Mental scars of terrifying helicopter crash finally healing for trainer Sam Thomas and millionaire owner Dai Walters
THIS November is going a damn sight better than the last one for Sam Thomas.
After all, this time last year the young trainer was coming to terms with the terrifying helicopter crash he had just survived.
It was an accident which shocked the sport and left Dai Walters, a leading owner and Thomas’ main backer, fighting for his life.
Walters, 78, who started life as a labourer and greengrocer but ended up founding a multi-million pound plant hire business, broke his neck, back, shoulder and leg — but has since made a miraculous recovery.
Incredibly, Thomas, 39, escaped without a scratch — while the remaining three passengers and pilot also emerged from the wreckage unscathed.
But the horrifying accident did leave mental scars and it took the trainer and ex-jockey — who famously won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Denman in 2008 — several months to get his head around it.
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The Air Accidents Investigation Branch are due to publish their report into the crash soon.
But the survivors have described how the Agusta 109 chopper, which was virtually brand new at the time of the accident, clipped trees shortly after take-off and dropped to the ground in rural north Wales.
Thomas and Walters were returning to Cardiff after a day’s shooting in the countryside with pals, and they had bought a bottle of champagne to enjoy on the flight home.
Before they’d even had time to think about popping the cork, disaster struck.
Thomas said: “I heard a big bang, I knew something wasn’t right and we started coming down.
“I didn’t break anything, amazingly, though after the accident I was very sore physically for a few days. Mentally, though, it took a while to get over, as I think it would for most people.
“But because Dai was in a much worse state than the rest of us I didn’t feel sorry for myself for long.
“He has spoken about his recovery, which has been incredibly intense and I am in awe of his determination and bravery.
“No doubt, it has given me more of an incentive to do well for him and give him a boost, because he is so passionate about his racing.”
That’s easier said than done, especially when the Thomas yard, quite literally at the bottom of Walters’ garden just outside Cardiff, was hit by a bug last winter.
It’s the last thing you need just weeks after a brush with death, but the trainer had to keep his head whilst dealing with a massive dip in results.
He added: “Dai was in hospital and missed the horses being ill last year — which was a small mercy — but we’ve been able to give him some nice winners recently.
“There isn’t much you can do when the horses are under the weather, it was a very frustrating time and you question yourself, but we got through it.”
You can say that again — the horses have well and truly turned a corner. And over the last few years Thomas has developed a reputation as a canny ‘target trainer’.
Barely a big handicap goes by without a fancied Thomas runner front and centre.
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He said: “We do target these big pots, but I would say it is more a testament to the quality of horses we have now.
“At the start you dream of having a Saturday horse but now we have several who can take us to the big days.
“This is what you do it for, you want to compete and win on the big stage.”
He’s been doing that, and in terms of early-season highlights they don’t come much bigger than tomorrow’s Cheltenham feature the Paddy Power Gold Cup, formerly called the Mackeson.
It is behind only the Grand National and Coral Gold Cup in the prestigious handicap stakes and has been won by some legends of the jumps in the past.
In Angel’s Breath, he has a leading contender. Much like his trainer, the horse’s career has had plenty of bumps in the road, but the talent is undeniable.
Thomas said: “He has come out of his last race really well and it’s now or never with him,
“He had a long time off the track but he still has loads of ability and this would be as good a chance as he’s ever had of winning a big one.
“He showed the engine and enthusiasm were still there when he ran the other day.
“He was giving the winner nearly two stone and only gave way after the last, so I’d be very hopeful he can step up now he has a run under his belt. It’s a hard race to win but we have a shot.”
Thomas hopes he already has a winner on the board before then with top novice chase prospect Good Risk At All.
He has always thought the world of the seven-year-old, and he started to live up to the hype with an easy win on chasing debut at Carlisle.
He said: “From day one this horse has impressed us and we think he will be a better chaser than hurdler.
“He couldn’t have done it any easier first time out.
“We are stepping him up in grade at Cheltenham but he will enjoy going up to three miles.
“I’d love nothing more than to get a winner at this meeting for Dai, especially as this time last year you couldn’t be sure he would make it.”
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