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February 2024 Blog

Updated: Feb 28

The last few weeks have been dominated by the weather and lots of winners, and have been a heartfelt reminder that racing is one big extended family, who are fiercely loyal and look after their own.


Feeding the Fields

One of my jobs is to feed the horses holidaying in the fields. The numbers have dwindled as youngsters have been taken off to be pre-trained, but there are still enough out to enjoy the trip round the estate.

I climb the fencing and heave over a bag of Pro Fibre nuts, and waddle over to the feed pots. These are made from blue heavy duty plastic barrels that have been halved, which I move about regularly so they aren’t surrounded by mud. The horses don't need to hear the clatter or smell the feed – just the rumble of the Jeep brings them stalking over. In this herd environment, the different characteristics shine through – some are bullies, some timid and the two retired ones are woollier and fatter than the rest.

I can hear the hungry commotion behind me, but I carry on, slipping and sliding in the mud. I check the horses, but they are unsettled, barging, kicking out or biting, straggling manes and tails flying. There's a few yearlings and two fluffy and friendly foals with big, babyish eyes.

I often feel like I'm also feeding the local pheasant population, now survivors from the local shoot, the season having finished on February 1st. I got used to plump, gleaming cock pheasants strutting over to peck at stray feed, the plainer, freckled brown hens accompanying them like escorts. At the turning into the yard, two territorial pheasants became car-chasers, wings fluffed, legs a blur and beaks stretched out in determination, running upsides vehicles. Inevitably, both got hit and we missed their humorous presence and strange welcome.


Frozen Mud

Frosts turned the estate a glittery silver but that didn’t last long, and then it seemed to rain continuously for days and days. Racing was abandoned and the mud returned as viscous and gloopy as school custard. It sucked at my wellies, up to the horses’ fetlocks in the gateways. They sheltered in their sheds, having rolled in the mud, snacked on grass and returned to huddle in the comparative dry, legs daubed in mud and wet forelocks plastered to their wet faces. The rugs were so sodden and coated with mud, they were as heavy as wet canvas tents. It has gone frosty and sunny again but for how long?

Saint Davy at Sandown, Alex with Soldierofthestorm and sunsets at the pens

To be Caught or not to be Caught

The three mares trained from the field moved to the new pen – Holly, Chooch and Troubleisontheway are like a gathering of teenage girls: stroppy, squealy, moody with friend alliances that always change. I have to kid them and tiptoe round them, because getting cross and trying to discipline them just doesn’t work. I had begun to struggle to catch them – they’d gallop away into the darkness, my expletives following them uselessly – so, I tried a new method, which was basically bribery, of taking a carrot. I played on Holly’s carrot addiction and from that morning, they have been much easier. Even though they don't exactly walk towards me, I can catch them successfully right away, Holly nosing at my pockets. The carrots obviously made them happy because Holly won at Market Rasen on January 9th. She's a gorgeous mare, definitely my favourite as, given a carrot, she is the least complicated. I've continued the carrot-bribery in all of the pens; sometimes the sweet crunch of the root vegetable is too irresistible, other times they don't care and fly past me.


Morning has Broken

The mornings are gradually becoming lighter; the daylight bleeding into the darkness like running ink. Instead of complete dark, I caught the final field in twilight then during golden sunrises and, after a few days, turned delightfully light. As I work, I hear the crow of a cockerel in the village, there's been no yapping foxes recently and now, the flap of roosting birds awakening.

I still use a headlight torch and had always thought there was a loose connection as it would often suddenly switch off, plunging me into horror movie darkness. I realised it works on a motion sensor, because any shadow that passes by, it turns off. When it does that now, it’s marginally less spooky.


Winners are Grinners

In a racing yard, winners do genuinely make life better. All in all, it’s been a successful few weeks, which makes everyone happier despite all that the weather threw at us.

Beautiful Mammies Boy (MB) won his first race over hurdles at Taunton, ridden by conditional James Smith whilst the lovable rogue Crebilly (Billy) finally won over fences at Exeter, then his best mate Imperial Bede (Beady) did the same at Southwell. These two are very cheeky and when walking into their field, I don’t know if they’ll be caught, herded into their pen or flick up their heels and bugger off. Other times, they are waiting by the gate as if I’ve kept them waiting far too long. It’s been slow but that’s six winners so far for the pens – one off last season’s total.

Never mind the pens, the whole yard has sent out a few winners, with Track And Trace winning the North Yorkshire National at Catterick on a day we had a treble. Tap N Go Leo, Regal Blue, Dimond Dice and We’re Red And Blue are all young horses who won a race, and the talented Bill Joyce won two bumpers. Beachcomber put his quirks aside to win at Huntingdon whereas the Saint Davy (David) won a hundred grand prize at Sandown. At rainy Fontwell, Copper Cove gave a chuffed Ben Macey, our other conditional, his first ever winner.


Welcome Back with Winners

In September, Ionut ‘John’ Dina and Megan Petri moved to Manchester but we delightedly welcomed them back at the beginning of January. John never totally left as during his new job as a forklift driver, which had been four days on and four days off, so he’d return here when he was off. They are both experienced yardies, who drive the horseboxes and have bounced back leading in the winners; Meg with Beady and John with We’re Red And Blue.

Alex Pawlowski returned from a lengthy recovery of a broken ankle to lead her favourite, Soldierofthestorm, into Hereford’s winner’s enclosure.


One Big Racing Family

In January, my former colleague, Richard ‘Sparky’ Bevis had a horrific accident while at his smallholding, where he’d tinker about as well as tend to his broodmares and sheep. He suffered severe head injuries, which have resulted in him losing the sight in an eye. He will need future surgeries and life will never be the same for him, wife Dom and son Will.

When I was at Nigel Twiston-Davis’, Sparky was my head lad and every day he rode out Imperial Commander (Nelly), who I looked after. Yes, Nige trained him and I cared for him, but it was Sparky who commanded high standards and was integral to him winning that Cheltenham Gold Cup. I vividly remember those days being surrounded by a great team and looking after a brilliant horse.

With Nelly and Sparky before the 2009 Betfair Chase, on Sparky's wedding day and the

photos I send Sparky to remind him of Punchestown!

Throughout my many memories, Sparky is there. When Nelly and a couple of other runners went to Punchestown in 2009, Sparky came to ride them out on the course and we had about four drunken nights on Pears Bulmers and Guiness. Even now, on my annual trip to Ireland to see family, when I see an Abrakebabra takeaway, I’ll snap a photo and send it to Sparky, just so we never forget where those nights out in Naas ended. I remember once throwing a tiny little snowball at him and I came off a lot worse – shovelfuls of snow down my jeans ensued. And the night we celebrated the Gold Cup win in the local pubs, ending up in the Plough at Ford, Sparky parked his car up on the verge, only for it to get keyed. We worked hard but we partied hard too, and laughed a lot. Racing pulled together and donated to over £70,000 in a week to a Just Giving created for Sparky.

  There has been so much generosity towards Graham Lee after his catastrophic neck injury resulting from a fall on the all-weather. I’d never led up Graham on a winner, but had led him up when the boss had had more Flat horses. He was charming, thanked us all personally and by name. I couldn't imagine how he'd been after winning the Grand National because he’d been so lovely after an also ran at midweek Notty.

Then, young amateur Keagan Kirkby lost his life after a fall in a point-to-point. I'll never know how horrendous it has been for his family and friends – just that my heart went out to Paul Nicholls’ team, where Keagan was based. A few former colleagues of mine work there now and they were in my thoughts. Winners were dedicated to Keagan as testament to his talent as a rider, and his work will continue through the horses he rode out. The whole of the racing community mourned one of their own.

In just a few short weeks, we were reminded of how dangerous racing and life can be. Yet, one tiny heartwarming aspect was the reaction and outpouring of love for these people who’d racing held dear. If racing were to rally the troops, it would bring battalion after battalion.

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Chris Clayton
Chris Clayton
Feb 28
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Yet again it just goes to show what close companions are comedy and tragedy. A really lovely read, very funny and tremendously sad - real life in other words. We have a field at the bottom of our garden which currently has a couple of horses in it, all rugged up but getting bogged down in mud and yes, accompanied by pheasants, all manner of birds, a hare and a muntjac! Keep up the good work JoJo.

Feb 28
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Many many thanks for reading, I'm glad you're still enjoying my blog :)

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