Trevor Hemmings, who has died aged 86, was a contradiction – an enigmatic billionaire who guarded his privacy fiercely, assisted by a trademark cloth cap, which he joked that he even wore for breakfast and would allow him to sit unnoticed in a pub. But he was an instantly recognisable figure on the racetrack, where his horses won prize after prize.
Hemmings began as a bricklayer and the fortune he amassed from property enabled him to become a successful racehorse owner. He won the Grand National a joint record three times and provided the horse, High Kingdom, on which the Queen’s granddaughter Zara Tindall won a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics. His charity work and long-term support of the Princess Royal’s Carers Trust brought the award of a CVO in 2011.
Along the way he developed Center Parcs and Pontins, bought up the centre of Blackpool and its tower in an effort to add to his betting interests and rescued Preston North End, his local team, from being wound up. Through private companies he owned hundreds of pubs and hotels.
The few interviews he allowed were mainly about his horses, but he claimed that his business success was down to being “very disciplined” and using every hour. “You will not see me in the restaurants at Lingfield or Ayr. I queue up at the chippy,” he said. “You have to learn about real people and understand their requirements.”
A pillar of north-west business, he was actually born in Woolwich, south-east London, where his father worked at the Royal Arsenal. In 1940, when he was five, he experienced the devastation of the blitz before moving to Leyland in Lancashire with his father, Monty, and mother, Lilian (nee West). His father transferred to the Chorley ordnance factory, away from German bombers.
He quickly shed his London accent for the Lancashire tones he kept for the rest of his life. “I wouldn’t have survived otherwise,” he said.
The young Hemmings had two paper rounds, was a petrol pump attendant at 10, and a year later was delivering groceries from a horse and cart. But leaving secondary modern school at Turpin Green Bridge, he faced four obvious options: “Leyland Motors, which I did not like because I would be among all the people I was at school with, the ordnances, which I did not like because of my parents, the weaving mills, which were in decline, or become a policeman.” Instead he found work cleaning railway engines while he took a business studies course at night school, before becoming an apprentice bricklayer.
In 1960 he started his own business, Hemmings and Kent, with £12. He claimed that he kept selling his businesses “as they became interesting to others”. His first company went to Christian Salvesen for £1.5m. He joined the company but three years later set up another housebuilder, Ambrose, which eventually sold to Barratt for £5.7m.
Hemmings described himself as the son that Fred Pontin never had
His crucial move was to join Pontins holiday villages as property director. The company had been set up by Fred Pontin in the 1940s, turning an old army base into his first cut-price holiday camp. Hemmings had met Pontin when he built a village at Southport. The two got on so well that Hemmings would describe himself as the son that Pontin had never had, tossing a coin with him about who should cook breakfast, only to find that Pontin was using a double-headed coin.
Hemmings invested in Pontins and did well when it was sold to Coral in 1978, before Bass took Coral over in 1980. Seven years later he led a management buyout of Pontins for £57m, soon selling it for £90m to Scottish and Newcastle. As head of the company’s leisure division he bought the UK business of Center Parcs, which he expanded. But in 2000 he bought Pontins back, finally selling it for £46m. Meanwhile his private companies had been busy with a range of multimillion-pound deals involving creameries, building companies and casinos.
In 1999 he bought a slice of central Blackpool, including the tower and the Winter Gardens, anticipating relaxation of gaming laws. But he was disappointed when the town failed in a bid for a supercasino in 2007. The tower was sold to the council in 2010.
Pontin encouraged Hemmings’s interest in horse racing, teasing him that he would never match his own achievement in winning the Grand National.
Hemmings’s ventures into National Hunt racing did not bring immediate success. One observer said: “We used to wonder why he bought so many donkeys.” He liked to select horses personally and prided himself on buying young ones. “I am not into buying a £500,000 horse because I might win a race. I like to see them growing up and develop.”
His racing empire included a 300-acre “nursery” in north Cork and his Gleadhill stud, near Chorley, from which young horses were sent to selected trainers. He lived in the Isle of Man at his Ballaseyr stud, where he described himself as “surrounded by old friends” – his retired champions.
The first winner in his distinctive white, yellow and green colours came at Bath in 1985; his last at Worcester in April this year. In between he won the Grand National in 2005 with Hedgehunter, in 2011 with Ballabriggs and in 2015 with Many Clouds, equalling the record for most wins. His horse Cloth Cap was favourite for this year’s race, but pulled up. He had more success at Cheltenham and in the Hennessy Gold Cup. Tributes from racing praised him as a gentleman to deal with and one of jump racing’s greatest supporters.
Hemmings was an enthusiastic owner of Preston North End football club after taking control in 2010, injecting millions and delighting in promotion to the Championship, which followed in 2015.
He once claimed to give “eight or 10 times more” to charity than he spent on horses. Among those he supported were the Red Cross, the RNLI, Samaritans and the Carers Trust. In 2002 he contributed £300,000 for a centre at the Royal Preston hospital for victims of sexual assault.
In 1955 he married Eve Rumney. She survives him, along with their three sons, Peter, Craig and Patrick, and daughter, Carole.
• Trevor James Hemmings, businessman, born 11 June 1935; died 11 October 2021