April 2023 Blog
Updated: May 3
The last couple of months of the season has flown by. Having ticked off Cheltenham, Aintree, Ayr and Punchestown, even the grand finale at Sandown has been. Holidays are a sniff away...
End of a Horsebox Era
We waved goodbye to our chunky Quigley four-horse lorry. Jonjo has always had a bigger box – I remember when I first came here, the silver box ‘Ellie’ had her name on the front of the cab like an Eddie Stobart lorry and Don’t Push It’s Grand National-winner sticker on the back. I always felt proud of getting my HGV and I have many good memories of loading up and driving off up the drive, radio blasting.
Yet, many days this season, the bigger lorry was unused. There was no one willing to do their lorry test and Certificate of Professional Confidence, meaning a driver can drive professionally for hire and reward. Two-boxes only need a car license and no extra certification and have no added complications like requiring an operator’s license. It was end of an era but the Boss will have three two-boxes, rather than two, so more people will become drivers.
Joint Newbury Racecourse Champions
One part of going racing is ‘turning out’ the horses, which means how shampooing, brushing and plaiting their manes and tails. The skill takes practice but, when perfected, it is so satisfying. Brushing a horse will make their coat shiny and then plaiting them up makes them look really smart. We do not always plait the tails and horses can still look smart when they are not plaited – their manes and top of their tails dampened down, socks whitened…it takes a lot of combing, brushing and polishing. Jonjo O’Neill’s staff are renowned for their turn out but so are other yards, including Donald McCain, Tim Vaughn, Nigel Twiston-Davies, to name a few. Turning horses out is one of my favourite parts of the job – I feel proud that the horse I’m leading up is looking good.
Sometimes, we win the best-turned-out prize, which the race sponsors pick out when we are leading our runner round the parade ring. It helps that most of our horses have the yard’s navy Wasdell sponsorship, so the paddock sheets and our coats match, but it’s also really nice when horses have their own sponsorship and we get to wear different coats.
This season, at Newbury Racecourse, our team nearly won the season’s most best-turned-out awards. In the end, they shared the prize with Nigel Twiston-Davies, who won three turn-outs on the 25th March, dead-heating with us. Nigel’s head travelling girl Fay Shulton and our Ionut Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Ungureanu went up to collect the joint prize. Though, I never found out if the cake had to be shared. Congratulations go to both teams; it shows how much work went into all the plaiting over the winter months.
On the 31st, Johnnywho made a winning debut round Taunton under Jonjo Junior. He’d won an Irish point-to-point really well, with the subsequent Challow Hurdle winner Hermes Allen back in third. Johnny, as we call him, will hopefully be an exciting prospect for next season.
The Grand National 2023
I spent a fabulous three days at home, watching Aintree. The Saturday was bathed in sunshine but protestors storming the course in their pink t-shirts tarnished some of the glow. Police, security staff and locals hauled them back off the grass and manhandled them off the fences where they were gluing themselves.
It was not the total fiasco that plagued the Grand Nationals in the 1990s – that of the void race and the bomb scare – but it still caused a fifteen-minute delay, at a time when a delay is not savoury. The runners are old handicap chasers who know the race day routine – to have left the paddock, to have had girths and cross nosebands loosened would have unnerved them. They all know their job and any delay would make them anxious.
The protestors supposedly wanted to highlight the cruelty behind the race, but their actions were detrimental to their cause. They are foolish, not for protesting, because this is a country of free speech, but for not understanding the animals they sought to protect. Their actions were actually harmful – the delay and commotion had bad consequences, with one runner being fatally injured at the first. They denied it was their fault but everyone who knows racehorses, who ride, train and look after them, will know how much they will have been put on edge.
Corach Rambler was a wonderful, wonderful winner. A favourite in the betting but also a favourite in many hearts too. He is a credit to Lucinda Russell and her amazing team – may they have partied hard.
Yet, the worry is what will these pink t-shirts be willing to do in the future? There are already rumours about them protesting before the Epsom Derby and those highly strung colts will be affected more than older chasers and, of course, the police foiled the animal activists at the Scottish Grand National.
Plus, the bigger picture…if racing is ever banned, what will happen to the Thoroughbred as a breed? No other equestrian sport uses TBs as racing does and without a use, there would be no breeding program and no future prospects at all.
The Lambourn Open Day 2023
On Good Friday, having always previously been working, I took the opportunity to go to the Lambourn Open Day. The sun was really warm and armed with a booklet including a map, I started out at Seven Barrows…where the world and his wife had also gone. There were huge crowds queuing to get into barns and the front yard, that is unmistakably where Nicky Henderson’s trains, was rammed with visitors. I met the past Champion Hurdle winner Epatante, her small stature opposing to her big heart, and watched Constitution Hill plod past on one of his four parades but then I left.
My baby son Finn was crying, unsettled and obviously unhappy. I drove a couple of miles and parked up in a field and looked round Charlie Hills’ barns. The flat horses were not as chilled as the jumpers, and many were bouncing round their boxes, squealing and scuffing through their bedding. There were amusing notices stuck outside the stables: ‘I might bite’ or ‘I definitely bite’. It was also good to see the plaques still outside Battaash’s former stable but Finn was not much happier.
I didn’t go to any more yards but dropped in to have a wander round the carnival. By now, Finn was fast asleep and I looked into a few of the stalls. The scent of crushed grass mingled with hot oil and sizzling beef from the burger vans, mimicking a circus field. Three huge yellow bouncy castles emitted children’s shrieks of excitement and the day’s commentary whined from the tinny speaker system. There were clothing stalls, charity stalls, brand new horse boxes, a farriery demonstration and a couple of ice cream vans. The sunny weather attracted a big crowd and I left as the sheepdog demonstration started.
On the 16th April, I took a ‘spare’ racing. The transporter Chris Jones drove and it was like we’d gone back in time. Chris Jones, an ex-jockey, has driven me and my runners in all of my jobs in racing. I have followed him round a variety of trainers and he must be pretty fed up of me by now! Yet, we chatted lots and trotted down memory lane, making the journey there and back to Huntingdon fly by.
My lead-up was Land Genie, nicknamed Landy and he’s actually not far from resembling a Land Rover. He’s a tall bay but his breeding got him a lot of attention: a half-brother to the amazing Constitution Hill. As the racegoers pointed and tittered at him, the TV cameras followed him, I felt I was walking next to a minor celebrity. Landy might never be as good as his relation but he won his bumper, showing an excellent turn of foot and a genuine attitude. Another one to look forward to.
Since the last time I’d been, Huntingdon has made many improvements. They are heightening the stables in the yard, rebuilt the old rickety wooden saddling boxes and have redone the staff canteen, totally gutting it and giving it a fresh new look. Everything from the tables and chairs, doors and toilets were still sparklingly new.
The new saddling boxes and vastly improved canteen at Huntingdon
Grooms do love going on overnight stays. At Jonjo’s, any destination above Carlisle (Scotland!) are considered our overnighters. Ayr was the first one I ever went on in a previous job in June 2005 – the Western House Hotel had yet to be built so we stayed in town at the now-closed Station Hotel. I’d gone up there when Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Hello Bud to win the National and had visited twice previously with Jonjo’s, but not for eight years. There, in 2015, I actually led up AP McCoy's final ever winner, Capard King in a novices hurdle: a lot of good memories. On one of those stays, I had forgotten pyjamas, toothbrush and toothpaste and had to walk up to the nearby Tesco’s to purchase replacements.
This year, head of traveling Alex Howitt and head girl Georgia Plumb drove up with two horses and I took up ‘my’ Monbeg Genius. It took eight hours as we got held up near Junction 23 of the M6. Three police cars, two ambulances and five fire engines sped past, all flashing blue lights and deafening sirens, but luckily, they went off elsewhere and after a short while, we were on our way again. On the M6, I love curving through the Cumbrian hillsides like are a precursor to the craggy mountains of the Lake District and there was really pretty countryside in Scotland. White lambs frolicked and gambolled. Evergreen forests resembled brushed velvet, darker in some parts than others.
Arriving at Ayr was as it always had been: slightly chilly but with a soundtrack of the gawky peals of seagulls. We unloaded the horses, gave them water and hay before unloading the equipment. Then, we led the horses round – a lot of other horses were being led out too, accompanied by noise of a dozen metal shoes scoring on the tarmac.
Then, after checking into the neighbouring Western House Hotel, we pondered what to do about dinner (the canteen had shut well before its closure time of 8pm). Alex whipped out her phone and ordered food via the Domino’s Pizza app. The car delivered the flat, warm carboard boxes to the hotel car park and we ate half our large pizzas, filling the room with the aroma of greasy, cheesy fast food. It wasn’t the nights of old up in Ayr with a meal out then dancing until the early hours in Club de Mar (which actually closed in 2017!) but it was the cosy night in, eating, chatting and giggling a lot, like a teenage sleepover.
To cut a long story short, due to the lack of rain, and the wind and sun drying up any watering, Monbeg Genius (Minnie) didn’t run. It was a relief as he can go out for an extended summer holiday – the only disappointing aspects was that my plaits were absolutely perfect and he looked a picture, gleaming all over. So, on the way south, I shared the driving with Georgia and Soaring Glory kept Minnie company. We were winding our way back through the rural roads when we passed a lamb stuck on the roadside. Hazards blinking, I reversed the lorry whilst Georgia chased the escapee, penning it against a wheelie bin as he frantically headbutted the fence in a vain attempt to get back in. In a flourish, she put him back over the fence and, bleating, he charged off. We laughed, feeling a good deed had been done and we headed home – it took only seven hours. With many horses on the verge of going out in the fields for their holidays, the first staff have gone on holiday. After Aintree, yard couple John Dina and Megan Petrie were straight on a plane to Egypt, in celebration of Meg’s 21st. By all accounts, they had a wonderful time, from seeing the Pyramids to riding camels. It’s true that stable staff love horses and racing, we certainly love our holidays too!
As a little girl, Leah Burnett fell in love with horseracing after attending Wetherby races. Whilst still at school, she then attended the National Horseracing College in Doncaster, mixing her GCSE studies and learning about racing. ‘I attended the NHC on the 14-16 course, which meant I went in every Friday for two years,’ she explains. ‘I did work experience at the late Malcolm Jefferson's and Jedd O'Keeffe's in my school holidays. When I had finished school, I was offered a job at Jedd O'Keeffe's, which began my career in horseracing.’
After previously working here and then spending time on a busy Flat yard, Leah, 23, returned last January as our Pupil Assistant. She is a credit to any racing yard because, having gained a coaching qualification in 2021, to which she has added to since, she can help with improving the staff's riding skills. Due to her big smile, Leah is very approachable, and she is always willing to help out her colleagues. In fact, Leah has educated herself by signing up for many courses within the racing industry. She is highly competent with all the horses’medical treatments and is very experienced at the races, be it leading up or acting as the trainer’s representative. This season, Leah looked after Dollar Bae (Dolly) who won three times and twice-winner Iron Bridge (Bridgey), who she rode daily out on his own. Despite not ever having lived her childhood dreams of becoming a jockey, Leah is a very accomplished rider, often riding pieces of work and schooling.
Being very much a Yorkshire girl at heart, Leah often returns home to Bradford, West Yorkshire on weekends off…or she is as likely to be hiking and mountaineering. She is equally happy when on top of a horse or a mountainside! Plus, she is an avid bookworm, and also loves to do pieces of creative writing as well as poetry. Through Jonjo’s, Leah met her boyfiend Ben Macey, a conditional jockey, and they’ve been seeing each other for six months.
Did you have a horsey childhood? Mainly yes, I started riding at seven. My mum started having lessons with me, then Dad felt left out so he started taking lessons and we never looked back.
Leah aged 16 (Phil Doncaster Photography) and leading up winners at Richard
Fahey's - Baileys in Bloom at Beverley and Coolagh Forest at York, both in 2019
How did you get into racing? Two things inspired the racing career: my parents and I bought an ex-racehorse to share, I enjoyed looking through her form and old races with my dad. Her career in racing wasn't incredibly long or successful, it still spiked my interest. I then read a book called Race To Glory by an author I cannot quite remember the name of. It was about a woman battling all odds to win the Grand National, and from there I said to myself, 'I want to do that' so I started researching how to get involved in the sport and make it a career, which is where I found the course at the National Horseracing College, formerly known as The Northern Racing College.
What roles in yards have you had? At Jedd O'Keeffe's and my first time around at Jonjo's, it was all about learning the job so I was a stable lass. At Richard Fahey's, I was still a stable lass but in my second year, I had slightly more responsibility by helping to check legs and handle medications at the satellite yard when needed. Now at Jonjo's, I am a pupil assistant who does a little bit of everything: riding, driving the horseboxes to and from the races and sales. I occasionally help with going through the sales catalogues, and I feed and check legs at the pens.
What jobs have you had out of racing? I took some time out of racing to gain some new skills. I worked at an equine veterinary clinic, starting with yard work and I eventually did some nursing, which involved helping in surgeries, assisting in imaging like bone scans, x-rays, and CT scans. I also helped with some the ICU proceedings, which I always enjoyed as some of the cases were rare occurrences in horses’ anatomy, and it taught me a lot about different breeds and the thought that went into solving medical problems. I then went onto working for my local council, Ryedale Council, where my main role was handling calls for people who had lifeline buttons. These allow the elderly or vulnerable people to live independently with the reassurance help is only a button-press away. I would direct the calls to the correct people, whether that would be carers, family members, on-road wardens or emergency services. I would also cover out-of-hours for the majority of North Yorkshire, repairs for council housing tenants, lost and found dogs, emergency accommodation for the homeless and highways complaints. Every day was different!
This season with Dollar Bae, Locks Corner and favourite Iron Bridge
Why did you decide to come back into racing? After watching the Frankie Dettori documentary, I realised how much I missed the sport and the excitement that came with it!
What courses have you taken? I started with the basics Levels 1-3 in Racehorse Care and Riding, then Levels 1-2 in Racing Coaching, a racing secretary’s qualification, first aid, safeguarding and, most recently, an Assistant Trainer's qualification.
How did you become a Rider Coach? Having passed my Level 2 as a rider coach, I can now coach independently. I am still trying to gain a little more experience coaching so, in 2021, I taught at a pony racing camp, which helped a lot and was incredibly fun to do! At work, I help the staff who come up to me with questions about how to ride certain horses, or talk through things that they might be struggling with. It has helped some of the riders who are quite new to racing to feel more confident when riding.
Who is your favourite jockey? Retired is Richard Johnson and current is Rachael Blackmore.
What is your favourite racecourse? On the Flat: Chester, leading up there was always fun with music playing, people having fun and the course is beautiful. Over Jumps: Weatherby, the first racecourse I ever visited and where I have many happy memories with family. I finally got to lead up there on Boxing Day.
What is your favourite Canteen? York, the food selection is always lovely, and they cater to the stable staff really well.
What is your favourite racehorse? Iron Bridge, he has such a fun character, he's very playful and loves to have a bounce around when he gets excited! I ride him every day so I know his little quirks; it's always my favourite time of day when I come to ride him. He's also great at cuddles on the days you might need some TLC!
What do you love about racing? I love seeing horses progress and settle into their work. I also love seeing the statistics behind finding the right race for a horse depending on how they go up the gallop, for example what trip they might like or ground type based on their action, although that's not an area I am involved with, I find it interesting. I like hearing the jockey's feedback of what a horse ran like, or what might be worth trying next time. It's also really exciting watching a horse run that you have been riding or working with for a while to see how they do.
What do you enjoy least about racing? Though uncommon, I hate when we lose horses, bringing home an empty horsebox or seeing an empty stable is heart-breaking and always affects the atmosphere within the yard. I understand it is a very controversial topic, but I know the same can be said for every racing yard, and also for anyone who owns or works with horses in general.
What are you hopes and dreams? I would love to one day train my own racehorses; though a difficult feat, I will definitely give it a good go!
Favourite meal: Anything involving pasta!
Favourite drink: Aperol Spritz, it's a summer classic!
Favourite book: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Favourite Music: I listen to almost anything but All My Love by Noah Kahan is my favourite at the minute.
Ideal Day Off: A day spent walking up mountains, be that in Wales, Scotland, The Lakes, or Yorkshire Dales, I love it!
Favourite holiday destination: So far, the week I spent solo in the north of Wales.