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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

May Diary 2021

May has had peculiar weather. A mixture of sunshine, rain, storms and hail. Spring disappeared as temperatures turned chilly. Most mornings started with working out how many coats to take to the yard or if to wear waterproof trousers (can be very sweaty!). Then, coats would be dried throughout the morning in the heated drying room but the worst aspect was when after finishing work, to forget and toss your sopping coat down and find it, horribly damp, that afternoon or the next morning. The cuffs stay the most wet and feel icy cold against your wrists.

Many of the horses and staff have now gone on holidays. There are always extra jobs to do that most weeks are as busy as in midwinter. Pressure-washing and painting stables, weeding, mowing, creosoting and feeding the field horses are just a few of the tasks that need completing.

Arrivederci enjoying his summer holiday

Monday mornings aren’t my favourite: most lots go up on the round gallop to canter four and four. (If you get two canters up the short gallop, a rider will rejoice.) If I get a lovely lot who lobs round then it’s great but some fight to go flat out. Some are pleasant on the other gallops but not on the rounds – it feels like a lottery at times.

Clondaw Promise (nicknamed Clondy) is a fabulous ride but, to my surprise, one Monday wasn’t pleasant up on the ‘rounds’. He fought against me and wouldn’t drop out of the kickback of the two upsides in front. It was like relentless shovelfuls of sand flung back, burying Clondy and myself.

After the first four laps, we crossed the middle and changed direction, so I went in front but Clondy was lazy and had to be kicked round! We were covered in sand; I was blinking it out of my eyes and Clondy was sneezing it away. Whereas Clondy had a warm hosing, I could only brush the worst of the sand away until later. There might be exfoliation positives in weekly facefuls of sand but spending a day with it itching beneath your undergarments is irksome. This gives Monday mornings the same gloom reminiscent of schooldays.

Sweet treats are never wasted on the gannets that are racing grooms. In honour of the end of the season, we received enticing sponge cakes ranging in flavour from cookies and cream to chocolate. The syndicate Topspeed Thoroughbreds also kindly sent us delicious homemade cakes and bakes, of which the brownies and flapjacks were my favourites.

I also performed a cheeky swap with Kris, proprietor of the bespoke Broadway bakery, the Cotswold Larder – a bottle of Jackdaws Damson Gin for a huge 9” cookie, loaded with lots of chocolate and an extra box of decadent brownies. All (well, most) was cut up and taken on the yard. Then to celebrate four staff’s birthdays Kris returned with boxes of cupcakes and more brownies the following week. We suffered sugar-highs for days but I couldn’t recommend better treats than from the Cotswolds Larder.

On 30th April, Lilly Whale, 17, ascended to be my favourite colleague when she brought me a huge slice of lemon cake.I was mucking out down the pens so would have missed out. Lilly then guaranteed staying my favourite when arriving to ride out down the pens on a rainy morning, brandishing a huge bar of Dairy Milk. She came here from the British Racing School on January 4th after a highly successful foundation course, where she was the Head Girl of her group. She’s also excelling here, improving her riding, learning to drive and amusing everyone with her sunny, funny disposition. Within a month of starting her first job, Lilly led up Destin D’ajonc when he won at Chepstow, on her very first lead up too! As well as Destin D’Ajonc, she looks after Spanish Jump, Henry Gondoff, Piggy Winkle, Bob Bob Ricard and Opine.

It’s always a relief to tick off the first winner of the season. An Tailliur, which means ‘the tailor’ in Gaelic, won over hurdles for the first time on the May 7th at Market Rasen, under Jonjo Junior. The grey gelding was then the third winner when winning a boys’ race at Worcester under conditional Kevin Brogan. Garry Clermont won over hurdles at Warwick in-between, making it feel like the season was belting along already.

‘My’ March Is On, who I nicknamed Marty, retired this month. Apart from a second at Wetherby, Marty had shown little interest in wanting to be a racehorse and recently tailed himself off whilst working. He won in October 2019 over hurdles at Southwell, which will always be a special day. He’s been given to a family in Andoversford, near Cheltenham and I hope he has years of happiness with them. I always loved Marty; he was compact in stature but had a big character. I remember him depositing me onto the grass, cantering through trees and emerging with leaves caught in the flailing stirrups.

Memories of Marty

It felt a long five weeks since I led a winning Frisco Bay up at Uttoxeter on April 1st, so I was delighted to be going to Worcester, again with ‘Frisky’. It was great to be out again – to be plaiting up and brushing the horses but the best aspect was seeing my racing friends. I only had Frisky to lead up, who finished third first time over fences, so I had a pretty social afternoon, chatting and having a laugh.

The week starting the 10th was Mental Health Awareness Week, a nationwide initiative supported by Racing Welfare. With the exception of last year, when the coronavirus pandemic scaled back the campaign, the Week has gone from strength to strength. In the past, I’d never gone racing that week but still knew about the little green ribbons – I’d often found them pinned to the jockeys’ silks. At Ffos Las, I pinned on the ribbon, proud to wear it.

Oh deer! Being close to nature!

Photo Credit: Kerry Wilmot

A few years ago, Mental Health was an unknown and an unheard-of quantity. Now, there’s the beginning of understanding and education around it. This year the emphasis was on working outside, being surrounded by nature. For all the freezing cold or wet, miserable days, there are the beautiful sunny days, the sunsets, the sky flaming a vivid watercolour during a sunrise, sparkly frost. I love the summertime Oxeye Daisies that grow prolifically about the yard boundary, the owls hooting in the woods, the housemartins swooping about the string and the fresh scent after rainfall. It’s feeling close to wildlife too – I often write about the birdlife I try to befriend at the pens, especially the pheasants. We see deer bounding, the leggy sprint of hares and sometimes the auburn flash of a fox. It’s the freedom of being outside, breathing fresh air and feeling the wind. However much I moan about the weather, I love being outside!

Talking of attempting to befriend birdlife, there’s been a brace of ducks loitering down the pens – a pair of mallards, one tawny female and a drake with a glossy green head, which I named Mike and Penny. They waddled about and pecked at Clondy’s mix but never got too close. They were jolly to have around on the edge of the pens or sleeping in the taller grasses in Pagero’s paddock.

Colleague Spotlight

Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea has been a big part of the team here for the last four years. He’s a key member of the yardies who don’t ride but are vital. His home is the city of Arges in Romania and he’s been married to Maria for twenty-one years this month; they have a son, Sebi, who is 13. Before working here, where his duties include mucking out, swimming the horses and going racing, Fred previously worked in power production in the same, huge factory for twenty-seven years. At this time of year, Fred, 48, can be strimming, mowing, building, mending, power-hosing or painting on top of his usual jobs. Fred looks after Annie Mc, Knight Destroyer, Tidal Watch, Locks Corner, A Distant Place and Anywayyoulookatit. He’s always smiling, laughing, helpful and is happy-go-lucky.

A self-professed animal lover, Fred loves the yard cat Gin, the horses and the dogs. He loves a party and was always there at celebrations, parties and BBQs pre-coronavirus. His hostel is named Club Fred and some Saturdays, when returning late from racing, you can hear music and see disco lights pulsating from the skylights.

What’s your favourite horse?

Annie Mc.

What’s been your favourite day’s racing?

Annie Mc winning both her Listed chases but especially the first one, at Doncaster.

What’s your favourite meal?

Everything but especially steak.

What’s your favourite drink?

Beer, vodka – everything!

What are your hobbies?

Fishing with Sebi in my holidays, watching football, rugby and all sports in general. I also like reading and history.

What’s the best part of your job?

Swimming the horses, racing, brushing at evening stables – I have no problem with any part of the job.

Fred with Annie Mc at Doncaster

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