Chillier evenings and the nights drawing in are hinting that autumn is imminent. I look forward to the real competitive National Hunt starting up but I’ll miss walking in the summer evenings. The wheels of Finn’s pushchair trundling on the warmed tarmac, Daisy skittering on light paws, sniffing and running, hares lopping unhurriedly out of sight, our shadows stretched. I thought that August might have been a month in which I didn’t write a blog. It’s been quiet and there’s not been many runners, especially with the two-week summer break in jump racing. Most of the horses are doing lots of work on the gallop, progressing from the initial canters on the rounds to going up the straights. Yet, there’s always something to write about…
Head lad Johnny Kavanagh, pictured, who celebrated his 55th birthday later in the month, returned from his holidays to find his keys missing. Johnny’s bunch of keys jingles like a prison officer’s and he’s got several that don’t have duplicates – like for the not-so-secret tack store, Narnia. He's very protective about his keys so must have been distressed at their unknown whereabouts. The keys turned up eventually, mysteriously hanging up in the office. Meanwhile, sometime this summer, head girl Georgia Plumb had acquired her own smaller set of keys, chinking off a new lanyard, complete with a keyring of a miniature helmet. However, these were honestly acquired and had not been taken off Johnny’s set whilst they’d disappeared.
Out 'n' About Again
On July 28th, I undertook a driving job up the M5 and M6, to Junction 27 to pick up from the late Trevor Hemmings’ racing manager Mick Meagher’s yard. After the usual ten-minute catchup, we loaded up the two: Cedar Row and an unnamed youngster.
On the way home, it was a slow journey. The motorway was its usual snail pace of a Friday afternoon but southbound was better than northbound, which was shut. A mangled wreck surrounded by a cluster of florescent emergency vehicles, blue lights flashing but sirens silenced. Miles and miles of stationary cars and lorries shining in the sun, their mirrors glinting, made me relieved that even though we had a slow journey, at least we kept mostly moving.
Whilst going on my little road trip, I was bemused to find unused racecourse canteen vouchers littering the lorry cab amongst the dust, shavings and crumbs. There was a small rectangular one from Newbury, a creased paper one from Southwell and at least three laminated ones from Uttoxeter.
Nowadays, all racecourses give stable staff vouchers for their lunch. When checking in the runners by their microchips, the BHA security staff also take our own ID cards, affectionately known as stable or racing passes, which are also zapped in with a beep. We’ll then collect our passes and a food voucher is left with them. It’s a massive change for racecourses to bring stable staff canteens in line with the complimentary meal the owners and jockeys are provided. With the voucher, we can usually choose a ‘meal deal’ or a hot dinner, whereas in the past, we’d have to always get a tenner out in cash to buy our own food or bring a packed lunch.
A few years ago, if there had been vouchers handed out, none would’ve been unspent because we were an insatiably greedy bunch.
A Great Night Out
I’ve been friends with Ally Stirling since we were colleagues at Nigel Twiston-Davies’. She was once a successful amateur and now rides out, does the accounts and payroll for Fergal O’Brien. Back in the spring, a quest to find us a different night out had taken us to a hillbilly Country Legends night in Tewkesbury. A whole evening of ‘Country Roads’, ‘Blanket On The Ground’ and ‘On The Road Again’ was a bit much for Ally…So to do better, on 30th July, I booked tickets for a Tina Turner tribute at Berrybank Amphitheatre, near Stow-on-the-Wold. Our nights out, or day trips for that matter, are always fun but some do take on an unexpected level of hilarity. True to form, this one should’ve been a quiet evening out with a bit of live music but ran another course entirely.
We ate the picnic in the car, rain smattering the windscreen, droplets chasing down the windows. It did dry up and, except for the odd shower, the heavy charcoal sky never lived up to its threat. I’d purchased wigs, shaggy, sun-bleached and punky, supposedly akin to Tina Turner but they looked more like unidentifiable roadkill. Ally refused to wear hers so they stayed in the car, because I was too wimpish to wear mine solo.
We collected our canvas directors’ chairs and satin-edged hunter green blankets, and found the best spot two rows back. Not too near the front but not up the back row. Our view was only occasionally obscured by the upping of golf umbrellas during the infrequent showers. We had one contraband ‘tinny’, because we hadn’t known alcohol had to be purchased from the big yurt – a watery G&T for me and a vivid cranberry vodka for Ally, sipping furtively. There were a lot of anoraks, cagoules and Barbours but also glittery jackets and sequins to rival the singer’s sparkly dresses. Lots of Dubarrys, wellies and steel toecap boots. The odd cowgirl hat, wide-rimmed fedoras and a rainbow bucket hat straight out of a Pride convention. An aroma of rain and crushed wet grass mingled with the chart toppers of Tina Turner.
There were a few National Hunt faces along with their partners and friends, including a few jockeys, one of whom had won the prize pot hurdle race at Uttoxeter earlier that afternoon. A certain Adlestrop trainer flung himself around energetically round the dancefloor. Unable to resist, Ally and I joined the throng for the finale. ‘Proud Mary’ was the penultimate song and ‘The Best’ was, of course, the encore. And why not? It had been the best night out, with laughter of epic proportions.
I dropped Ally back to her car in Stow’s Tesco carpark and she left me the uneaten picnic but, oddly for someone who refused to wear it, took the wig home.
Pre Season, Post Season Social
A pre-season social was held at the yard on the first Saturday of August. It was a shame that so many staff members were on holiday, including two of the head lads, the head of travelling and head of maintenance, but we still partied hard.
Luckily, we had dodged the torrential rain that had fallen during the day but it was a cold night, where we shivered under winter coats until we danced. There was a burger van and a bar in a vintage Ifor Willams horse trailer parked near to the workshop, which housed the flickering lights and music from the disco. Next door, situated in the indoor school was the bucking bronco, not the usual wild youngsters the lads might get legged up on to, but the mechanical kind with the horns of a bison. Some people defied the odds of staying on but most didn’t: Mark Wellfair, our farrier, left his eventing background behind him and ended up on the inflatable landing within seconds, and racing manager Joe O’Neill proved twirly office chairs were more to his liking when flying off after two turns. Yardman Florin 'Fred' Mirea (pictured) was vey game but tried and failed. Those who showed amazing stickability included a Becher Chase-winning jockey from when the fences made buckeroos appear tame, seventeen-year-old groom Cain Reese and our amateur and assistant AJ O’Neill.
Fueled by G&Ts, I later hit the dancefloor… and was still there when there were only eleven die-hards left. ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ was a spinning, sweaty frenzy. We danced on the concrete floor, drinks splashed and slopped on top of old oil spillages and an ironic A4 sign, No Fuel Allowed, taped to the breeze block wall glowed in an ultraviolet lamp. We danced next to strung-up pipes and coiled hoses, a large stand with numerous little trays for storing nails, screw eyes, tacks, nuts and bolts and three strimmers hung from hooks. There were only two minor low points. One, when a teenage colleague said of an Ibiza anthem from the ‘90s, ‘My dad listens to this’ to which I retorted, ‘I listen to this.’ A little bit later on, to the distinctive clacks of the typewriter in ‘9 to 5’, one of the lads asked if Dolly Parton was still alive. Sometimes I despair with the younger generation! As ever, the yard had a great party and, the next day, the recycling bins were overflowing with empty cans and bottles.
Jump racing started up again on the 19th August at Market Rasen and the yard got an early boost by sending out a double with All The Glory and Young Wolf (Wolfy). As I mentioned before, the autumn is nearly here.
Wolfy after winning at Market Rasen