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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

An Interview with Monica Wakefield - Sea Pigeon's Groom

I met Monica Wakefield, nee Jones, when she visited Jackdaws Castle. Years had passed since she worked as a groom but she clearly recalled each memory of racing, summing it up as ‘the best job in the world’. Her petite stature echoed all those years ago when she was a tiny ‘seven stone, 11 pounds dressed’.

Every detail that Monica recalled from her time at trainer Peter Easterby’s was amazing. She rode Sea Pigeon mostly on the roads and round the paddocks, and only three times on the gallops. When going up the gallops, he took a grip – ‘he thought when I said whoa, I meant go’, chuckled Monica. She showed me the slightly blurry ‘one photo of me on him’. Monica brought along a stack of photographs, newspaper cuttings and a hardback biography called The Sea Pigeon Story by Bill Curling. The pages were yellowed but she asked Jonjo O’Neill to autograph it alongside the other inky scrawls within its cover. She showed me more photos, some in colour and others in black and white, smiling as she recalled the big wins, behind which were many a memory or tale.

Monica’s recollections of the life at the yard were full of reminiscences, every story vivid. ‘Alverton’s Gold Cup win gave the yard a buzz,’ she explained. ‘Everyone was on a high – to lose him in the Grand National was awful.’ She also talked of Night Nurse, another stable star.

Monica’s words portray a time long gone in racing, when letters were handwritten, the weather dictated before all-weather gallops existed, helmets were not compulsory and she worked alongside many apprentices. At the beginning, there were only two girl grooms! In fact, the whole sport of horseracing was male-dominated. ‘Back then, a girl went into racing because of the love of horses,’ said Monica. ‘I was paid to ride and look after good horses.’

Peter Easterby’s yard was run by head lad Keith Stone. The head of travelling, with whom Monica travelled ‘thousands of miles’, was the late Graham Lockerby. It was a time of unparalleled great hurdlers, including Night Nurse, Monksfield, Birds Nest, Golden Cygnet and Sea Pigeon.

Monica’s face lit up at the mention of the American-bred Sea Pigeon, who was owned by Pat Muldoon and often described as the best-known racehorse after Arkle and Red Rum. His McIntyre tartan and red colours were carried to victory in the 1980 and 1981 Champion Hurdles, the Scottish Champion Hurdle in 1977 and 1978, 1980 Welsh Champion Hurdle, 1978 and 1980 Fighting Fifths and he was partnered by his usual jockey Jonjo O’Neill to win the Ebor in 1979. Due to the lengthy ITV strike, only those present at York Racecourse that day witnessed the record-breaking win carrying ten stone, which has yet to be beaten. He also won back-to-back Chester Cups in 1977 and 1978, and carried some of the best-known jockeys, including Lester Piggott in his early career, Jonjo O’Neill, John Francome, who replaced an injured O’Neill, and Irish-champion Frank Berry. Sea Pigeon symbolised versatility, continuously winning with a formidable burst of speed at the end.

‘He was always on the go’. Monica reflected on how he would never stand still, remembering her worries that the crowds at Cheltenham were so close.

Sea Pigeon retired just before the Cheltenham Festival in 1982, having won thirty-seven races and died in 2000, aged thirty. He is buried at Easterby’s yard, next to his race rival and stable mate Night Nurse.

Monica still lives in North Yorkshire, near to where Peter Easterby trained at Habton Grange. She moved to Malton in 1969 and never left for long. She worked in racing and stud work for twenty-two years. There were two winters working in an office, ‘which I hated,’ laughed Monica, but she eventually left racing to have a family: ‘Back then, you couldn’t do both.’

She left racing but, all too evidently, racing stayed with her – the memories, the people, the winning days and, mostly, the racehorses. I watched as she met Jonjo O’Neill again after all this time; one of her favourite jockeys. Her slight height made him appear tall. I hoped that the meander through the memories had been mutually notable.

Did you have a horsey childhood?

No, never – I was one of six children, and none of them had an interest in horses. I didn’t sit on a horse until I was fourteen. Before that, I remember patting two polo ponies – Columbine and Celandine at a stables near Durham. I initially learnt to ride on the lunge.

Why did you get into racing?

I loved horses.

Which trainers did you work for?

I started off at a permit holder’s called Mr Hedley, who was an architect by trade. Then I went to Taffy Williams in Rushyford, just off the A1, to which I had to catch three buses to get there. I spent fourteen months at H T Jones in Newmarket in 1973-4 before going back up north.

My friend Joyce Birch wrote me a letter, inviting me to a New Year’s Eve party in the pub by Peter Easterby’s – he offered me a job and the rest is history. That was 1969 and I stayed until September 1972. I returned to Yorkshire in 1974 to work in the local pub but it wasn’t long before I was back in the yard full time… Two years later, in 1976, the owner Pat Muldoon brought his twelve horses from Gordon Richards’, which included Sea Pigeon. They were beautiful, all top quality.

Were you ever a jockey?

1972 was the first year that women could ride on the Flat, and about twelve races were allocated to them. I only had one ride. I finished second at 33-1 in that August at Redcar. I remember being petrified! The horse had six zeros on his form, so there was no pressure and he looked after me. The following month, I was asked to ride the horse in a second race – he had gained some winning form by then, but I couldn’t cope with the pressure.

What was your daily routine back then?

We started at 7:00 and I mucked out my three by half past, pulled out for first lot and came back in for a 9:00 breakfast. Tuesdays and Fridays were work mornings. On Sundays, the horses had a day off. We only did three so my horses were immaculate, like all the horses looked after by the girls!

Was racing male-dominated back then?

Most certainly – there was Joyce Birch and me in the whole yard. She lived nearby and was friends with my sister – and she wrote that letter that got me into Easterby’s.

How has racing changed from then to this day?

There are more girls in it now. When I first started in racing there were only two girls in the yard, but more joined after a few months. This increased a lot by the mid-1970s.

There was no Sunday racing.

There were no all-weather gallops. We had grass gallops and one dirt gallop. In the winter when everywhere was frozen, we had a straw ring in the yard. Filey Beach was used for the jumpers, especially before Cheltenham.

To begin with, there were no horse-walkers. When they were introduced, the horses were not enclosed but tied on. Often, they’d bust the ties and run off. If he were left on last, Sea Pigeon could always snap the tie and come back to his stable.

As staff, we started off with one Sunday off in three, then it was one in two. It was a long time before we got a Saturday afternoon off. I hear staff mostly work one in three weekends nowadays.

On a few occasions, I remember sleeping in the horse lorry on the overnights when accommodation hadn’t been booked. There was never a great amount of accommodation for girls, mostly it was in private houses near the racecourses!

What was your favourite racecourse?

Ayr, because of the good night out!

What was your least favourite racecourse?

Catterick – I had no luck there; I even broke my leg in the lorry park.

Who were your favourite jockeys?

Jonjo O’Neill and John Francome, plus Mark Birch, who married Joyce, made Sea Pigeon settle at home.

Which were your favourite racehorses?

Early on, it was Pandolfi – he was owned by Stanhope Joel. Then it was always Sea Pigeon.

The early partnership of Monica and Pandolfi

How did you get to look after Sea Pigeon?

I got him by default – the lad, who’d done him before, left and I was given him.

What was Sea Pigeon’s character like?

His stable name was Pidge. He was clean to muck out, loved being brushed and I left the radio on for him. After he ran, he could be a handful as he never stood still. He was quite a character – always playful and liked to unzip my jacket.

Which big race victories did you lead Sea Pigeon up in?

Two Champion Hurdles, the Welsh and Scottish Champion Hurdles and the Ebor. He won twenty-six races for us and my best days were when Jonjo or John rode him. He ran sixty-two times whilst I looked after him – I took him in all but two races.

Did you have a favourite victory?

The first Champion Hurdle, with Jonjo riding, meant more than anything.

What is your best racing memory?

Sea Pigeon’s first Champion Hurdle was great and also his second with John Francome but the first one meant such a lot. The Ebor was very special too, as well as his two Chester Cups. He was ridden by Mark Birch, who is sadly no longer with us.

Did you ever take Sea Pigeon racing abroad?

I took Sea Pigeon to Camden in South Carolina when he fell in the Colonial Cup. The journey home was not straight forward, owing to a dock workers’ strike. We had to travel overnight to New York, then to Frankfurt before flying onto Heathrow and quarantine. I spent my thirtieth birthday on the tarmac runway next to a jumbo jet with aeroplanes taking off overhead of a trailer in which Sea Pigeon was housed. By the time we got back to Yorkshire, he was not in the best condition and was dehydrated.

Do you ever go racing nowadays?

I hadn’t been until a couple of years ago when I joined Racing Welfare. A group of us went to Catterick for an afternoon meeting. That’s somewhat ironic as it had been my least lucky racecourse. Racing Welfare is a wonderful organisation and excellent at holding coffee mornings, afternoon teas and quizzes, as well as sending out newsletters.

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