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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

June 2023 Blog

June has been beautiful blue skies, white hawthorn blossom and golden sunshine. Continuous hot days sapping the grass of its green and wilting the cow parsley’s wilted tiny white flowers. Many of the horses are on a break, languishing in the grassy paddocks and many staff are holidaying at home or reclining on foreign sunbeds.


Our Friend Mo

I was delighted to go racing on Sunday 28th May with the petite mare, Our Friend Mo, nicknamed Mowgli (pictured). Getting her ready to travel, I smiled at the realisation that certain aspects of yard life never change. There was the scrape of mucking out forks, music from a phone, the odd callout and a horse coming off the walking with a clatter. Ali Green, our Employee Welfare Officer, was mucking out sodden, saturated shavings after a water pot had leaked and head girl Georgia Plumb was doing checks, miniature dachshund Rocky pattering at her shadow.

I drove the new Bloomfield two-box to Uttoxeter, which was as smooth and luxurious as a Limo. The cab was clean, yet to be parked up with an accompaniment of crumbs, wrappers, half-drank bottles of water or Costa cups. Going for best turned out took on a whole new meaning when I discovered a fascinator in the footwell – a neat black velveteen base with a sprig of pheasant feathers like roadkill.

Uttoxeter was warm and sunny with a vast crowd. I hadn’t seen the improved canteen before – admittedly, the portacabin was the same, just repositioned, redecorated and cheered up by lots of new pictures. A Walls freezer was full of free vibrantly coloured Ice Pops. A smaller portacabin with a new kitchen was stationed next door; food was the usual meal deal, roast dinner or jacket potatoes. I missed the huge slices of carrot cake from yesteryear, though.

Mowgli, small but sturdy and bright bay in colour, was lovely to take. After plaiting her up, a former colleague Craig Gilby rang me to ask my whereabouts and could I pull the mane of his runner, Manimole? I did so and, as we were running in the same race, we pulled out together, oiling hooves a minute apart.

My plaiting skills are obviously better than my mane pulling because Mowgli won the best-turned-out but Manimole finished second to our third, which Craig and I were both happy with.


Change

As I’ve noted before going racing, some aspects in the yard never change – too many to list actually; yet differences do arise. In the past, the bitter waft of cigarette smoke accompanied the string; smokers timing puffs between canters and riding back into the yard, extinguishing well before dismounting. Now, vaping has overridden smoking, there’s the sugary, artificial fragrance of watermelon, blue raspberry and cherry mingling with the scent of sweating horse. Cigarettes have been replaced by colourful plastic vapes, pugnaciously named like Vampire or Badass Blends, and the highly obscure Voopoo.

I’ve never been a smoker and have never wished to vape but there’s definitely been this switch in habits. In fact, a lot of younger colleagues who never smoked, got into vaping. But in my mind, there’s that nagging doubt that it’s as harmful, just sugar-coated in syrupy flavours.


Back when TV channels numbered five and films were limited to a trip to the local Odeon or the Blockbuster store, there’d be discussions about what we’d recently watched. Thanks to the internet, there’s so much to watch on TV and an endless choice of films, that it’s unlikely that any of us have watched the same thing. Music was previously purchased on CD and new songs heard on the radio – nowadays, a song is a Google away.

In the string, mobile phones have stilted idle chatter; it’s easier to scroll than gossip. The same phones also add tunes to riding out, and lots of people listen to music whilst mucking out. The head staff still have walkie-talkies to communicate with the office or in case of emergencies; these often crackle into life like near-obsolete forms of communication surrounded by new technology. Mobiles are also people’s alarm clocks, laptops, newspapers; they play music, and the Racing Post app informs us when or where we might go racing. Despite its longstanding traditions, racing bows to such changes and despite quashing conversation, mobiles are here to stay.


Shopped til We Dropped

On 1st June, two full jeeps of staff went to Swindon outlet village, taking full advantage of the Thursday 20% off evening. I went round with husband Joe and baby Finn, starting off with a Subway dinner. On the second – or was it third? – lap, we bumped into the lads, Billy Marshall, Ben Macey and AJ O’Neill in the Lindt chocolate shop. Joe and I were trying not to spend a fortune on the pick ‘n’ mix but AJ chose generously, especially handfuls of heart-shaped red ones for girlfriend Georgia.

Verity Peers, Izzy Nowicki and Tirana Jakupi were first back to the carpark, only a couple of bags between them – it wasn’t exactly like that scene from Pretty Woman. The boys returned with a few more bags; AJ trundling a shiny new suitcase. Ali returned with a stuffed black and tan dachshund bargain, a packet of misshapes from the Cadbury shop, Tefal frying pan, draining rack and a lot of bags. It was a lovely evening.


Happy Birthday Chloe

The following week, on the 7th, the staff – those who weren’t on holiday – gathered up by the lorry park to celebrate Chloe Cullen’s 21st birthday. Her boyfriend Madalin Marian ‘Doc’ Radu manned the barbeque and we all sat on the semicircle of bales of shavings. Cola and Budweiser were the drinks on offer and Tirana poured a vibrant purple mocktail. My Jack Russell Daisy begged with vigour and without guilt. Smoke from the hot coals wafted through the chatter and laughter, mixing with the club tunes and disappeared over the deep sea of ox-eye daisies into the fading sunshine.


Thunderstorms

Hot sunshine turned muggy and close, until the grumble of thunder and a smattering of fat droplets grew into storms. Foretelling the monsoon conditions, Daisy left her sunbathing to come indoors and the holidaying horses skipped round the fields, tails high and manes flying, before dropping down into indulgent rolls in the dirt, no longer dried to dust but muddy again.

The rain unwrapped an aftermath of heavy scents of wet grass, earth and tarmac. Yet, the heat wasn’t erased – it was just pushed back to the next morning.


Six-month Milestone

Finn reached six months old on June 20th and couldn’t be chunkier and chubbier if he tried. He’s a cute baby, even though I know I’m biased in saying it. Ever conscious that I’m due back to work in September, I looked into local nurseries. My suspicions on the vast cost were confirmed and it was a sobering reality that the day rate at a nursery school is actually a few more pounds than the day rate of a racehorse in training.


Happy Birthday Fred

Our popular yardie Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea celebrated his 51st birthday on the 17th, and what a party it was. Another sunny Saturday evening, another barbeque. The same horseshoe of shavings’ bales for seating. A trestle tabletop bowed under the weight of bread rolls, salads, cheese slices and sauces; the barbeque wafting its coaly smoke; conversations overflowed and overlapped. Daisy begging again. Music pulsated, heavy with bass and as the sun dipped lower and shadows lengthened, someone turned on the circling, multicoloured kaleidoscope of disco lights.

Many of us gifted bottles of vodka – Fred’s favourite tipple – but the fridges were too full to fit them in. Whenever people walked up with another bottle, there were humorous shouts and more laughter. On a trip to Morrison’s supermarket, Fred had stocked up on massive bottles of vodka, whisky, pink gin and lemon gin, cans of lager and bottles of beer, and a pale pistachio-coloured cream liquor. There were a few mixers but the ratio of alcohol was far higher.

Having manned flipping of burgers and turning of sausages, Fred went home, returning dressed in sportswear and, his annual birthday tradition, a captain’s hat. Fred has always helped Alan Berry, head lad of the second yard and was known as Alan’s second in command, his cȃpitan in Fred’s homeland tongue, Romanian. Hence, Alan bought Fred the hat – to be honest, Fred is such a hero, always helpful, jolly and hardworking, that he’s definitely higher ranked than any captain – he’s an Admiral.

Fred’s fellow yardie, John Dina brought out a chocolate cake topped with flaming, fizzing candles and amid whoops and clapping, everyone sang the obligatory Happy Birthday loudly and tunelessly. It was time for Joe and I to leave but everyone else continued to party into darkness and disco lights. The leftover vodka bottles, if any, will keep Fred going until he departs for his holidays to see wife Maria and son Sebi.

In a flourish of smoky food and fun nights, sunny days punctuated with the odd thunderstorm, June slipped away…what excitement will July bring?



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