago.
Now it is Philip’s 19-year-old son, John, who is setting the racing world alight. There have been plenty of opportunities of late for the “right old knees-ups” that Fred advocated, with John chalking up wins on both the point-to-point circuit and while racing under National Hunt Rules.
John learned to ride almost before he could walk but that’s hardly surprising given his family background. His grandfather, Fred, achieved fame as a fearless amateur point-to-point jockey while great-grandfather, Ivor, was also a successful point-to-pointer.
“All I have ever wanted to do was race; eventing and showing never really interested me because they weren’t fast enough,” says John.
His family’s link to horse-racing is evident when you stand in their farmyard near Lydstep in Pembrokeshire and look to the horizon. There in the distance, where their cattle graze, is a point-to-point course.
And there is nothing quite like winning on home turf. “It’s my favourite venue because it’s home and a home crowd,” John admits. “If I’m lucky enough to get a result there, it is an amazing experience.”
He is the first generation of the Mathias family who has chosen not to combine farming with racing. Although John keeps a few cattle of his own, he spends six days a week working at the yard of Pembrokeshire trainer Dai Rees where he is head lad and an amateur jockey.
As an amateur, he races for the love of the sport and not payment but this status suits him for now because, as a professional, he would be precluded from competing in point-to-point events. He does, however, hold a Category B licence which permits him to race under National Hunt rules against professional jockeys.
John’s family background has been influential in achieving his ambition. “It’s like anything – if you are in the right environment for long enough it will stick,” he says. “Dad and my grandfather were always around horses, talking about horses and looking at them. I learned from them both.”
In the words of his grandmother, Diane, who was herself a successful point-to-point jockey when there were very few females on the circuit: “Horses get into your system and, once that happens, you never lose it.”
One of the most challenging aspects of racing – apart from the race itself – is achieving weight limits. It’s not easy to be a farmer and to be on a starvation diet in the days leading up to a race, as Philip well recalls. He is 6ft 2in and, when he raced under rules, he needed to weigh in at 11st 7lb. “There was no secret diet, it was a case of starving myself when there was a race coming up,” he says. “I used to get very tired because of it but the buzz of racing kept me going.”
For Philip, it was always a borderline battle, but the challenge is not quite so great for John because he is shorter at 5ft 11in. But he, too, has to fight to keep his weight down, like the time he had to race at 9st 10lb. “I can lose 10lb in two days; you have to train your system to accept less,” he maintains.
Genetics may have a role in breeding successful jockeys but good horses are essential too. “Good horses make good jockeys, they instill confidence,” says Philip. And winning is important in what can be a fickle industry. “Winners breed winners; if you ride winners everyone wants you. If you ride a few high-profile winners you get noticed,” he adds.
Since giving up racing, Philip has built up a horse business with his wife, Jan, training point-to-pointers and breeding brood mares. This probably sits better alongside his farming activities than racing did. “When I was racing there were a fair few corners cut on the farm on a Saturday morning but it always got done,” Philip recalls. “You can make anything work if you want it to. I suppose we are not farmers with horses but horse-racing farmers.”
The highlight of his racing career was when he was named the UK’s the best youth jockey in 1982.Twenty-two years later it was John’s turn. They are the only father and son ever to have won the award, now known as the Wilkinson Sword Trophy. And Fred, too, had his fair share of national success, winning the national point-to-point championship in 1956.
John is in his third year of racing for Dai Rees and is aiming to build on the success he achieved last year, when he won two races under rules within 24 hours.
Philip always tries to be in the crowd of spectators when John is racing but emotionally distances himself. “I tend to watch a race objectively,” he says.
A degree of success is addictive and John admits he could never go back to being a “happy hacker”. “I couldn’t race every week and finish last. When you ride a couple of winners you want more of it,” he says.