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  • Jo O'Neill

January 2023 Blog

January was a reminder that racing will always be at the mercy of the elements when frost-hardened ground caused many abandonments all over the country. Meetings at Ascot and the Winter Million Festival at Lingfield all succumbed as did every smaller meeting in between. Life on the yard continued to be very busy…

Monbeg Genious

Photo Credit: Chepstow Racecourse


Minnie winning

On the 8th of Jan, I jumped at the chance to take Monbeg Genius (Minnie) to Chepstow. It was a chilly day, wintry in the breeze, that never brightened from a callous grey. The pens sent out Minnie and Crebilly (Billy). Inch House (Inchy) was the other runner and all live in the field. This meant a lot of shampooing and then brushing off the caked mud we’d missed when washing off. We had to comb out their knotted, dreadlocked tails and earthy manes. I felt a bit sorry for them as they shivered under suds and jets of warm water but the mud is otherwise impossible to remove. Afterwards, we piled their rugs back on to warm them back up and keep their bodies covered up as we plait them.

Inchy finished third, Minnie was a star when winning his second chase in a row (he jumped well and seemed very genuine. Again the choice of track was vital – he liked the big galloping track of Chepstow) and then Billy finished a satisfying second.

‘A first, a second and a third,’ I summed up the last few hours. ‘I’ll take that any day.’


Frosty Days

Towards the end of the month, during those frosty days, the line of lorries stood idle, silvered and sparkling until it melted in the harsh sunshine. There was nearly a week of abandonments over jumps and an irony lay in an all-weather evening meeting at Wolverhampton on the Saturday being cancelled due to freezing fog.

The mornings are stunning, yellow sunrises glowing over fields like fragile sheets of gold leaf. The clear, sharp air bright and harsh, our breath turned to little gusts of steam. Voices clear and sharp as birdsong. Prolonged stints of cold weather can be energy-sapping but still preferable to relentless rain. Chilblains, angry red blotches, creep onto windbitten thighs and itch irritatingly when warmed up. Wearing too many socks causes knobbly corns on toes.

We all have our own way of keeping warm. Some riders wear waterproof trousers whatever the weather, and other methods include wearing soft, brightly patterned pyjamas underneath breeches, fluffy leggings or woolly tights. We appear fattened from many layers and each one needs to be tucked right in – a freezing draft up under any thermal is as penetrating as a knife blade. The best gloves are Sealskinz, though the tingly pain of the cold still creeps into fingers curling round reins, despite the heat rising off the horse’s body.


A Top Loader

Ionut Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Ungureanu was awarded the latest Employee of the Month. He is a yardie but also drives the lorries to the races, vets and pre-training yards. He is great to go racing with and plaits up manes immaculately. He has a wealth of veterinary knowledge from being a trained vet’s assistant back home in his native Romania. Gabby will also muck out, drive the sweeper to clean the yards, feed the fields, swim horses and act as an interrupter – he is a very versatile member of the team and can do any task with the horses bar riding them!

Gabby is especially effective when we have troublesome loaders. A big group of us can be struggling to load a naughty one then Gabby walks up and they’ll suddenly clatter up the ramp, as if we hadn’t been there for ages with crossed lunge lines and flailing brooms.


Still Loving Life

I saw a post on Facebook that showed a former horse I looked after was still happy in retirement. It sounds a bit harsh but after a certain time, you just presume they’ve passed away. Yet, Chelle Robinson put up photos of her family meeting Corroboree, a horse I looked after in my first season at Nigel Twiston-Davies’ in 2005-6. Initially Chelle had him in retirement and took him to university before he went to Jayne and Donald Brooks’ to live with the former Cheltenham Festival winner Divers. Corroboree (one of my most favourite names) is healthy and happy aged twenty-six. He’s known as Robbie nowadays whereas I'd nicknamed him Colin. He always was a sweet, kind character and to see him still loving life is heart-warming.


Plaques

Many of the big racecourses honour their biggest winners. There are many that depict their former champions in life size bronze statues. Yet, perhaps, the most touching tributes lie behind the scenes, in the relative quiet where the tap of aluminium racing plates and chatter is far away from the ears of the crowds.

Cheltenham racecourse has the Hall of Fame that racegoers and the public can visit but behind the scenes, in the stables, the big winners are honoured. In the stable office, there are photos of the big Festival winners over the years – the trainer, jockey and owner are scrawled on the creamy mount but sadly the names of the winning grooms are missing. Yet, in this location, surely it’s their names that are the most important?

The tributes then spill out into the stable yard. Dark green plaques emblazoned with gold letters are screwed to the top of the doors. It used to be only for the Gold Cup, Champion Chase and Champion Hurdle but more recently, the World Hurdle and Ryanair Chase were added. All around the sprawling stable yard, and under the archway in the Irish yard, these plaques portray a history of winners, some lightened and weathered through age and others shiny new.

At Haydock, in the middle of the yard, down one of alleys that mimic a cul-de-sac, is a lone celebration. Outside the stable that housed Kauto Star for all his four Betfair Chase victories are white plaques that depict each of his wins. It's only he who has this honour, none of the other winners, reiterating how special he was in his era.

Plaques at Cheltenham, Box number 46 at Aintree is a lucky one for the

McCain Family and Derby winners at Epsom

Above the stable doors at Aintree are the plaques of Grand National winners. A list of past winners that is up by the stable managers offers reads like a memorial of warriors and another list of winners is on the site of the former stable yard, which was demolished years ago.

Epsom honours each Derby winner by a green plaque screwed onto the brickwork, another record of history of the biggest race in the Flat calendar. There are many dotted along the row where the Coolmore horses stay in June.

These might be small memorials but someone somewhere might purposefully walk past that stable, to see a particular plaque or briefly touch it and remember their one day in the sun. Big winners do not happen very often and may these plaques continue to be put up. A silent roll call of glories that are unseen by the majority.

A few smaller racecourses, like Exeter and Chepstow, have pinned up photographs in their canteens, possibly trying to give a homely feel. Many are of grooms leading in winners; some faces belong to strangers; some are as familiar as family and others are long gone from working in this sport. In Newmarket, in the canteen next to the stable yard shared by both the Rowley Mile and July courses, large photos of past winners decorate the walls, including the 2012 Cesarewitch winner. In its background, though slightly out of focus, is the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Tominator finishing third. Hereford has done its own touching tribute to stable staff; located in the stable yard on the back of a wash box is a huge montage of grooms past and present. Many of these faces familiar and all are smiley, jolly photos of grooms leading up, washing off and in the winner’s enclosure.


Over the years, I've seen a couple of amusing ‘polite notices’. One was at Pontefract Racecourse and the other Doncaster sales. These were both laminated and blue tacked to doors, forbidding the sharing of shower facilities. Whatever happenings caused these signs to be put up is definitely more akin to the raunchy plot of a Jilly Cooper novel than a trip to the sales or races in my experience.


The Cheltenham Festival is only six weeks away so the excitement is building like the bubbles in a shaken bottle of prosecco. As with everything in racing, it’ll arrive in a blink of an eye.


COLLEAGUE SPOTLIGHT

Having completed the 12-week foundation course at the Northern Horseracing College, Megan Petrie, known as Meg, came here in October 2019 on her first placement and has stayed put. She is a key member of the yard staff, running much of rehab and alternative treatments for the horses as well as being able to cover the swimming. She is currently learning to drive and is hoping to pass her test soon; though was slightly peeved when her boyfriend and fellow yardie John Dina passed first. Though he’s made it up to her by driving her around like a taxi ever since. Last summer, John took Meg home to his native Romania, where he took her on tour to Bran Castle, which was the inspiration for Dracula’s home in the novel, as well as a boat trip around the colossal Vidraru Dam. Meg loved every moment of the trip, from meeting John’s family to seeing a lot of new places and spotting wild bears. She cannot wait to return this holiday time.

Originally from Manchester, Meg, 20, caught her passion for horses from her mum and always knew she wanted to work with them. She looks after Collectors Item (Colin), Time To Get Up, Morning Spirit (Sprigget), Imperial Bede and Present Chief. She is one of the best at plaiting her horses’ manes and tails at the races and often wins best-turned-out.


Did you have a horsey childhood? I had a very horsey background and adored horses since I as small. Throughout my childhood, I spent a lot of time with my Welsh ponies on the farm with my mum, who also had an ex-racehorse.


Why did you get a job in the racing industry? I knew forever that I wanted a career with horses.


Please describe your role at work: My main role is the ‘spa’, which includes doing tasks as putting horses in the solariums and putting on the ice boots, magnetopulse boots and rugs. This helps them recover from a race or an injury. Near to Cheltenham week or other big meetings, I put the runners in the spa to prepare them. Since I’m not a rider, I feel I’m doing my bit in preparing the horses for a win. I’d say that I probably have the best job out of us yardies, because throughout the winter, the solariums are the warmest place to be. I can keep a watchful eye on my horses and stay warm and dry!

What’s been your best day in racing so far? When I led up Time To Get Up in the Midlands Grand National and he finished third. He’d won it the previous year with his old groom Lauren Hall so I hope he’s still got another big win in him.


Favourite racecourse: Cheltenham because the atmosphere is amazing.


What is the best thing about working in racing? I love travelling around the UK to go racing. Plus, I also love the people you meet and the friends you make.


And the worst? Losing horses and saying goodbye to horses that are going to new homes when they retire.


Favourite drink: G&T of course!

Favourite meal: Pizza or pasta.

Favourite snack: Chocolate.

Favourite holiday destination: Romania.

Hopes and dreams for the future: One day, I’d love to own my own horse. And I’d love to travel the world and visit as many countries as I can.


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