November has been a great month!
The weather started wet but then the vividly fiery skies at dawn hinted at the frosts just before they came. There were lots of winners and one in particular stole our hearts. Winners are definitely what we live for – the ones at little tracks are great but those wins on the big days at the big racecourses are beyond brilliant.
The Early Shift
Every day, I do the ‘early shift’ down at the pens, where the horses are trained from the field. The pens are busy again, having had a quiet few weeks due to lameness and runners. (The horses tend to stay up in the main yard for a couple of days after a race so the head lads can treat any cuts or other injuries easily.)
With the clock change at the end of October, the job of catching the horses every morning became a lot less easy. I try to start about 05:00, often earlier on a Saturday and it’s very dark... On the best days, the horses come into their pens or the ‘big field’ where around five horses live wait at the gate when the rattle of nuts in a bucket becomes too tantalising. Yet on most days, the reality is quite different. The horses tend to stay at the furthest corners of the fields or beneath their favourite tree in a muddy patch. I trudge through molasses-like mud until my wellies feel like moon boots, tripping over tussocks and sods; the ground pockmarked by hoofprints. Frosty mornings are welcome as the mud has hardened overnight and the grass is crispy under foot. In the light of my head torch, I see the reflective strips on their rugs and when I get closer, their glowing alien eyes.
Sometimes, I can catch two, and the others follow as I lead them back in. Other times, I can’t catch any. They canter off into the darkness, a herd of wild Brumbies, with a rustle and flap of rugs and the thud of hooves. I usually leave it a little while before I go back into the field as it’s pointless to try and catch them again straight away. If they don’t want to come in, traipsing after them doesn’t persuade them. The second time, they will come in; meek, mild and obedient as if they hadn’t been naughty in the first place.
My other tasks are to muck out the sheds, top up waters and refreshen the straw when necessary. I feed, hay, check legs, pick out hooves, check shoes and message the farrier Mark Welfare if there are any loose or lost shoes. I might also message the Boss, assistant trainer or the head lads if I have any concerns. I also have to communicate with the maintenance team to bring bales of straw, hay or shavings or if anything needs fixing. During all my to-ing and fro-ing, my Jack Russell Daisy is onto the scent of many rats, scrabbling, barking and digging at their hiding places, omitting frequent yaps or growls.
I also muck out, feed and hay the quarantine boxes down at the Plough stables, which are opposite the village pub. There are only three stables, where horses from the sales or pre-trainers live for a few days. At the moment, the only resident is a leggy, fluffy foal, nicknamed Christy. He has a long sock behind and a marking between his eyes like Istabraq. He has bright, inquisitive eyes, a short, flicky tail and a sweet character.
The main road, which borders that edge of the estate, comes alive as my mornings progress. The dark is interjected by the occasional car, headlight beams sweeping through the hamlet of Ford and occasionally the dance of blue lights from a police car or ambulance. As the world wakes up, the number of cars increase, and lorries crash and rumble their way up the road. As daylight chases away darkness, the pheasants awaken from their roosts up on the highest branches with squawking and fluttering of wings.
This month, the yard has sent out a list of winners. The cherry on top being Springwell Bay’s win at the Paddy Power meeting at Cheltenham. He’s a talented horse, previously a winner at Ascot and the apple of the eye of his groom Tirana Jakulpi, and her first winner at that track. It was also a late present as she’d celebrated her twenty-second birthday the day before. Springy won really strongly and it’s always great to send out a winner in Gay Smith’s white with lilac stars. It’ll be more than amazing if he does the same in March.
Find Someone who Looks at you like Tirana looks at Springwell Bay
Another notable winner in those colours was Itso Fury at Wincanton on the 23rd under conditional James Smith. He’s from Meath and arrived here late summer with over a hundred rides and nine wins under his belt. His dad Matthew trains in Ireland so James has had a strong foundation to become a jockey. In the days running up to Wincanton, James had pulled up, had also rans and finished second on All The Glory but everything went well on Fury. James did say he hit the front too soon but they won well.
James, 17, is very committed and keen to succeed as a jockey. He goes to the gym daily with the ‘two Billies’, Billy Marshall and Billy Moffit, and loves riding out, especially schooling. As well as riding, James really wants to pass his driving test.
James and Itso Fury, Magic Seven and Crebilly (Photo Credit: Sarah Matthews)
An honourable mention goes to Magic Seven who won his first two hurdle races at Hereford – he’d won his bumper there last year so clearly enjoys the track. He runs in the red and black colours of Christopher Johnston, who owned our Paddy Power Gold Cup winner Johns Spirit.
Work WhatsApp Groups
Since my return from maternity leave, much of the communication is done through WhatsApp. There’s a head lads’ group where information is passed around about injuries, treatments, videos of runners being jogged up and everything else that’s going on. There are a few jokes too and amusing photos, like when head lad Alan Berry found the ginger yard cat curled on top of the medical book. A Broadcast Group, for all the members of staff, involves lots of updates, racing, general information and the occasional rollocking.
All winners are fabulous but Cheltenham is where you want them to be. However, Cheltenham is also a great leveler. I was delighted to take Crebilly there on the Sunday. He was a spare last season when winning two, one at Newcastle and one on the final day of the season at sunny Sandown. I’ve adopted him as one of ‘my’ own – he’s a gorgeous black gelding with a large white star and a wicked sense of humour who, to be fair, is much better behaved now. I don’t have to herd him and his best mate Imperial Bede into their pen as much as in the past.
It was Billy’s first time over fences, and he was running so well when falling at the second last, just as he making a move. It was a horrible fall, his neck seemingly to bend beneath his body but he got up and returned to near the entrance of the chute. He appeared to be lame but only because the reins were caught round his front leg. He had soil above his eye, grass snagged in his bridle and a skid of mud up his front legs but, thankfully, he was unscathed.
Billy might have won but who knows when one of Paul Nicholls’ was in front? But, at least, he is well and hopefully he can go back to Cheltenham for the December meeting.
Hats off to Gordon Elliott’s staff who on the 19th had a mind boggling thirty-three runners at Navan with an astounding fifteen runners in the Troytown. Not forgetting four further runners at two different point-to-points. Head of travelling Camilla Sharples must have had a logistical nightmare of organising grooms as well as the equipment. Imagine all the colours – not forgetting the many different coloured hat silks – and the number of girths and non-slips that were taken to the weighing room.
Then, all the bridles, paddock sheets and rollers as well as the extra wearings like tongue ties, blinkers and visors that had to be correct. Not to mention the many grooming kits! It was like a fortnight of racing for us bundled into one day. Afterwards, Camilla praised her team and what a team they are to execute all those runners without a mishap. I can only imagine the preparation before hand – getting the early runners into the lorry that left first to the running around behind the scenes in the stable yard to all the work until the final door bolt slid across and the last kick-bolt clinked back into the bracket. Not to mention the huge pile of muddy washing afterwards.
Is it too early to mention the C word? With these recent frosty, silvery mornings, everything does feel a bit more Christmassy. All that rain had got a bit miserable.