An Interview with Dominique Tortice - Union Learn Project Assistant at NARS
Dominique Tortice has spent her life in and around working in horseracing. Even in her present ‘office job’ she works for the National Association of Racing Staff. From former roles riding and looking after racehorses to now creating educational opportunities for today’s stable staff, she always been emersed in the sport of racing.
‘I grew up in a small seaside town on the Suffolk coast called Felixstowe, generally known for being the home of the biggest container port in the UK and a hotspot for tourists who wish to enjoy the traditional beach holiday or day out,’ explains Dominique, before detailing a pony-mad childhood with an abundance of naughty ponies.
Though settled in Newmarket for the past eleven years, racing had previously taken Dominique to live in North Yorkshire. Yet, she has stayed in Cambridgeshire and the office role within NARS has made juggling family life with her two sons, Elliot (13) and Finley (12), a lot easier, compared to when Dominique worked in yards. Not forgetting their mix-bred five-year-old Lurcher/Scottie/Westie. ‘Yes, that looks as random as it sounds, he is called Obi (as in Wan Kenobi), obviously my children’s choice,’ laughs Dominique, before speaking wistfully about her life with racing.
Dominique on Minstrel Lad
Did you have a horsey childhood?
Yes. My Granny had her own yard in a small Suffolk village called Levington. This was where she and my Aunties kept all their horses and ponies when I was a child. It was a hub of laughter and fun every weekend, when we would all be there together enjoying time well spent with the human and equine members of the family. Eventually my Aunty bought her own land with stables and I began riding her ponies most weekends. I have many fond memories of the equine characters that she owned, the ones that taught me how to sit tight and how to fall off and yet still be able to laugh about it afterwards!
How and why did you get into racing?
I always knew I wanted to work with horses, but not in which discipline. My mum said I could work with horses on the proviso that I went to college and got some qualifications under my belt as a fallback plan, so of course I chose the equine variety. On leaving school I went to an agricultural college and proceeded to achieve a BTEC First diploma in Horse Care, a National Certificate in Horse Management, my BHS Stages 1, 2, 3 and my BHS teaching certificate. During that time, I had to do a two-week work experience placement, which I did at a Point-to-Point yard. That was where I was bitten by the Thoroughbred bug and I realised that I wanted to work with this unique breed of horse every day. I applied to the British Racing School and enrolled on their pilot scheme for the Level 3 Apprenticeship programme. This was four weeks long and then I was off out into the industry.
Final Day at the BRS
Which trainers have you worked for?
I started out with Eoghan O’Neill. Whilst there I moved my way on to the travelling team and enjoyed some amazing days out at home and abroad with some phenomenal horses. I then worked for Kevin Ryan and Bryan Smart, both for a season or two each... After having my children and finding myself as a single mother, life obviously became more of a juggling act. However I was adamant I wanted to continue to work in the industry that I loved. It became more difficult to find an employer who was flexible enough for my situation. Luckily, I managed to find that with Lydia Pearce and spent five wonderful years working for her.
The last job I had working directly with horses, before I took on this role, was for pre-trainer Ed Peate. I spent just over a year with Ed and whilst I had always broken in yearlings at previous employers, I gained invaluable knowledge from the team at Penny Farm.
What were your best moments in racing?
It was when I worked for Eoghan O’Neill. We had a very promising two-year-old colt called Always Hopeful with which I was lucky enough to travel to all of his races. We went to Deauville for the Prix Morny and the Middle Park at Newmarket that season, but the best day came at Glorious Goodwood when we attended for the Richmond Stakes. He was the 12-1 outsider of the race and he won going away from the field. It was truly one of the best moments of my life and I was fortunate that the owner sent me a DVD of all his races. It still gives me goosebumps when I watch it as it was such a special day for all involved.
What were your favourite racehorses?
I have been lucky to have looked after some many amazing animals in my career in racing, each one so different, but all with many endearing character traits.
My favourite would be Captain Gerrard which I looked after as a two-year-old; for a colt he was very gentle and particularly kind. He had a huge personality, loved a good fuss and was obviously very fast!!
I could not write this without mentioning my 7-year love affair with a little bay horse named Sexy Secret who was trained by Lydia Pearce. I rode him out every day when I worked for Lydia and even when I did not work there any longer, I would still ride him out at every opportunity. Throughout lockdown I rode him out every day before work. He was a Yarmouth specialist and produced many heart-stopping finishes. He was absolutely my horse of a lifetime and I doubt there will be another like him! He retired in March and has moved on to the next chapter of his life, which makes me incredibly happy for him, but I do miss him greatly.
Dominique with Sexy Secret
What were your favourite racecourses?
My favourite racecourses have to be Ascot, York and Ripon.
Ascot, simply for the occasion and grandeur, as there is nowhere else quite like it and I have taken horses to the Royal meeting many times over the years. I love to see all the international runners, especially the Americans. Their horses are physically incredible!
York always has a great atmosphere. The crowds are always very vocal, especially when there is a northern based winner and I think the racing is always very competitive resulting in close, heart-in-mouth finishes.
Ripon, because it is such a quaint little countryside track, where they always do an amazing job with the flowers; it is always so beautiful. When I was working in the North, I was always very lucky there.
Over the years, how has racing changed?
Racing has changed greatly over the years that I have been in the industry, some for the good and some for the bad…
If I had to pick a positive and a negative, the positive would be the 40-hour working week. This has been huge for the staff at the grassroots level of racing as it has ensured that they can maintain a better work/life balance; a problem that the industry has always had.
For me, the negative change would be that the size of some yards has increased to a point where they have had to move away from the traditional ways of working, due to number of horses versus number of staff. For me, the part of the job I always loved the most was having my set horses to look after and take racing and I took huge pride in the work that I put into them. So that for me would be a negative, however the industry has progressed in leaps and bound in so many ways.
On Black Iceman
What made you want to leave working in racing full time?
I actually didn’t want to leave working in racing full time but having worked in the industry as a single mother for ten years I was on the verge of burnout. I found myself spread so thin in all areas of my life that something had to give. I am by no means out of the industry as my role at NARS keeps me in the thick of things. I also ride out four mornings a week for my great friend Simon Pearce, which keeps my toe in. It is a great compromise for my situation without the pressure.
Please describe your role at NARS.
I am the Project Assistant on the NARS Education Programme. This is a scheme that provides free education for all Racing Staff. My role consists of collating data, tracking learners, organising courses, designing content for online learning modules on the Racing2Learn online platform and much more...
It is hugely rewarding to help Racing Staff upskill and better themselves.
How can stable staff educate themselves or enhance their CVs?
All Racing Staff have access to the courses provided by NARS. The programme will be expanding this coming year and will provide a wide variety of accredited courses in which Staff can take part. All are at no cost to themselves or their employer! Whether it be brushing up on their English or Maths to enhance their CV or a more tailored, topic specific course that will bring them new opportunities in and out of their working lives.
What is the importance for stable staff to educate themselves?
I do not think enough importance is placed on Racing Staff education in the industry. We all know that anything can happen at any time in Racing and it is always best to be prepared for every eventuality. I would like to see more staff thinking about the ‘what ifs’: ‘what if I had a career ending injury’, ‘what if I can no longer do a physically demanding job’, ‘what if my personal circumstances change’… All too often in my role I am helping people ‘after the event’ to upskill them when they are in a state of panic that they can no longer do their job and have no qualifications on which to fall back when applying for anything else.
There are so many other jobs within the industry that people do not even consider once they no longer work with the horses. I think that, as an industry, we need to highlight those alternative roles and the career paths that can put people in those positions, so as not to lose passionate Racing enthusiasts from the industry.
What are the positives to a career in racing?
Where to start? For me it was always getting to ride out these amazing equine athletes. It’s such a privilege that I think we all take for granted sometimes. To build amazing relationships and bonds with the horses, plus the pride and emotion you feel when they win!
To travel the world whilst being paid to do your job, to make lifelong friends with people who have a common interest whom you would never have otherwise met and to work outside in the glorious weather (when it is glorious obviously).
Dominique with Shamalad
In your opinion, how did the stable staff shortage occur?
I think it’s no secret that there has never been enough staff in the Racing Industry. I think it took Trainers themselves coming forward and admitting that there was an issue for the industry to sit up and take notice. The industry must work hard to make working in it more attractive. This has been happening, but I feel that there is still a way to go!
What are your hobbies?
Riding out is my favourite thing to do which may or may not make me sound like a lunatic, taking my plane crazy sons to Air Shows and watching my beloved New York Giants play during the American football season.
What’s your favourite food?
What’s your favourite drink?
Strawberry Daiquiri or Champagne.
What’s your favourite holiday destination?
Kissing Sexy Secret!