Paul Robson, the jockey who became an undertaker

Trainer Paul Robson - Paul Robson: A horse trainer by day, and an undertaker by night
Trainer Paul Robson's career as a jockey was cut short by injury aged 22; so he became an undertaker - Mark Pinder

When trainer Paul Robson’s burgeoning career as a jockey was cut short by injury aged 22, he returned home to Hawick in the Scottish Borders to follow in the footsteps of his forebears chiselling out a career as a carpenter.

He went to college, did his apprenticeship and the family business flourished in the building boom of the early 2000s until, the year after the financial crash of 2008, the recession bit, business went quiet and it became a case of diversify or die.

An owner he had used to ride for gave him some important advice: “Do something people need, not what they want because what they want is luxury and what they need is necessity.”

And to an extent the answer was staring him in the face. Historically in the Borders of Scotland if you were a joiner you were also an undertaker for the practical reason that you were the man who knocked up the coffins for the people in your street.

Indeed since 1877, like all carpenters A & J Robson had officially been ‘joiners and undertakers’ and there is, of course, one certainty in life, and that is not in the 2.30 at Kelso.

Paul Robson in his riding days
Paul Robson in his racing days

“The Borders like their own,” explains Robson, 40, of how he resurrected the undertaking side of the business. “In August 2009 our sole competition in Hawick sold out to an Edinburgh firm and announced it in the local paper. That was the opportunity to nip up the inside and the following week I advertised in the same paper that we were now running a local funeral directors.

“I bought two dodgy suits, a couple of cars from an old BMW sponsor from when I was riding and the next day we had our first funeral. I had no idea but we got a bit of help and we were off and running.

“My grandmother lent us the money for a 30-year-old Ford Cardinal hearse which, when it was wet, used to leak on the Minister sitting in the passenger seat. Now we have a Mercedes and a couple of limos. We did 51 funerals our first year but we’re probably doing 170 now.”

‘The doctor turned to me and said, “you’re f-----!”’

However the racing bug, never fully sated in a curtailed career as a jockey when he won just shy of 90 races in three seasons, never left him.

“I dislocated my shoulders five times,” he recalls. “The last time it popped out jumping the second flight in a hurdle at Stratford and I couldn’t pull it up. At the second last AP McCoy pulled up, saw what was happening and pulled mine up too.

“The BHA doctor at the time came into the ambulance room where Joe Tizzard was also sitting clutching a broken wrist. He said to Joe ‘you’ll be fine’ then turned to me and said, ‘you’re f-----!’ Eventually they paid for two shoulder reconstructions on the condition that I gave up riding!

“But I’d always enjoyed looking after horses when I was riding and training was always at the back of my mind. Four years ago we took on an old eventing yard at Spittal, split the costs of an all-weather gallop with the landlord and now I’m doing two full-time jobs with 12 horses to run. I have to work hard at the funeral side to support the training but I can balance it because I don’t have to take a salary out of the yard.”

Now he has more horses than hearses and, besides Cannock Park, whose victory in a maiden hurdle at the November meeting means Robson is now one winner from one runner at Cheltenham and hoping to return in March, he also has an improbable ally in Henrietta Knight who has taken him under her wing.

Henrietta Knight with Best Mate
Henrietta Knight with Best Mate - PA/David Davies

“I had a few back operations and after one was 12 days spent lying on my side off my head on morphine,” he remembers of the unlikely start to their friendship. “I was reading Hen’s book ‘Not Enough Time’. I knew she was doing pre-training, found her number and rang her at 7am one morning. I called her ‘Mrs Biddlecombe’ and she said ‘I’ve never been called that, call me Hen!”

“I think she thought I was bonkers but she invited me to Wantage as soon as I was back on my feet. Ours would do a lot of flat work and showjumping, as much as anything because I’m a fan of her methods. She took me to Ireland to see Willie Mullins, Enda Bolger, Colin Bowe and the Costellos, who she bought Best Mate from, and I bounce ideas off her and her ‘assistant’ Brendan Powell.

“They don’t tell me what to do, I just run something past them and they tell me whether it’s a good idea or totally stupid. Hen is brutally honest. She has helped me buy a couple of horses and they gave me the confidence to think that it was okay to take Cannock Park to Cheltenham first time over hurdles. I’d probably speak to her every day. She has opened up a lot of doors for me.”

‘You cannae fake empathy’

Training and undertaking is not a combination which immediately strikes you being as compatible as strawberries and cream or - it is that time of year - holly and ivy but Robson, who plans to step up the free-going Cannock Park to the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Aintree on Boxing Day, reckons it is a good contrast.

“You have to undertake with charm, you cannae fake empathy,” he points out. “The last couple of years have been tough and there have been three or four kids [youths] who have died lately.

“It’s a small town so you’re always dealing with people you know. The day before we left for Cheltenham with Cannock Park we had to deal with a friend’s son who had been killed in a car crash aged 23 so we went from this awful low to a massive high.

“At work it’s constant grief but when you walk in the yard at 7am the horses are happy to see you.”

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