July was busy with horses being brought in from the fields, our workload quadrupling and suddenly days were action-packed again with five lots, falls and unrelenting sunshine.
More than once, I was reminded about the work of Racing Welfare, the charity that looks after all employees within the racing industry past and present. The jockeys have the Injured Jockeys Fund and us stable staff have RW. Hopefully though, our fresh lots jogging on round and round the circular gallop won’t lead to any trips to physios or, worse, A&E.
The evening of 27th June, the first day of Racing Staff Week, RW held the Gloucester Games at Cheltenham Racecourse. RW staff included Jess Kelsall, Lucinda Gould and Brendan Waterworth, accompanied by Louise Brown the ‘Racing Vicar’. Eleven of our staff came and four enthusiastic supporters.
The evening started with a rounders match and possibly had rules differing from what I remember from school. There were plenty of rounders and half-rounders. Conditional Jamie Brace had a good aim and was lightning fast, whereas Joe O’Neill missed a hurley, not used to a bat and only hit one ball. Dayna Jones’ orangey fake tanned legs were a blur. There was plenty ofhollering and screeching as competitiveness rocketed in the tug of war. The score went 2-0, with Isabelle Nowicki being pulled into the turf and no need for best in three. The winners showed much grit and determination.
The sack race up to the winning post was amusing to spectate, as slapstick as a tumble of clowns. Joe got his feet in the corners and ran, whereas the rest bunny-hopped into heaps. The sight of which must never have been seen up the Cheltenham hill before. Lilly Whale was ultra-competitive, luckily there were no red cards issued.
There was delicious food served in the restaurant of the Vestey Bar – pizza slices, meatballs, mushroom pasta and lots of salad. Jess, Lucinda and I were the only ones to go up for seconds – proper old fashioned stable staff! However, everyone took advantage of the pick ‘n’ mix, reminiscent of the ones that had once been in Woolworths.
We were the winning team and received a beribboned golden trophy and hamper packed with treats. It was a great evening – just not as well supported as it could have been. June is always the wrong time of year for Racing Staff Week. Sadly, being a predominantly National Hunt area means the surrounding yards have many staff away on holiday. I felt for the RW staff, who put in so much thought and organisation into the night. Hopefully, next year, we might be able to have an event a little later in the summer when more people are back at work, so that more local staff can attend and support the charity.
On 14th July, I volunteered on a RW trip to Weston-Super-Mare. This is another part of their charitable work – looking after retired beneficiaries, mostly former stable staff. It was a sunny day, with a massive expanse of blue sky but there was a salty breeze. The beach was flurrying with school trips and donkey rides, before the sand disappeared into mud, the sea far off.
We all had a fish ‘n’ chip lunch on the end of the pear and the obligatory ice cream under the watchful beady glares of seagulls. Before the bus picked us up later in the afternoon, there was time to wander about. The darkness of the arcades contrasted the sunshine, full of beeps, blaring music and the chink of pennies falling. The pier was lovely to meander down, apart from more optimistic seagulls. There were a few shops on the seafront, crammed with souvenirs. A wide range of sticks of rock – equally garish in colour and flavour; kiss-me-quick hats, plastic buckets and spades, rock pool nets, fudge, Somerset ciders, flags, thimbles and enough magnets to sink a pirate ship. It was a great day with the contented feeling of a tired coachload on the way home.
My route to becoming an official volunteer for RW began last year when our area Welfare Officer Jess Kelsall told me about the morning coffee mornings for retired stable staff at Cheltenham Racecourse. I can’t remember if I asked to go or Jess suggested it to me, but along I went. I even knew a handful of the retired beneficiaries so I helped out at a few more, some of which were afternoon teas with crustless slithers of sandwiches, scones and intricate cakes. In the middle of winter, I couldn’t go due to too many lots or racing but Jess still suggested I became a volunteer.
I had a telephone interview (more of a chat) with the head of fundraising, an online course and a DBS check (Digidentity was a nightmare so I went to the Post Office instead). So, all of this and a rather demonic passport photograph later, I became a proper Volunteer, with a lanyard to prove it.
I want to give something back to racing, to the charity that has helped our yard and many individuals I know.
I was back at Cheltenham Racecourse for my next volunteering stint at 04:30 on Sunday 17th, for the Great Racing Welfare Cycle. Driving in, I followed a sequence of cyclists, lit up like Christmas trees, swooping gracefully as they negotiated the roundabout. They disappeared down past the Centaur. We were taking over the cheering duties from the nightshift. ‘Finding our inner seal lion,’ said Jess, again my partner, before bursting into clapping and cheering as a pair of cyclists glided past.
The cycling was over halfway through its 24 hours. There had been excitement during the night, including road accidents (none of the RW cyclists were thankfully involved) and a closed railway line causing a new route. A gilded sunset burst from over Cleeve Hill and cyclists zipped to and fro like worker bees from the hive of activity within the Vestey Bar. Team Jackdaws included form guru Aaron McLoughlin-Sutherland, Jonjo Junior cycling between race meetings, assistant trainer and amateur AJ O’Neill and work-rider Jason Kiely. They all did amazingly – I felt proud of them, as I did of all the cyclists who tackled Harp Hill and the even more cruelling Ham Hill with determination and pain.
As well as our four boys, to name a few, there was Amber Cartlidge (from Charlie Longsdon’s) and Flo Wright (from Ben Pauling’s) who were fresh from a triathlon a week before, Alice Campbell (from Nigel Twiston-Davies’) who’d cycled with Jacob Pritchard-Webb the weekend previously from Cheltenham to Newmarket and head of travelling to Pauling Hannah Dean, who didn’t allow five weeks travelling round Asia stop her. Jockey Will Kennedy had survived charging bulls in Pamplona, Spain to cycle the route and Khadija Mellah found the hills harder than cycling round Peckham but stuck to the task as well as everyone. There were lots of familiar racing faces – friends and the famous (Alice, high on electrolytes and adrenaline, refused to be passed by Dickie Johnson uphill). Trainers, jockeys, ex-jockeys, of which AP McCoy brought out the most supporters as he peddled by, all coped with the heat, lack of sleep and killer gradients.
It was a great morning spent, during which every cyclist earnt my wholehearted respect. Plus, over £100 000 has been raised so far!
The temperatures rose as an invisible hand turned up the heat. Grass lost its greenness, taking on a crispy yellowy tinge. On Monday 18th and Tuesday 19th, all racing was abandoned due to the temperatures heading towards 40˚ (probably a great relief to all those cyclists!). Our first lot pulled out at 05:30 and mucking out before was even sticky and sweaty. Yet, having the extra-long lunchtime was worth the alarm clock dinging at an unimaginable hour.
The 21st was Harrison Day’s last morning at Jackdaws castle. He’d been here seven years full-time and five as head of travelling, during which time he’d driven a Cheltenham Festival winner, a Ladbrokes Trophy winner, a Grand National favourite and led up the Boss’ 2000th jumps winner. As a schoolboy, he’d been here years before that at weekends and holidays. He’d earnt many nicknames but my favourite, my creation, was Biggy, which originated from Big Lad and will stick forever.
Biggy loves a party, a drink and an evening down the pub. It was a fond farewell but racing is too engrained within Biggy for him to disappear for too long.
The yard has sent out a trickle of winners, including Joly Maker under Jamie, Pens Man and mares Le Dominale and Rocked Up. The 21st was a great day when we had a double at Uttoxeter. It was Ladies’ Day and I hadn’t seen anything like the crowds, expect Summer Plate Day, Market Rasen in 2014. Some were more My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding than Royal Ascot and there was an amazing array of dresses in any length from long to indecent. Flowing lilac tulle, florals, polka dots and vivid prints reminiscent of 1970s curtains; fluffy or feathery fascinators and fancy UFO hats and towering heels! It was a gawdy crowd but one pent on fun and a vast number for a Friday afternoon. The vice grip of the coronavirus pandemic loosened, so that people were making up for the lost fun during lockdowns.
Biowavego won the first, Balearic (Eric) was a non-runner in the second and Tedham, a yard favourite, delighted us all when winning well under Nick Schofield for owner and yard sponsor Martin Tedham. ‘Teddy’ is the sweetest horse and we all love riding him – and he’s gorgeous, a bright bay with a large white star between his large, kind eyes.
The winning days accompany our excitement for the approaching autumn, though in this heat, frost is hard to imagine. As long as the winners keep tallying up, we’ll cope with the fresh ones until they hit the uphill short gallop.