An Interview with Racing Groom Craig Gilbey
‘I’ve not had a bad time at Nigel Twiston-Davies’,’ laughs Craig Gilbey. ‘Especially as I was nearly sacked after a few months.’ He continues how at Chepstow, he was late pulling out because his watch had stopped. It was quite a hike to the old Chepstow paddock and ‘Nige’ was fined £180 because of it.
‘Afterwards the owners bought me a brand-new watch,’ chuckles Craig, before recalling Earth Summit was running that day in the Welsh Grand National.
During Craig's time, Earth Summit is just one of the National Hunt legends that have passed through Twiston-Davies’ Cotswold yard: Binderee, King’s Road, Beau, Imperial Commander, Little Josh, The New One (who he actually led up in his first ever race when winning a bumper at Warwick), Splash Of Ginge…Many good days, many vivid memories.
Another winner, though not up there on the list of champions, has remained with Craig. He led up a schoolboy Sam Twiston-Davies when he won the 2007 Charles Owen pony racing championship at Aintree on Otterburn Lady. ‘It was my first winner there,’ he chortles.
It’s not just the horses that Craig loves but also the people in racing and the winners too. The routine never dulls. Craig rides out and goes racing all winter. During the warmer months, his tasks change to mowing and strimming. One summer, he was the person to climb a ladder and paint Nigel Twiston-Davies’ white double decker bus a khaki green.
Last season, Craig had two memorable days when Vienna Court won at Cheltenham. She’s now retired to stud but that doesn’t mean it’s the last we’ll see of Craig. He’s ingrained in this sport and he’ll be celebrating a win with an air-punch soon enough.
Craig, 45, was originally from Rugeley, Staffordshire but now lives at the yard. He’s a fan of history, especially the two World Wars, loves a pint and last summer revelled in a trip to North Yorkshire, where the highlights were Scarborough and York.
Did you have a horsey childhood? No, I never did. We only had pet dogs.
How did you get into racing? I wanted to join the army but unfortunately my dad was a former soldier and when my mum heard about me doing so, she cried her eyes out in the kitchen, so I changed my mind.
I knew something would come along at some point. Watching racing on television, I had this idea of being a jockey so that's when I went on a week’s work experience at Bonnie Williams’ livery yard. It was the first time I rode a horse, who was appropriately called Survivor.
Bonnie Williams was a governor for Rod Baston College in Penkridge. She got me on a course. I was there for nine months and then the British Racing School got involved. I was a perfect candidate for them - I was under nineteen and small. I couldn't get a racing pass unless I did the course at the BRS, so I attended it. I was on course 75 in about 1994. I loved the college but not the BRS as much.
Which trainers have you worked for? I started at Giuseppe Fierro in Hednesford, which is where I met Sean Lycett, who now trains locally. I then worked on the Flat for Reg Hollinshead in 1995. Unfortunately, I got laid off from racing so I did a few other jobs before going to Ginger McCain’s in Cheshire.
When I wanted to leave there, Shaun Lycett told me to ask David ‘the Duke’ Nicholson for a job so I went there in 1998. I looked after Pennybridge who won the Marlborough Cup, the timber race that used to be run at Barbary Castle. I left when the Duke retired and went to Nigel Twiston-Davies’ on the 14th of June 1999.
What was the Duke like to work for? I liked the place; it had a proper old crew. Lads couldn't lead up without a tie, which I still wear to the races to this day, but I have added a waistcoat. The Duke was a kind man. He took me and another lad home for Christmas dinner. We left drunk on our knees to do evening stables and he didn't care.
Which have been your favourite horses? C Harry when I worked for Hollinshead.
Hannigan's Lodger, nicknamed Squealer for the obvious reason.
Ollie Magern – the best I've looked after.
Mr Gee Jay was a favourite. Unfortunately, he suffered a fatal injury at Ffos Las.
Most recently, it was Vienna Court (Harriet).
Favourite racecourse: Wetherby.
Least favourite racecourse: Anywhere I can’t lead up a winner.
Favourite racecourse canteen: Ludlow.
Favourite overnight: Ayr – we’re treated like royalty up there.
Favourite jockey: Richard Johnson.
Over the years, how has racing changed for the better? Financially it's better. Racecourses have improved a lot – the wash-off facilities and free food in the canteens.
And for the worst? Nowadays, there's too much Sunday racing.
Which have been your best days so far? Ollie winning both his Charlie Halls at Wetherby, and then his Perth Gold Cup as a twelve-year-old. Not at all bad for a horse that I was told was useless.
Mr Antolini winning the 2018 Imperial Cup was a good day too.
What is the best aspect of working in racing? The blood rush of having a winner, cheering them home and bringing them back safely. Always punch the air - you never know where the next winner is coming from.
What is the worst aspect? Not bringing one home is heart breaking.
What has been your most memorable racing celebration? After Binderee’s Grand National, the Hollow Bottom was packed, even throughout the Sunday. After Splash Of Ginge’s win in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, the Hollow Bottom was again crazy. Oh, and after Imperial Commander's big win in March 2010, I drank champagne out of the Gold Cup itself!
What are your favourite books? Wind in the Willows, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The First Casualty by Ben Elton. I’ve also got all the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon.
Some of Craig's brilliant memories with the tiny but mighty Ollie Magern, including two Charlie Halls
Favourite meal: Roast lamb.
Favourite drink: Lager.
Favourite pub: The Black Horse, Naunton.
Favourite film: The Eagle Has Landed and The Day of the Jackal. They were both brilliant books too.
Other hobbies: Reading. I used to play darts and was doubles champion twice. Annoyingly, I was singles runner-up twice!