A blind owner & the horse who nearly died - can Paisley Park deliver a Cheltenham fairytale?

By Frank KeoghBBC Sport
Winning team: Paisley Park with jockey Aidan Coleman, owner Andrew Gemmell and trainer Emma Lavelle
Winning team: Paisley Park with jockey Aidan Coleman, owner Andrew Gemmell and trainer Emma Lavelle

"Probably best not to text," he says with a wry smile when giving out his phone number.

Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth, has a wicked sense of humour to go with his wicked sense of judgement.

He has never seen a racehorse, yet appears to have a sixth sense - an uncanny understanding of the thoroughbred, which led him to become owner of Paisley Park, favourite for a major race at the Cheltenham Festival.

Named after the late singer Prince's home and recording studio, the fast-improving hurdler nearly died two years ago from a serious illness.

Yet Paisley Park has gone on to give trainer Emma Lavelle and jockey Aidan Coleman their first top-level Grade One wins after years of trying.

Racing fans have been endeared by former shop steward Gemmell, who relies on radio commentaries and racecourse tannoys for updates, and gleefully shook his white stick to accompany the latest triumph.

From a miners' strike picket line and attending hundreds of music gigs, to Ashes cricket Tests in Australia and toasting West Ham wins in the pub where World Cup winners were once regulars - his is no ordinary tale.

In the purple at Cheltenham?

Cheltenham racecourse
The 2019 Cheltenham Festival takes place between 12-15 March

Gemmell and his pals will party like it's 1999 if Paisley Park can follow up January's impressive victory at Cheltenham by landing Thursday's feature race, the Stayers' Hurdle, back at the track.

Earlier wins this season at Aintree and Haydock, then the Grade One JLT Hurdle at Ascot in December, demonstrated the gelding's progress since finishing down the field at last year's Festival.

The seven-year-old, who Gemmell had backed in the autumn at 33-1 to win the Stayers' Hurdle, is now nearer a 2-1 shot.

"It crosses my mind, what it would be like to win. But if you get too wound up you are going to get a pretty nasty shock if things go wrong," says the 66-year-old former local government officer.

"I tend to look at it glass half full to be honest. It's very exciting."

In one of the four-day meeting's most anticipated clashes, the English-trained horse will take on Ireland's feted Faugheen - the veteran 2015 champion hurdler, nicknamed The Machine.

"Faugheen is a massive danger and Supasundae could be a big player too," says Gemmell.

"All things being equal, we should be there or thereabouts. At Cheltenham, the whole atmosphere is amazing. I'm sure the place will go nuts if Faugheen wins, but let's see. I'm hopeful."

It is a long way from the colic that threatened Paisley Park's life two years ago.

"This horse was really ill. For him to come back and do what he's done has been incredible," adds Gemmell.

A world of sport

Gemmell grew up in Shropshire with Scottish parents - his father Hugh from Ayrshire and Glaswegian mother Phoebe. They were GPs, and he boarded at the Royal National College for the Blind, near Shrewsbury.

There was no history of the disability in the family, yet his older brother was also born blind - what Gemmell calls "a freak of nature".

Gemmell has enjoyed a love of sport since childhood, which grew from listening to the likes of John Arlott on BBC Radio's Test Match Special while vividly painting pictures in his head of faraway venues.

He joined a horse riding for the blind project but was frustrated by not being allowed to go faster.

A trip to the Scottish Grand National aged 12 and summer visits to York Racecourse ignited his interest in horses, and he would ask the school maintenance man to place bets for him.

After moving to London in his 20s, Gemmell became friends with a group of Australians in his local pub - the Compton Arms in Islington - and has since been a frequent visitor down under for racing's Melbourne Cup.

Other adventures have included the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Dubai World Cup and the Kentucky Derby.

"Andrew is absolutely brilliant and will never let his blindness spoil his enjoyment of life," says Lavelle, who trains in Marlborough, Wiltshire, with her husband Barry Fenton, a former jockey.

"He has a great bond with the horses. He comes down armed with Polo Mints and wants to go and feed them all."

After involvement with ownership syndicates such as Million In Mind and Favourites Racing, he bought his first horse outright in 2007 with a mixture of savings and inheritance money. Seymar Lad won four times.

So how does he follow the racing action?

"You can get the commentary on the radio or if you're at the races it is on the tannoy - and that's all I need. I have a great memory for all the results," he says.

Pubs, strikes and the Hammers

Trainer Emma Lavelle and owner Andrew Gemmell
Trainer Emma Lavelle and owner Andrew Gemmell

Cheltenham is often the topic of discussion in a corner of the Black Lion pub in East London, where Gemmell - who enjoys a tipple before West Ham matches here - tells me more of his life story.

He worked at Westminster Council for 20 years, first doing clerical work, then organising and managing child protection conferences.

"I was also assistant branch secretary of the union for a while and shop steward. I had one or two brushes with the law on the picket line, including at the miners' strike," he recalls.

Gemmell got a "reasonably good deal" for early retirement aged 42, when his post was centralised and the register made digital.

The bar was once graced by West Ham's England World Cup winners Bobby Moore and Sir Geoff Hurst. Actor Ray Winstone has been among more recent celebrity visitors.

Gemmell started supporting West Ham when he went along with workmates after moving to London, and former manager Harry Redknapp has been introduced to the Paisley Park story.

"Ah yeah, the Black Lion - we were always in there with Mooreo. Win or lose, we're on the booze was his old saying," Redknapp, the recently-crowned 'King of the Jungle' reality TV star, told me at Cheltenham in January.

Gemmell - who cites defender Billy Bonds as his favourite player - shares his racing passion with Tom Friel, Irish landlord of the Plaistow pub, which is about a 20-minute walk from West Ham's former Boleyn Ground home.

The pair own Discorama, a runner-up at last year's Festival and a leading contender for the National Hunt Chase on Tuesday.

"They love racing in the pub. The footage of Cheltenham in January went viral and people have read me a lot of the tweets since then. That was astonishing," he says.

An ear for a good tale

Gemmell was struggling for a name for his horse but as a fan of Prince, he settled on Paisley Park following the singer's death.

"I go to a massive amount of gigs. I've clocked up the century for Elvis Costello and met him at the Palladium after my 100th concert. I've seen the Rolling Stones 50 times," he said.

"In a blind person, hearing may be a compensatory factor, I think that's possible. That sense might have been heightened for the one being lost.

"I read Braille. Unfortunately there is nothing to study the form, a lot of that stuff is done by memory and asking people. Some read me the Racing Post. I watch TV and keep it in my head."

He was in the crowd when British boxer Anthony Joshua beat Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley, and for Mo Farah's second gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.

"The noise there [at the boxing] was so loud I couldn't even hear Mike Costello's commentary on BBC 5 Live through my earphone," he recalls with a smile.

"I've never heard a noise like it since West Ham went to the London Stadium."

Nerves, hopes and the future?

Jockey Aidan Coleman rides Paisley Park to victory in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January
Jockey Aidan Coleman rides Paisley Park to victory in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January

Paisley Park, at £60,000, was a relatively inexpensive purchase for a championship contender.

Gemmell describes the trainer and jockey as "brilliant people".

"It's very good for the stable that we get all this publicity. The more coverage they get, the better," he said.

Lavelle has said she knows no-one that could drink Gemmell under the table, although he points out he ran the London and Dublin Marathons in the 1980s, and visits a personal trainer four times a week.

Meanwhile, he is being recognised - at racecourses and football matches, and he was even stopped in his tracks by a passport officer in Ireland on a recent visit to see record-breaking trainer Aidan O'Brien.

"I thought there was something wrong. Then he said: 'I will be at Cheltenham and I'd like to wish you all the best for Paisley Park.'

"It was an absolute treat to be in the jeep for nearly three hours as the horses worked with the main man, Aidan O'Brien. He was very interested in me, and knew all about Paisley Park.

"It's an amazing sport with a lot of camararderie, particularly in jump racing."

Since the Ascot win, Gemmell has counted the days to Cheltenham - and the nerves are building.

"I'm not particularly good company before a big race. I can get very tense," he said.

"But I can't carry on forever like this - I've struck lucky at one point. My attitude has always been you should make the most of it when you can."

And what will the Prince fan say should Paisley Park win on Thursday?

"Let's go crazy," he replies - and laughs again.

Top Stories

Also in Sport

Elsewhere on the BBC