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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

July Diary 2021

June ended with a double at Southwell with Knight Destroyer (K-Dog) and The Composer (Comp) both winning over fences. K-Dog is a yard legend, having been here years and a winner for us on the Flat, over hurdles and now fences. Groom Shannon Bishop felt delighted with Comp, and she loves his quirky character. She is part of our team of yardies – vital cogs in the working of the yard who muck out, manage the horses on the walkers, turn out, treat horses with ice boots, magnetic rugs and in the solarium. During July, Shannon learnt how to swim the horses – she and fellow yardie, Megan Petrie, both portray how non-riders excel in racing yards. I’m not sure how we’d manage without them!

The Composer winning

Photo Credit: Southwell Racecourse

Working in racing is all about being flexible – not in the physical sense as I’ve never been able to touch my toes – but within the jobs I’m required to do.

Whilst the yard was still quiet and there weren’t many lots to go round, I added to my usual duties of looking after the pens and cleaning the rugs, with a few days of hostel spring cleaning. I cleaned sinks, shined taps and made up a lot of beds, rejigging the hostels for new people coming in. I even visited the Range in Cheltenham to purchase three kettles, a toaster, a bin and an ironing board cover. I thought of it as a foray into Hostel Management, where I smelt of bleach and carried j-cloths around, rather than smelling of mucking out and horses.

The maintenance men had moved a double bed into another hostel and I had to pick up a few nasties that had long nestled in the dust beneath it. Two mismatched socks, a yellow fluff-covered jellybean, a lone sparkly flipflop, a lipstick that I hoped was merely a lipstick and a negative pregnancy test.

I binned everything, hoping none of it belonged to the (male) head lad who’d been the last to reside in that hostel and who’d left earlier in the summer. I also found five bottles of craft ale, that I gave to the farrier and I kept the Nutella! I did leave behind the tins of oxtail soup and the Marmite though!

After hot washing the bedding at 60˚, I took all the dry sheets down to the ‘garages’, which are three levels of storage situated near the bottom of the short gallop. There, nothing of value outside Jackdaws Castle is kept, but it’s useful for restocking and refurnishing hostels when needed. There are fridge-freezers, furniture, mattresses and a table, but the matching chairs have long gone. These are all stacked amongst other random artifacts like keep-off-the-grass signs, Christmas decorations and a composter. Upstairs, there are boxes of old silks, dusty and spidery but still a rainbow of beautiful colours and a crazy quilt of patterns. All of the uniform is also stored in the garages, boxed and labelled, filling many shelves, sorted under yard and racing uniforms. I put away a mountain of uniform, amid wafts of floral scents of fabric conditioner and occasionally binning frayed or stained items.

I bagged and stored away the bedding, again labelling the contents. Whilst moving bedding, I found a bottle of pink gin and prosecco. I gave away the prosecco but retained the pink gin. I have concluded Hostel Management is not for the faint hearted but can have positive outcomes (gin).

One late morning, Lauren Hall and I took a two-box to the Paddocks Retirement Home in Milton-under-Wychwood to pick up a bed that the office had found on Facebook Marketplace. We parked up and a lovely lady met us, explaining it was her elderly aunt’s, who’d sadly passed away. We left with the bed, complete with padded headboard, and also added a hoard, including a bedside cabinet, an occasional table, a lamp with a shade, a small Welsh dresser and bedding! I did turn down an art deco mirror and lots of framed landscapes, but it was great to help the lady out (and lug the items through the retirement home and into the two-box) and get stock for the hostels to improve their homeliness.

Racing weddings really are my favourite weddings. As with any party or celebration, racing folk always have fun. On July 2nd, my friend Hannah Worgan, head of travelling to Ben Pauling, married fiancé Jack Dean. Their little Jack Russell Tia was there, a little garland of flowers round her neck. Hannah, like every girl in racing, usually wears trackies on the yard and smart clothes racing, looked stunning as a bride.

We all then went to Grafton Manor, near Evesham, for the after do. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hannah had changed the date twice but went ahead on a beautiful sunny day. It was the first wedding I’d been to for nearly two years and the first party for most of the guests for a long time.

There were coronavirus procedures, which meant dancing was only allowed on the lawn, just outside the marquee. Colleagues, friends and former colleagues all went and there was much drinking and dancing on the grass. Our head of travelling, Harrison Day, is a lethal dancer and, at one point, picked me up and swung me about during Bon Jovi. Later on, as the night stayed warm, his shirt was unbuttoned like a victorious matador, arms outspread and he was still holding a drink despite dancing. Head girl to Paul Nicholls, Flo Willis, saved the dancing by instructing the DJ with a list of tunes. Ben Pauling’s staff partied to midnight along with their boss. It was a happy celebration; one where we all let off steam after being caged in our homes for so long.

During the first week of July, seventy horses came in from the field. It was the usual craziness, swapping horses left out into other fields. Then dragging horses to the yard or being dragged. For a day, the yard vibrated with the racket of shrill and shrieky neighs as they called for field friends. Then, after a few hours, everybody catcalled and yelled at them to shut up.

I was delighted to see ‘mine’ come in. Gulliver Collonges (Oliver) was cheeky and the last to be caught, Phil The Thrill is looking plump and my best friend, Arrivederci (Lucky), came in more orangey brown through mud than grey but looked well. I got to ride him after a week and it was my favourite lot. He floated in trot, flicking out his toes and tossing his silver mane.

During the next fortnight, I continued to prove my versatility and undertook many driving jobs. I dropped off stores at Francesca Nimmo’s yard in Warwickshire, a yearling at Martin Jones’ in Redmarley, Gloucestershire and more stores to Kieran O’Brien’s at AP McCoy’s in Lambourn. I also did vet runs with horses to and from Valley Equine in Lambourn, picked up another horse in Tetbury and took the four-box for its MOT near Tewkesbury. It’s part of the job I enjoy, trundling away, with Virgin Radio up high and the dramas of the yard behind me.

The 8th was a sad day when yard favourite Tidal Watch (Tiddle) suffered a fatal injury on the gallops. He’d been here, along with Knight Destroyer, since a yearling and was an old friend. His groom was Florin ‘Fred’ Mira but, I think, practically everyone had led him up over the years and he was the best to take racing, and gorgeous too. I personally took him a few times, once to Thirsk and another evening to Wolverhampton when he was beaten by a nose. He was also our first runner back at Southwell when jumps opened up again after the first lockdown. He’d won five races over jumps, and often won the best turned out with his light bay coat and arched neck.

Tidal Watch (nicknamed Tiddle)

Head Lad Alan Berry worked so hard through the last few weeks. It wasn’t uncommon to see him wielding a leaf-blower or hammer – though, the sight of him marching up the yard with a shavings fork sent nervous murmurs through the string, for it meant he was checking beds for lazy mucking out. He is always the first person on the yard to check and feed, and the last to shut the pair of big metal gates at night.

During the last two months, ‘Berry’ drove the sweeper to clear up all the mess twice a day, started breaking in a chesnut youngster and spent much of the mornings checking and feeding the herds still in the fields. When I was on holiday, I heard he mucked the pens out and also fed them. He repaired fencing, bouncing along the estate trackways in a blue pickup with tyres worthy of a monster truck. Basically, Berry did everything but ride out, still remaining at the core of the yard.

Working in the heat reminiscent of the Algarve wasn’t easy. Everyone sweltered underneath polo necks and body protectors and sweat poured off us. Any cooling breezes were short lived, the grass turned to a parched crispy brown and I hankered for curvaceous tall glasses full of pina colada with a miniature umbrella.

Within two weeks of trotting on the rounds, the string got fresher. I silently reminisced about my days of Hostel Management. The riding was going well until Sky Pirate nearly bucked me off one Monday (I stayed onboard via luck more than ability!) and then two days later, Biowavego jammed to a panicked stop whilst trotting. I was falling off when he threw his head back and nutted my chin. I wobbled, tasted the metallic tang of blood from my bitten tongue. By the time I’d ridden back into the yard, I had a dark blue-purply bruise beneath my chin. I might not gain such delights as pink gin from riding out but I had to think of the positives – my teeth were all ok and once again, I’d luckily stayed atop.

Colleague Spotlight

Our head of travelling Harrison Day, 23, has worked here since 2015 and is on his seventh season full time. However, since the age of twelve, he was here most weekends and school holidays. At sixteen, he completed a BRS fast-track course, had a year working for Dan Skelton and his aunty, Sue Gardener, before returning to Jackdaws Castle. Harrison is popular, loves a party and is a huge part of the team. He’s a local lad, having been born in Cheltenham and remembers that the first ever racehorse he rode was Micky Taker at his aunty’s.

Harrison got the travelling job aged eighteen, having worked here full time for only a year. He led up Go Conquer when he won the 2017 Sodexo Gold Cup at Ascot and the Boss’ 2000th UK Jumps winner when Centuro won a juvenile hurdle at Uttoxeter in October 2016 – a day he drove the horse all by himself for the first time.

Harrison is known by an array of nicknames, including Big Lad, Haribo, Ha, H and Biggy. He’s fun, comical and is dangerous on a dancefloor.

Harrison with Cloth Cap, Ladbrokes Trophy 2020

Photo Credit: Newbury Racecourse

What is the best day driving that you’ve had so far?

It was always Palmers Hill winning, giving Jonj his first Cheltenham winner but then last season eclipsed that. There was Cloth Cap winning the Ladbrokes Trophy and driving my first ever Cheltenham Festival winner, Sky Pirate in the Grand Annual. Both were brilliant days but the best was Sky P as I’m from Cheltenham.

What is the best aspect of the job?

Driving to the races every day, especially the big days – everything, the whole thing.

What is the worst?!

Sorting out the muddy gear in the winter.

Who is your favourite racehorse?

Cue Card – I always followed him from when he p****d up in his first bumper round Fontwell.

What was the first winner you led up?

In October 2015, when Optimistic Bias dead heated in a photo with Sykes at Aintree.

What are your favourite racecourses?

I love going to Wincanton, Ascot and Cheltenham.

Which is your favourite racecourse canteen?

Catterick for the cakes and Exeter.

Which are your favourite rides in the yard?

On The Bandwagon and Cobolobo.

What are your hobbies?

Partying and socialising.

What is your favourite drink?

I love G&T, cold Peroni and if I only had one last drink, it’d be a HD Special – a pint glass containing quadruple gin, tonic and cranberry juice.

What is your favourite night out?

Pre-drinks at a friend’s house before heading to the Wine Bar in Montpellier and probably a couple of other bars. We always end up in good old 21 Club.

What is your favourite saying?

Big sends!

What does racing mean to you?

Everything – I’d be lost if I wasn’t in racing. It’s all I’ve ever known.

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