An Interview with Racing Groom Gemma McQuillan
Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Gemma McQuillan loves working with racehorses and wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. She was born in Gloucestershire but grew up in Lincolnshire; yet returned to Gloucestershire during her years working in racing.
In the past, she worked for Jeff King, looking after horses such as Lightening Lad and ANC Express. She then worked for the late David Wintle, where she rode Hello Bud and led him up when he won the Northumberland Grand National at Hexham – a horse Gemma was ironically associated with once again in his teenage years at Nigel Twiston-Davies, her current employer. At Twiston-Davies’, Gemma has shared many good days alongside the likes of Splash Of Ginge and Mad Moose, who was under her care when he was banned from racing in January 2014. He might have refused to start many times but he also won seven races, ones at Cheltenham and Doncaster, and was second in a group two at Chester whilst looked after by Gemma.
She has also looked after Ballyandy for two seasons, enjoying a memorable day at Haydock when he won ‘The New One’ Unibet Champion Hurdle Trial in 2020 and when he finished second in last year’s Greatwood Hurdle. Gemma led up her first winner for Twiston-Davies in October 2009, Nudge N Nurdle at Fontwell and also looked after a former Royal Ascot winner in Ransome Note. She had many years with Splash Of Ginge, who won six times, including the 2018 Bet Victor Gold Cup at Cheltenham and who was second at the Cheltenham Festival too.
For this season, she looks after former Champion Bumper-winner Ballyandy (Andy), Poppa Poutine (Pops), Redford Road (Red), Chance A Tune (Tuney), stable star Bristol De Mai and Top Of The Bill (Rory). She lives in the picturesque Cotswold village of Guiting Power, about a mile from the yard.
Did you have a horsey childhood?
I started riding between the age of six or seven. My elder sister bought two ponies for her son and when he got fed up with riding, they became my ponies. There was a miniature Shetland called George, who was evil, and Pinocchio (Pinkie). I then took on a family’s pony in the village, who was called Penny. I never competed or did shows, I just did hacking.
How dd you get into racing?
I used to enjoy the racing on TV so I just decided to give it ago.
Which trainers have you worked for?
I initially started out at a couple of really small trainers then I went to Sally Hall’s, near Middleham and that was the first place I started to properly learn about horses and racing.
I later went to Jeff King’s at Broad Hinton, near Swindon. I stayed there for about ten years.
I moved to Cheltenham, did a season in a hunting yard but I missed racing. I went to Mary Hambro’s, who trained at the Cotswolds Stud, outside Stow-on-the-Wold. I then went to the late D.J Wintle’s for three years until he retired. Then, I literally went down the road to Nigel Twiston-Davies in January 2009.
Which was your first winner?
Quiet Dawn, when I was at Jeff King’s, in August 1994 at Stratford. She only won because the other five runners fell. I remember being so excited and ran to get her, amid all the other trainers trying to catch the loose ones and getting their jockeys back on board (remounting was allowed back then).
What are your favourite racecourses?
Cheltenham, Newbury and I used to love the ‘old Chepstow, not the new Chepstow’.
Hello Bud after winning his second Becher Chase
What are your favourite canteens?
Newton Abbot and Ludlow – both have homecooked food with lots of options. Not just ‘what would you like with your chips’!
What are your least favourite racecourses?
Plumpton and Fakenham.
What have been your most favourite racehorses?
Lightening Lad (nicknamed Oscar) always was/is my number one. I always loved him.
Splash Of Ginge (Ginge), who I looked after from his novice hurdle year and I rode daily.
I really liked Ballybolley (Bowls) – he was just lovely to look after. I never rode him though, as he was keen – except for when he went to Galway and I had to ride him round the track!
Bendimingo (Bendy) – another sweetheart and one I lost too soon.
Gemma with Lightning Lad after his first hurdle win at
Wincanton, November 1994
Who is your favourite jockey?
Ruby Walsh. He rode one of mine at Jeff’s called Fluff N Puff, round Ludlow. I had always wanted to lead him up!
On the Flat, Tony Clark and Vince Slattery were always nice people to lead up.
What has been your favourite racing party or celebrations?
Splash Of Ginge’s party after his Betfair Hurdle win was legendary – it went on for about five days! And it was great after Imperial Commander’s Gold Cup win down the Hollow Bottom.
What have been your best days in racing?
All Splash Of Ginge’s three wins round Cheltenham were brilliant, especially the Bet Victor Gold Cup when he was given an awesome ride by Tom Bellamy. I shared many great days with Ginge. He was such a patron saint for young jockeys like Ryan Hatch, Jamie Bargary and kept Tom Bellamy’s name out there.
Hello Bud (Budly) winning his second Becher Chase at fourteen – he was one of three winners at Aintree that day. And it was a great day for the ‘Granny Squad’ – Little Josh also won the Grand Sefton. Rach Phillips was with Josh and we were both ‘senior members’ of the yard!
Mad Moose finished second to Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham – it was the Victor Chandler Chase that had been rearranged from Ascot due to bad weather. Moose stole the lead by twenty lengths, for once he didn’t plant!
Photo credit: Pete Wilson
How has racing changed over the years?
There’s been massive improvements – more time off and there never used to be a pension. Pay has improved – back then, some trainers used to get away with so much. Jeff King’s was the first yard where I received Jockey Club wages. Before that, sometimes, I didn’t even get racing expenses.
There’s NARS too – I now feel stable staff have a voice.
Canteens have improved too – free tea and coffee, food vouchers, etc. Before, stable staff were largely forgotten. In the late ‘90s, Cheltenham won Jumps Racecourse of the Year and to celebrate, they held a Free Food Day, where food was free everywhere bar the stable lads’ canteen.
In your opinion, why did the stable staff crisis occur?
In the mid-1990s, the Racing Post held a Proper Deal For Stable Staff campaign – they had a hotline for staff to leave their grievances in private and anonymously. There were horror stories and racing got shaken up. An inquiry was held and things gradually improved. The union, then called the Stable Lads’ Association, started to improve. Since then, George McGrath has taken charge of it and changed things for the better.
What’s your favourite book?
The Wrong Boy by Willie Russel, Rivals by Jilly Cooper and I love Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austin.
Gemma with the quirky Mad Moose
What’s your favourite film?
The Shawshank Redemption, A Few Good Men and I’m a sucker for legal dramas. I think I’m a frustrated lawyer at heart.
What’s your favourite meal?
What’s your favourite drink?
Cocktails! Over the years, I’ve overindulged and there’s now not a lot of alcohol left that I enjoy!
Reading, films, music. I love quizzes and used to enjoy the monthly pub quiz down the Black Horse in Naunton but covid killed it off for now. I’ve been told I should do Radio 2’s Pop Master but I’m yet to be brave enough and besides, I’m always at work then!
Below: Gemma and Ginge at the Bet Victor Gold Cup
2019 when he retired safe and sound