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December 2023 Blog

Updated: Jan 27

I say every month has been busy but December has been particularly busy. The lorries haven’t sat idle for many days and days on and off the yard have been very busy. Add Christmas into the mix and our feet hardly touched the muddy ground.

Quiz Masters

The month of festivities began on 28th November when Racing Welfare held a Christmas quiz and buffet down The Hollow Bottom pub. Many local yards were represented by teams, including two from Jackdaws Castle headed by assistant trainer AJ O’Neill and secretary Jade Aspell. I was a turncoat whose loyalty lay with the Twistonites, a long established quiz team made of grooms from Nigel Twiston-Davies’: Gemma McQuillan, who looks after Master Chewy, and Fay Shulton, who looks after Beauport,- are longtime members as is former groom Louise Cullen, who is now HR Manager for ADAM Asset Management Limited. She still rides out at weekends and days off, an association with the Twiston team that has nearly reached twenty years. Being a former groom there too, I’d joined this very successful trio to win a quiz down the Black Horse in the summer. Louise and Gemma are quiz-hardened professionals (especially on the music and general knowledge rounds) and then there’s Fay and I, who occasionally slide each other clueless glances but do answer a few questions…

We won! We actually won like a hot favourite on the bridle. And proudly accepted the hamper tied with a red bow, overstuffed with sweets, crackers, coffee, chocolates, tea, a Swiss roll and posh crisps, which we divided up between the four of us.

A Special Newbury Winner 

Writing this now, the Coral meeting at Newbury seems months ago. Yet, Saturday the 2nd December was an excellent day all round and will stick in the memory.

Ever since I’d first ever led up at Newbury in April 2001 during the foot and mouth epidemic, I’d wanted to lead up a winner there – it’s a beautiful course and has been a longtime favourite of mine. I remember the old stable yard, half of which were flattened when many apartments were constructed round the racecourse. The old canteen used to resemble a rickety ‘temporary’ classroom and in more recent years, the redesign of the pre-parade and saddling boxes is really smart.

Over the years, I’d led up placed horses – that first lead-up, in fact, finished fourth. Unfurled came second by one and a half lengths, Patman du Charmil was promoted to second when the winner failed the dope test and Don’t Be Late once came a fast-finishing third on Hennessy day in a handicap hurdle, only beaten a couple of lengths. So, a few near misses.

I was lucky to get the opportunity to lead up Inch House, because his groom Alex Pawlowska broke her ankle in September and is still recovering. ‘Inchy’ lives down the pens with Monbeg Genius and due to having to load them up from the field, we were late away from the yard. Shannon 'Shanny' Bishop and I were about fifteen minutes behind head of travelling, Alex Howitt. To applaud Alex, she is very laid back, and took the colour bag over to the weighing room whilst Shanny and I started to wash the runners. It was very very cold and some of the hoses hadn’t defrosted so we only washed the mud off, without drenching the horses all over. After a flurry of plaiting and getting changed, I led up Inchy and got my Newbury winner on their biggest jumps day in the Peter O’Sullivan Memorial Chase no less. I felt very proud of Inchy and delighted to have lived my dream; he won so well that, running up to him, I gave a couple of whoops.

Shanny led up her favourite, Anyharminasking (pictured) who is an absolute cutie, as bonny as he is gorgeous. She was delighted when he finished second. Talking of favourites, ‘my’ Monbeg Genius (Minnie) ran in what will always be known as the Hennessy – it hadn’t rained so I thought he’d run badly again, like first time out at Ascot. Yet, he ran a blinder to finish third! I was so proud again and so chuffed. It had been an amazing day – Clondaw Royale also won at Bangor and we had two more seconds – apart from how bitterly cold it remained. On arriving home, the pressure washer was frozen solid so we parked up the unwashed lorries and went home, a spring in our steps.


Road Trip 1

The following week, on a day gilded in winter sunshine, I took Walk In My Shoes to the undulating hills near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire. She’s retired from racing and is the first mare to start Tina Boulcott’s venture into breeding racehorses. Amongst the other horses there, the newly nicknamed ‘Prada’ will also live with emus and potbellied pigs, a collie and two pugs, and look out onto the most beautiful view over the valley.

It was a long drive but an easy one. Returning along the M4, where the motorway scythes through the pointed rooves and chimney pots of Port Talbot, the sun was still shining in a bright blue sky. I had the radio up high and could not have had a better day driving.


Road Trip 2

I also took a lame horse to Rossdales vets near Newmarket. It’s another drive I enjoy but one I don’t do that often – passing both the racecourse and driving up the main street, past the iconic clock tower. There were no strings on exercise as it was lunchtime but the shops were abuzz.

There’s always a certain protocol when dropping off at a veterinary surgery, including no unloading until he’d been signed in at the reception, where the phone shrilled often. A few Christmas cards and tinsel put a festive vibe in the busy office. I signed the papers and left the passport there, as these need to be always kept with the horse. I then unloaded and a veterinary nurse showed us to a lofty stable. Whilst they labelled his rugs, I gave him a pat for luck, as he was due to stay there for at least a week to continue treatment.

Monbeg Genius, Walk In My Shoes settling into her new home and Wilful

Wilful by Name

There’s often a sentimental reason behind the name of a racehorse and no more so than behind Wilful’s racing name, who won a bumper at Catterick on the 19th. Lauren Hay, who’s dad Jim and stepmum Fitri Hay own Wilful, explained he’s named after the first boat her grandfather Wilfred built. Around the yard, however, Wilful is known as Willie.

Christmassy Ascot

I was racing on the 23rd so I missed the yard’s Christmas jumper day. (My specially purchased Christmas pudding tabard will have to do for another year!) As I was collecting my racing kit, I loved seeing many of my dressed-up colleagues ride past me in the gloomy dark. Carley Chutter was a reindeer and was joined by several elves and several brightly coloured woollen jumpers. I said morning to a Santa Claus riding past, who responded cheerfully. I did a cartoon-worthy doubletake – it was head lad Alan Berry. Not the most Christmassy person, Berry, for one lot only, had gone top-to-toe Santa.

The annual Christmas songs were merry on the radio and the roads to Ascot weren’t that busy. The festive mood continued as people called out merry greetings. Everyone signing in with a runner received a goodie bag containing a bottle of Peroni, packet of Oreos, chocolates and Polo mints all tied up with a midnight blue Ascot ribbon. It was a lovely gesture and got us on a Christmas roll a little earlier than anticipated.

Once again, more rain would have been preferable but ‘my’ Zonda ran well to come fourth. He’s a beautiful dapple grey and impeccably mannered – I’m growing fond of him. After the race, because he’d tried so hard, he overheated and went wobbly. His legs buckled and it’s like trying to drag a very large drunk away – jockey Harry Cobden tried shooing him along as Paul Nicholl’s assistant Charlie Davies ran behind us, offering encouragement. The marshals were on hand with buckets of water to cool him down and the vets arrived quickly. Soon, we were clopping back to the stables, no further issues arising.

That evening, it was the staff Christmas party in Koloshi, an Indian restaurant near the Charlton Kings end of Cheltenham. There were bowlfuls of steaming rice, stacks of naan and the dishes we’d preordered joined them. There was lots of chatter, banter and laughter, which mixed with delicious curries and a free bar made the perfect combination.


Will It Ever Stop Raining?

In an ironic twist, between Christmas and New Year, storms bought torrential rain, resulting in meetings at Uttoxeter and Leicester being abandoned due to waterlogging. The Boss also didn’t run the two at Catterick due to atrocious ground. So, December slid to an end like a footballer on a muddy pitch but January brings so many more possibilities…


Happy New Year. All the best for 2024.


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Jan 03
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent! A great read.


Jan 02

Thank you. It is true that we’re one happy family - there is competition but also friendships too!


Jan 02
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Love reading these blogs but have a bit of catching up to do. Love reading about the horses and pleased that 'Zonda' soon recovered after his overheat. Seen this a few times when l used to go racing. I am still trying to decide on my yard favourite after Cloth Cap's retirement one no doubt will endear itself to me. Is there any chance of an update on Clothy in his retirement, would live to know how he is doing what he is up to.

Jan 02
Replying to

Clothy is loving his retirement. He returned to the northern yard and Trevor Hemming’ loyal and longtime racing manager Mick (who bought Clothy as a youngster) rides him out and Clothy lives with a group of youngstock, still acting the boss!


Chris Clayton
Chris Clayton
Dec 31, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Another great read..... It's clear that apart from all the incredibly hard work everyone puts in day in day out, you obviously enjoy socialising with each other, not only with friends and colleagues at Jackdaws but also with those at other yards and businesses. It goes to prove what true horse racing enthusiasts already know, that racing is one big family. Like all families it has it's ups and downs but the love help and support is always there.

Here's wishing you, Joe and young Finn a wonderful 2024 along with everyone at Jackdaws.

Keep those blogs coming!

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