Trevor Hemmings, who has died aged 86, was a self-made billionaire whose business interests ranged from Blackpool Tower to Center Parcs and Preston North End FC but who was best known as a leading owner of National Hunt racehorses, including three Grand National winners.
More than 100 horses carried the green, yellow and white Hemmings colours in his racing prime. His first National winner, in 2005, was Hedgehunter, trained by Willie Mullins; the second was Ballabriggs (Ginger McCain) in 2011 and the third Many Clouds (Oliver Sherwood) in 2015.
Trabolgan (Nicky Henderson) won the 2005 Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury for Hemmings, and among his many other runners was Albertas Run (Jonjo O’Neill), a victor at Cheltenham and Aintree. Trainers spoke of Hemmings as a “perfect owner” – a gentlemanly operator who knew racing inside out, enjoyed its highs and lows and let them get on with their job.
The fortune that funded his passion for the Turf – estimated earlier this year at £1.1 billion — derived from a portfolio of northern property and leisure interests accumulated first as a housebuilder, then as right-hand man to the holiday camp tycoon Sir Fred Pontin, and later as a high-rolling investor in his own right.
One of his boldest moves was his 1998 purchase of Blackpool Tower, together with the Winter Gardens conference centre and three piers, for £74 million from Michael Grade’s First Leisure group. But his hopes of developing a “super-casino” in the resort town were set back when Manchester was chosen as the first site for the scheme proposed by the Blair government – and scotched entirely when Gordon Brown torpedoed it within days of becoming Prime Minister in 2007.
Trevor James Hemmings was born at Woolwich on June 11 1935, the son of Monty Hemmings, a Royal Ordnance munitions worker, and his wife Lilian, née West.
In 1940 Monty took up an opportunity to escape the Blitz by transferring to a new Ordnance works at Chorley in Lancashire. The family resettled at Leyland, where Trevor’s south London accent became strongly Lancastrian. At 10 he was a petrol-pump attendant and at 11 he had a grocery round with a horse and cart (the horse was called Klondike).
When his secondary modern education ended at 15, the available choices were work at the Ordnance, in the nearby Leyland motor factory, in textiles mills – or joining the police. None appealed, so he found jobs first in a railway yard and later as an apprentice bricklayer, while studying business at evening classes.
Hemmings started his first house-building company in 1960, sold it in the early 1970s and started a second one, which he sold partly to Barratts and partly to Pontin, for whom he became a favoured building contractor – and, by his own account, a surrogate son.
In 1978 he was involved in selling the Pontins business to Coral the bookmaker, which was in turn acquired by Bass; a decade later, Hemmings led a management buy-out of Pontins and sold it again to Scottish & Newcastle, where he became a director and kept a share stake. This made him for a time the brewery group’s single largest shareholder – netting him more than £200 million when S & N itself was taken over in 2008.
It was with S & N’s backing that Hemmings developed the (originally Dutch) Center Parcs holiday village concept in the UK in the late 1980s. In 2000, he spent £161 million to buy the pools arm of Littlewoods, and another £100 million on a chain of 360 former S & N pubs. His property company Northern Trust now owns some 8 million square feet of industrial and commercial property.
In 2010, Hemmings also bought a majority stake in Preston North End, of which he was a lifelong supporter and former director, after the club (who play in the Championship, the second tier in the football pyramid) had been issued with a winding-up order by HM Revenue & Customs.
Hemmings had an equestrian estate at Chorley – where his businesses were headquartered and where he also kept several vintage Rolls-Royces – but his main home in later life was the Ballaseyr Stud on the Isle of Man.
A man of few words who shunned media attention, “he could be having a pie and a pint in a pub and you wouldn’t know who he was,” according to one associate. He was most recognisable on the racecourse and elsewhere for the northerner’s flat hat which he claimed to wear even while eating his breakfast.
His last Grand National contender, appropriately named Cloth Cap and trained by Jonjo O’Neill, was 11-2 favourite for the 2021 race but pulled up three fences from home, denying him a record fourth win. He had recently announced a reduction of his racing interests, keeping only 25 horses in training.
Despite his plain style and preference for a low profile, Hemmings acquired royal connections. He owned High Kingdom, on which Zara Tindall (with whom he was sometimes spotted at the Cheltenham Festival) won silver in the British eventing team at the 2012 London Olympics, and was appointed CVO in 2011 for his work as vice-president of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers.
He married, in 1955, Eve Rumney, who survives him with their three sons and a daughter.
Trevor Hemmings, born June 11 1935, died October 11 2021