An Interview with Flo Willis - second travelling to Paul Nicholls
Florence ‘Flo’ Willis’ career path may never have taken the course it has in horseracing. After leaving school, for a couple of years, she worked at one of John Fowler’s Holiday Parks in Cornwall as a ‘stripey coat'.
‘I loved it,’ Flo says with a smile, before detailing how she’d get up on stage, compere game shows, call the bingo numbers and work in the kids’ club. Yet, a friend brought Flo into racing and she has steadily risen up the promotion rungs within the racing yards in which she’s always worked hard: groom, head girl and presently, second head of travelling to Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls.
Flo’s mum Annee Breckenridge is a vet, and whose advice on treating injuries has been invaluable. Her dad, Major Chris Willis MBE, a retired military musician, is a guest house proprietor alongside his wife Sue in the middle of Dartmoor. ‘The real Fawlty Towers,’ chuckles Flo. She has an older brother Jim and younger brother Archie, plus stepsiblings Dan and Jodie.
Growing up in Woolacombe, Flo, 31, is a Devonshire girl through and through; she is fun, loves a laugh and a good night out. Despite going home as much as possible, she spends most of the time in Alhampton, Somerset, the village neighbouring the infamous Ditcheat.
Did you have a horsey childhood?
I was very fortunate to grow up next to a riding stables. I started riding approximately aged three, until I was regularly galloping across Woolacombe’s three-mile beach, as well as going to local shows and the local hunt.
I initially competed on my favourite pony, Rodney. I showjumped him and he gave me lots of confidence.
When I visited family and friends in Italy, I rode an ex-polo pony called Ibu, whom I always rode bareback and cantered round the Veneto countryside.
How did you get into racing?
A good friend, Taro, also went to Woolacombe Riding Stables, and started working for Victor Dartnall in 2010. She said that I should give racing a go, which I did. The first season I worked in racing coincided with a very bleak and cold winter on the edge of Exmoor.
Which trainers have you worked for?
Victor Dartnall for five seasons, Jonjo O’Neill for four seasons and from July 2019, Paul Nicholls.
A younger Flo when working for Victor Dartnell
What roles have you had in racing?
At Victor’s, I started off as a yardie who desperately wanted to ride out. Victor and Gerry themselves taught me to ride racehorses. I progressed onto riding out regularly. For the first two seasons at Jonjo’s I was stable staff and drove to the races a lot. Then, I was promoted to Head of the Barn for my last two seasons. At Paul Nicholls’, I was Assistant Head Girl at Highbridge for two years and this year, I’ve taken over the second travelling job.
Which was the first winner you led up?
That’s actually a good story. It was Shammick Boy at Exeter on my first ever lead up and it was his first run over fences. It was a three-horse race: Sam Winner fell and Menorah unseated, both were talented horses, and mine was left clear to win.
Which have been your favourite racehorses?
Over the years, I’ve had a good few that have stood out; it’s really hard to pick one.
More Of That was a real star for me and always will be a favourite. He took me to five Grade 1s in the UK and Ireland, and a Grand National all in one season.
One that recently stole my heart was Capeland. He was like my best mate at Nicholls’. My first day back at work was his first day back in work and I rode him every day for a year and a half. I very sadly lost him in March 2021.
Photo Credit: Turfpix
Which is your favourite racecourse?
Cheltenham because of the atmosphere. Whether it’s October or March, the vibe is unbeatable.
Which is your favourite meeting?
The Devon National all the way!!
Which is your favourite racecourse canteen?
Ascot because you can take home as much free food as you want!
Which has been your favourite racing party?
The Final Fence party at Punchestown and the McCoys is always a good night out. (Plus, you can’t beat Victor Dartnall’s owners’ day!)
Who’s your favourite jockey?
Which has been your worst day in racing?
Losing horses, including Capeland, Beg To Differ and Miss Beatrice.
What is the best aspect of working in racing?
I like how everyone is one big family. You get to meet lots of different people, especially doing a lot of travelling. We’re one community and I've made lifelong friends through this sport.
And the worst?
I absolutely love racing; I can't stress that enough but when working in it, you do miss out on family occasions and events. I missed my Grandmother’s ninetieth and seeing Dad and Sue when they worked on the Disney cruise ships. Racing can take over your life.
What is the best aspect for working for Paul Nicholls?
Being part of the never-ending spiral of success and lovely horses. I'm very lucky.
Which has been your best day in racing so far?
Mister Dick winning at Stratford in August 2016. He’d previously been beaten in lots of races. It may have been the worst novices’ chase in the calendar but it was our Gold Cup.
Favourite meal: Anything Italian.
Favourite drink: Tea before 11:00 and lager any time after. Always it's five o'clock somewhere.
Favourite snack: Cheeselets. Or at Christmas, they become Treeselets and taste even better!
Favourite holiday destination: New York.
Favourite kind of day off: A boozy roast.
Hobbies: I love seeing friends and family. I also love being a ‘tourist’, especially in London.
Loving life at Paul Nicholls'