Alan Potts: mining expert and Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning owner of Sizing John

Luckily for Alan Potts, there was still half a dozen years to go before Arthur Scargill took on Margaret Thatcher in the most notorious industrial relations death match of the 1980s.

But before that year-long coal strike divided British society there was still an abundance of working mines in Britain and most of them were still spending money on machinery that they hoped would increase the productivity of their businesses.

This was the context in which Potts, a mining expert, was asked by the British Coal Board to help them solve a widespread problem in their industry. Specifically — how to stop irregular and oversized lumps of coal blocking up the conveyor belts and thereby slowing the speed of extraction.

Potts, a plain-speaking, hardened son of Yorkshire had enough business sense and entrepreneurial instinct to understand that he’d come across an opportunity with the potential to change his life.

Born in 1937, the son of a local mining union executive, Alan Potts first went down a mine shaft when he was just 16-years-old. Even then his intuitive intelligence and drive were evident and the pit owner granted him day leave to finish his education.

At 22, he was running the mine and continuing to develop the innovative streak that would later stand him in such good stead for the challenge when the Coal Board came calling.

The opportunity was grabbed hungrily. He founded a company (Mining Machine Developments) in 1978 and several years and many valuable patents later he was well on his way to building a multi-million-euro heavy equipment business and had cracked the problem of ‘sizing’ irregular rock fragments.

And therein lies the surprisingly simple answer to one of the more frequently asked questions in National Hunt racing in recent years. “Why does Alan Potts call his horses ‘Sizing this, Sizing that or Sizing the other?”

In fact, it was all to do with the price of coal.

Potts died last week, just three short months after a prolonged illness had claimed the life of his beloved wife Ann, his constant and reliable partner in life, business and horse ownership. He leaves a deep imprint both on the sport he loved and on the surface of planet earth in many of the places where minerals are mined.

Pott’s emergence as an owner of consequence began around the middle of the last decade. His initial bloodstock investment strategy was to buy good looking well-bred store horses and send them to a trainer possessing the right amount of patience to nurture them over time. Most were sent to the then up-and-coming Henry De Bromhead, who recalled in an earlier interview how he came to be chosen. It’s a story that shines a warm light on both men’s character and value sets.

Potts had become interested in buying a point-winning gelding from De Bromhead’s yard. As the negotiations progressed the horse developed a leg problem, so the trainer immediately notified his buyer that he couldn’t sell him the horse. Impressed by the honesty Potts decided to buy two other young horses at the stable that were also for sale at the time.

Neither of these ever turned up at a racetrack, but the wheels were now in motion that led Potts to have his first two runners during the 2005/6 season. They just happened to be Sizing Europe and Sizing Australia, who would later give their owner a Cheltenham Festival double in 2011.

There is a long, extensive list of wealthy owners who have invested millions into horse racing over the years and were never blessed with a horse half as good, nearly as charismatic or remotely as durable as Sizing Europe. Originally bought as a foal at Tattersalls Sales for €9,000 by the Ballinasloe bloodstock agent, Hugh Bleahen, he was later sold on to Potts for who he racked up eight Grade One Races, including the 2008 Irish Champion Hurdle and the 2011 Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Alan Potts.Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
Alan Potts. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie

The manner in which he came into possession of the horse illustrates the decisiveness that drove his success in business. Alan and Ann Potts had travelled to Ireland with the intention of attending the Irish Grand National at Easter 2005. After a pre-race lunch with Henry De Bromhead they instead decided to head west in search of some prime horse flesh. By the end of their tour a day later they had purchased 13 young horses and one of them was Sizing Europe. Pott’s fearlessness was well rewarded – he scored highly with one of the first darts he’d thrown and many more bullseyes were to follow in the increasingly famous colours: yellow and green, red cap.

Once the floodgate opened, winners flowed. After the ‘Sizing’s’ Europe and Australia came good horses such as Goonyella, Shanahan’s Turn, Loosen My Load, Sizing Granite, Pingshou. Then there was the great quartet that won either at the Cheltenham, Aintree or Punchestown Festivals earlier in the year and so enriched Pott’s last golden springtime on earth, Finian’s Oscar, Supasundae, Fox Norton and Sizing John.

Like several of the major modern-day National Hunt owners, Potts was a driven, sometimes impatient and often difficult employer who on the other hand was renowned for his generosity to stable staff. Since his death, there have been warm and appreciative comments from many of those who worked most closely with him but most of those have carried gentle allusions to his singlemindedness.

Trainer Colin Tizzard said that “he was a self-made man. He could be quite demanding, but he could be absolutely brilliant company.”

Jockey Tom O’Brien: “He was a competitive man and always wanted to be the best.” Trainer Jessica Harrington: ““He was a very strong character, a tough businessman, he came from virtually nothing to make millions and you don’t get to that being a pussycat.”

Demanding, no pussycat, competitive. The inferences are clear and are correlated by a litany of tough decisions. He has hired and jettisoned several jockey’s, moved horses from trainers at will and just last year closed his long, lucrative association with Henry De Bromhead when he moved all his horses from the Waterford trainer.

One of those horses happened to be Sizing John who subsequently won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for Jessica Harrington.

Sizing John’s Gold Cup win was the culmination of a long-term plan and the fulfilment of a personal dream, the one that first loosened that post lunch chequebook in the West of Ireland. For Alan and Ann Potts this was the end that had justified the means.

At this stage it is still unclear what will become of his horses in the longer term, but his children are interested in the sport and it was business as usual last weekend at Cheltenham, so hopefully the string will be preserved and the Potts family will sustain their presence in a sport that brought their parents so much joy. A joy that was born of a problem, one that was all to do with the price of coal.


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