Simon Andrews and wife Joanna head up a point-to-pointing dynasty. While younger fans may be more familiar with the exploits of their offspring – Jack and Gina are the reigning Mens and Ladies Champions (Gina a seven-time title winner) and Bridget, now a successful professional jockey, having also won the title before turning conditional – they’ve both had their own share of success in the saddle. Simon won the Aintree Foxhunters on Newnham in 1988, completed the course in the Grand National and partnered 170 winners between the flags, while Joanna visited the winners enclosure nine times in a shorter career. The couple now train a small string of pointers, as well as farming 2,000 acres at Lilley, near Luton in Bedfordshire and I went to meet them to find out what it takes to breed champions.

Joanna is bred in the purple, as far as East Anglian pointing is concerned, being a daughter of well-known owner-trainer Hugh Hodge and niece of the legendary Hunter Rowe. “I mostly rode for Dad,” she tells me, “And didn’t have many outside rides, although Simon gave me a few crap spares! My best mount was Pelant Barle, dam of the useful Celtic Barle and I stopped when we got married.”

Although Simon’s Mum, Betty, held a permit in the 1980s, he was the first of his family to race-ride, although he started under rules rather than between the flags, as he explains. “Dad (Reg) was never interested in horses – he just milked cows every day. But Phil Allingham trained up the road in Offley and I used to go and ride out for him – he gave me a ride at Towcester one day, we finished third and that was it really… Mr Allingham – as I always called him – was my biggest influence and, while I mostly rode in Sellers and Novice Chases, I won 50 on the track in total (well, one was disqualified later but I still count it!) including six on his Vagabond Victor.”

Simon reckons he had “eight or nine” winners under rules before his first in points and the breakthrough came with a horse he rode for Hugh Hodge, which resulted in him meeting his future wife. Joanna takes up the story again. “Dad had a horse – Dun-Ar-Aill – that was too big for me and my sisters. He won with Simon at Horseheath and Newton Bromswold.” So was it love at first sight for her and the jockey? “No, I couldn’t stand him at the time,” she laughs. “He wanted me to tack up the horse. Why couldn’t he do it himself?”

Simon’s career really took off when he made connections in Lincolnshire in the mid-1980s – riding quality types like Able Sailor, Cawkwell Tom and Golden Casino – but the horse he’ll always be remembered for is Mike Johnson’s Newnham. He recalls his Foxhunters winner fondly. “We just seemed to click – he was my sort of horse. He made the running, stayed forever and jumped like a stag. If he was off the bridle, he’d be going too fast, but if he was on the bridle, everything else would be flat out! It was Mike Felton who suggested Aintree after he won the four-miler at Bratton Down, having been out hunting with Newnham and his owner in Dorset.”

“It was the first time I’d ever been to Aintree, let alone ridden there,” continues Simon. “I called a couple of cabs, but he never put a foot wrong. Turning for home, I saw that the favourite was beaten and thought I had a chance, and – though I rode a desperate finish and couldn’t breathe, we won by a head. Nigel Ridout on the runner-up had gone straight on at the Canal Turn, but I went down the inside and saved 20 lengths – Richard Pitman said Nigel lost the race there, but that’s where I won it!”

“When I was a kid,” Simon adds. “Riding in the National was my ambition, but I never thought it would happen, so the Foxhunters was the next best thing.” However, a year later, his dream was to come true. “Foxhunters winners automatically qualified for next year’s National then,” recalls Simon. “He was allocated ten stone but Mike said I could ride as long as I could do 10-7. It was the year we were married, I got back from honeymoon weighing 11-10 and I was 9-12 by April but God, I was hungry. I’d been living off tea, ginger nuts, pickled onions and diuretics!” Joanna interjects at this point – “He was not pleasant to live with…” “I did 10-5 on the day and after a circuit, my throat was so dry I was spitting feathers, but the wind at Becher’s Brook second time round revived me and we finished tenth,” concludes Simon.

Simon and Newnham (centre) jumping Becher’s Brook at Aintree

Aside from a punctured lung and a chipped bone in his hip, Simon considers himself lucky with injuries before his retirement after the foot-and-mouth affected season in 2001, and by that time, he and Joanna were already sending out winners from Lilley Bottom Farm – the likes of dual Hunter Chase winner Loyal Note and the promising Monty’s Tag (still enjoying his retirement aged 27), who went on to win the prestigious John Corbet Cup at Stratford in 2002, giving the pair their biggest training success.

While they are only likely to run Can Mestret – “Belongs to Cliff Myers, the best owner you could have, he’s 13 now and has won seven points and two Hunter Chases, so we’re trying to get to double figures”, according to Simon – this year, they had as many as 18 in their yard when Gina and Bridget were both chasing the championship. And although the horses run in Simon’s name, it’s quite clear that Joanna is equally – if not more – hands on as her husband. “He rides out and does the planning, and I do the feeding, keep them healthy and make them look good,” she smiles. Simon agrees good-humouredly. “She does everything – I just take the glory… and hand out the bollockings!”

Joanna and Simon with Can Mestret

As we mention their daughters, the subject changes from Simon and Joanna to their three children. I put the cat amongst the pigeons by asking them which is the best jockey! Simon offers a cautious, “Possibly Jack, as he’s such a good horseman,” to which Joanna counters with “You’ll be written out of Gina’s will, although she and Bridget would probably agree! If Gina and Bridget were jumping the last together,” Joanna goes on, “I wouldn’t know who to back. They suit different horses – Gina likes one she can fire at a fence, while Bridget is quieter and softer. But if you think Gina is tougher, you’d be wrong. Underneath, Gina’s a pussycat, but Bridget’s a lion!”

The two girls showed their ability in the pony racing arena early – Bridget riding three winners in France, including one over hurdles – at the tender age of eight (!) while his mother admits the more laid-back Jack was less keen on riding as a child “They’re bitches,” mimics Joanna of her son. “They won’t tack my horse up. And I don’t want to wear a body protector. I’m going to play with my Game Boy…”

“Jack wasn’t interested until Gina started riding in points,” confirms Simon. “He used to lead them up, then rode in pony racing himself. Pony racing’s been important to all of them,” he continues. “We started riding on the track whereas they knew the importance of getting a good start, how to weigh in and out… they were several steps ahead of where we were.”

So what credit do Simon and Joanna take for the success enjoyed by Gina, Bridget and Jack? Surprisingly, they’re self-deprecating about how tough they were on their children, Joanna recalling a day when Bridget’s pony ducked out at a local show. “She bawled her eyes out and I shouted, ‘Never do that again – you’ve got to learn to be a good loser.’ She was only about six!” Simon has a similar story about Gina. “She qualified for a show jumping final, got into a jump-off and would have won with a clear round, but took the wrong course. I lost the plot… and she hasn’t done it since!”

“A lot of jockeys don’t have the right guidance,” adds Simon. “You’ve got to be tough, but at the same time be able to tell owners and trainers what’s happened… and be polite! I’ve always told them, ‘No matter how good you are, if people don’t like you, you’ll get nowhere.’” As well as their own tough love, Simon and Joanna are keen to credit Pam Sly in their children’s’ development. “They’ve all ridden winners for her,” says Joanna, “And she taught Gina – in particular – a lot.”

 Gina, Jack and Bridget

With the first two meetings of the season last weekend held behind closed doors, and other fixtures planning to follow suit, I quizzed the couple on what they thought about the implications of Covid-19 on pointing. “It costs about £20,000 to run a meeting, so where’s the funding coming from with no crowds?” asked Simon rhetorically. “And will owners stay in pointing? Go under rules? Or leave altogether?” “It’s depressing,” joined in Joanna. “It doesn’t make sense that you can go into work but not stand in a field. I don’t see how pointing can keep going without crowds – many people go for the social side of it. I do too, and I want to go to support Gina and Jack. Weekends spent point-to-pointing have always been my life – for longer than they’ve been part of Simon’s!”

Although Joanna has been part of the pointing scene for as long as she can remember, she appreciates the way the sport is embracing the future. “There wouldn’t be pointing without livery yards,” she admits. “The only way many people can afford a horse is having a share, so it’s got to be open to everyone – from the traditional one-horse owner-trainers to syndicates of ten people or more. It’s got to be affordable.”

Simon agrees that the sport has changed for the better in the time since they stopped riding, although his positivity comes with some caveats. “The safety aspect’s got so much better – you used to run for your life when you saw St John’s ambulance volunteers coming towards you!” he laughs again. “Although, while you have to have rules, it can be over-regulated. And the sport has got to treat owners better – you can’t have a point-to-point without horses and you don’t have horses without owners. They should be given car passes, racecards, hospitality… It’s getting better, but each meeting should appoint someone to look after owners and invite them for a drink – it makes a big difference. The Oriental Club sponsorship is the best thing that’s happened in recent years.”

The pair are also sanguine about the increasing professionalism in point-to-pointing. “It’s no longer an amateur sport,” states Simon firmly. “It used to be based around hunting, but now it’s second class National Hunt racing – I don’t see how it can be called anything else. It’s a schooling ground for both jockeys and horses and the BHA should provide more funding. I also think licensed trainers should be allowed to run horses in points, like they do in Ireland. People moan about the likes of Nick Pearce running Don Poli from Dan Skelton’s yard, but he also promotes novice riders.” And vice versa, with pointing yards running under rules? Joanna thinks not, but Simon disagrees. “I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t have a dual licence. You could frame races to keep licenced trainers out!” (I’m not sure if he’s being tongue-in-cheek here).

I give the final word on pointing to Joanna. “I love the whole atmosphere,” she enthuses. “Seeing friends, even if it’s pouring with rain. But being with the kids is the main thing – watching them ride is my world.”