An Interview with Claire Hardwick
A lot of changes, alterations and diversity have been caused by the coronavirus pandemic and none more so than to the business of Claire Hardwick (nee Hart). Yet the one aspect to Claire that stands out: her British Bulldog spirit, her cheerfulness that in such changes lie an ultimate survival.
Born and bred in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, Claire’s love of horses and riding was inherited. Her mum, Helen Hart, ran a yard so passed on the ‘bug’ on very young. Claire was an active member of the local Pony Club, where she paid particular attention to eventing. Plus, she hunted and show-jumped, all of which gave her fantastic foundations later on. The racing connection was there too, reasonably early, Claire competed ponies for Claire and Colin Smith, the owners of 1988 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Charter Party. Through this, she went to work weekends for David ‘the Duke’ Nicholson, helping around the yard with duties such as haying. One vivid memory was being allowed to ride Waterloo Boy and Very Promising on a trot round the farm.
In 2000, at sixteen, on dropping out of school, Claire took up her mum’s advice to move away from home and, showing the difference of those times compared with today, she wrote letters, asking for a job. This act took her to Wantage, Oxfordshire, to Henrietta Knight’s during the Best Mate days. Here, the bite of the racing bug took a strong hold – she stayed two years, through the foot and mouth crisis and the first of those three Gold Cups.
Claire began her amateur career; as a freelance jockey she had a few rides ‘pointing. Not taking life, let alone race-riding, too seriously, progress took a long time to happen. “Nothing happens without hard work,” grins Claire. “I’m grateful I worked this one out!” She emphasises that she owes everything to trainer Charlie Longsdon and his loyal head lad Alan Roche, where on starting a job there, she was given the chance to shine. She schooled every Wednesday, which led to her ‘set-sailing’ with the Category B license and started riding under Rules. Longsdon and Roche saw a little bit of talent; their input instrumental and Claire paid them back by being a big part of their team for six seasons, riding out parttime but also driving the lorry when necessary.
Their faith in Claire was not unfounded, she rode successfully between the Flags and on racecourses. She was the winner of the South Midland Area leading Lady Rider multiple times, winner of the AGA Championship in its inaugural year, runner up in the National Ladies’ Championship twice and leading Hunter Chase rider in the 2015-16 season. Claire rode her hundredth winner on Western Diva in May 2017, which was incredibly special. Though not one the biggest names in ‘pointing, Claire has constantly worked hard, which has earnt her respectful place in the amateur game. As with all other amateur jockeys, Covid-19 has halted Claire’s race-riding so far this season – she’s unsure whether she is retired from it, rather taking the enforced break as opportunity to look in other directions. She muses that she’s happy to shift her competitive edge towards show-jumping but as is evident, the bite of the racing-bug penetrates deeply and lingers in the blood for an awfully long time.
Claire winning on Debinett Moon in 2019
Photo Credit: Neale Blackburn
“The highs are incredible and the lows can be terrible,” Claire reflects on her amateur jockey career. “But my love of horses and the overriding feeling of teamwork and camaraderie always keeps me going.”
There was some overlap when Claire had taken the plunge and set up her own business in 2014, and she continued to ride out for Longsdon. So, her new business venture was born and seven years ago, Claire moved her yard to Adlestrop in Gloucestershire, where she has the use of trainer Richard Phillips’ gallops. Her six ‘pointers are fit and ‘ready to go’ without anywhere to compete due to the postponements in point-to-points.
Another part of her business has always been rehoming of ex-racehorses but this has increased in its positives, with the BHA increasingly monitoring where ex-racers end up. Plus, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Claire has had to think “out of the box” and discover another avenue. She’s always produced good results and thus is now an ROR accredited yard. Since last March, thirty-four retired racehorses have been successfully rehomed through her yard, each one furthering her connections and this month, Gino Trail has been the latest. Through the retraining and rehoming of racehorses, Claire is constantly looking at the larger picture, that her ability with these retirees will promote her breaking, pretraining, handling of mares and foals, respite and rehab and turnout all year round. “There’s nothing better than to send horses we’ve pretrained off into training and then they win bumpers!”
Claire’s former employer, more of a friend after all these years, Charlie Longsdon sends horses into her care, and Lambourn-based Jamie Snowden, David Bridgewater and Biddestone Racing Syndicates are two of her biggest supporters. It is not all ‘pointers and National Hunt horses, Claire also takes Flat horses for winter ridden holidays, where the change is most beneficial.
The grasp of the modern advertising mode of social media is grappled by Claire. “It was easy in the summer but not so easy in the winter!” she muses, hinting at the busy hours, bad weather and lack of daylight hours. Yet, she has enlightening posts, updates and a weekly blog. She has opened the gates to ‘yard visits’, with the mental health initiative #GoRacingGreen visiting back in September 2020 and another one by Fox Trot Racing, with fifty people attending, had to be cancelled to tightened covid regulations.
Again, the coronavirus pandemic rearing its grotesque head. “At the beginning, it was horrendous, frightening even,” explains Claire. “In December, I had a load of empty stables but they were filled up again by January.” She had to make redundancies from her tightly knit team, which evidently hurt a lot but Claire’s positivity remains like stars behind thick cloud. “I had to take a step back and look at my business. I had to diversify and I found the determination and fight to continue. I hit rock bottom but so did millions of other people.”
Changes have also been made to the yard routine; Claire has altered the way of doing the daily chores and she praises her “wonderful team” who do a mixture of flat work to race-riding. There is an emphasis on having a happy workplace, that a “happy vibe rubs off on the horses both mentally and physically”.
“Yes, there are still worries for the future, and covid-19 is not going away and who knows if ‘pointing will comeback this season but the ROR is proving a great substitute.” Claire’s aspirations for the future include being recognised as the “go-to person” for ROR and that she would love to go show-jumping or eventing on an ex-racehorse or show one at HOYS – a million different goals that will never let her be a forgotten also-ran in the horsey world.
At thirty-seven, Claire is pretty contented. Out of racing, Claire lists her beautiful garden as one of her achievements and similar to the unwinding, calming effects of gardening, Claire has found relaxation in the slow barging holidays she loves. At home, she has the support of husband Matt Hardwick, a PA for a property developer, who she describes as a “legend” and her two dogs. Wren is a chocolate Labrador and Ruby, a black Labrador-cross, is so-called after the stable name of Lady Myfanwy, who on Claire won the 2011 Ladies’ hunter chase around Stratford. She loves to drink fizz and is a bit of a gin addict, and finds satisfying happiness that her business continues to be successful. “It’s a tough job at times but its not really a job,” she says with a wide smile. “I do what I do and I love it.”
Claire Hardwick on 07808511705
Photo Credit: Neale Blackburn