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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

October 2020 Diary - Part 2

On October 16th, Carys’ Commodity won his second race over hurdles. He won well at Fakenham, making his groom Lauren Hay very happy. CC is owned by Lauren’s step mum, Mrs Fitri Hay, and is named after Lauren’s older sister who is an investment banker for Morgan Stanley. Racing is always a great leveller and the next runner, again in Lauren’s step mum’s colours, Desert Sun (Puff) had little ability, no scope and was retired!

Lauren loves all the horses in her care but CC is definitely her favourite.

October brought a big change to the infrastructure at work. Previously we worked every other weekend and, a few years ago, they introduced every other Wednesday afternoon off. Now, we have been split into three groups, each headed by a head lad, and work one weekend in three and one Wednesday afternoon in three. It’s a hugely positive change, giving everyone a more time off. At the moment, it’s all a bit confusing who is working when but this will get better over time!

On the 20th, I finished up after three lots, before going home to partake in a Half Day Mental Health Awareness Course via Zoom which was organised through Racing Welfare. It handily occurred over lunchtime, with me only being half an hour late to do the pens in the afternoon. There was a really pleasant group of people, including trainers, racing office staff, a head lad and a trainer’s wife! My reason for wanting to do the course is to learn about the increased awareness in mental health issues, and I want to help the younger team members as well as the older ones. The course was very informative and thought provoking, and I will hopefully get on the two-day course that is being introduced next.

The first meeting at Cheltenham is always exciting, and we only had the one runner on the Friday. Tegerek was running over hurdles in the last – he is an amusing horse, who is difficult to ride and is very quirky. He even looks quirky with three long white socks and a big white blaze down his face; he’s never plaited at the races either. He has struck up a good partnership with conditional jockey Kevin Brogan, finishing second at Perth first time out this season. Teg and Kevin won going away; not only was it Kevin’s first win for us, but it was also his first at Cheltenham. It was also Teg’s owners’, Richard and Donna Evans’ first winner at Cheltenham, and the yard’s first there for nearly two years. Teg’s groom is Sydney Smith, who was here exactly a year when Teg won, and this was the first ever winner she led up. Sydney came from the NHC, having never sat on a horse before going there. She was thrilled to lead her first winner up there and hollered across the yard, “Syd got one up a Cheltenham,” accompanied by lots of arm waving and flying ginger ponytail. I didn’t want to point out that Kev actually got Teg up, because it was a brilliant day for all of us! It gave everyone a huge boost, as only a Cheltenham winner can.


At the beginning, I felt a bit peculiar when Imperial Command was named – he was just an ‘er’ away from the best horse I’ve ever looked after. Yet, Ruler Of The World won a Derby in 2013 and Rule The World won the Grand National in 2016, so I got over myself. Ten years plus had past and it was due to his name that I took him on when his previous girl left last summer – for old time’s sake. Besides, he was always ‘Pumba’ and never Imperial Command!

On Sunday 25th, I drove Pumba to Tattersalls sales in Newmarket. He was being sold because as his syndicate was disbanding. As always, I smiled at the amusing place names near to Newmarket: Bottisham and Six Mile Bottom. I’d never been to the sales there before, only to Ascot and Doncaster. Similar to the races, I had a temperature check, wore a wristband and had to ‘check in’, having done an online health check questionnaire beforehand – this is the new norm.

Straight away I was very impressed. There was a long line of loading ramps, for the large lorries and even small, individual ones for the two-boxes. There was a poo bay for after mucking out the lorry and a wash bay with four hoses! All of Tatts was absolutely beautiful; many yards sprawled everywhere with different names and numbers on the doors. The sales offices are situated up on the hill, but being Sunday, the doors to the sales ring were shut until the start of the sale on Monday. Pumba was stabled in the Solario Barn, right at the bottom! It was a vast space but beautifully kept. The leaves on the trees were turning to amber and gold.

I was struggling with my kitbag, grooming kit, Pumba’s rugs, when a lady stopped me and said she’d summon a trolley. It wasn’t the manual push-along one I envisaged, but a mini motorised truck. Whilst my equipment went on the trolley, I was picked up by an elongated golf cart, whose drivers Dave and John ferried me about a couple of times and were lovely.

For the rest of the day, after parking the lorry two hundred yards away in the old station car park, I sat on an upturned bucket (made comfier by a folded-up paddock sheet as a cushion), wrote and read a novel – thinking, as I always do whenever I go to the sales, I must purchase a camping chair! Despite the sun shining, it did get chilly and I wrapped up a bit more and donned a bobble hat.

Bloodstock agents came to see Pumba walk, sometimes trot, though it wasn’t really busy. They felt his legs, poked and prodded. He sometimes got a bit fresh when trotting up, launching into massive bucks.

Just before three, I had a tour in the golf cart – wearing a mask, I could sit up front. It was good to see where I’d be leading Pumba the next day. Whilst chatting, I learnt why, once sold, it is a rule to leave a headcollar on the horse – not tradition, as I’d presumed, but in case of fire so horses can be moved quickly out of the stable block or barn.

That night, I was lodging with Sarah French and her handsome tabby cat called Henry in their cute, homely Victorian terraced house, barely a ten minute walk from the sales: £40 a night for B&B. Sarah was so welcoming and had filled her home with treasures, pictures and beloved objects from a spell living in the Seychelles and from charity shop finds.

Excitement got the better of me the next morning and I was up before my alarm. Sarah had left a great breakfast ready and I was out the house before 6am. There were a few people about the streets, a couple of cars and a cyclist whirred past. A clear twilight promised a pleasant day ahead again.

By 7am, the barn and stables were bustling with grooms, skipping out and refreshing water. Horses were arriving. I plaited Pumba and brushed him so he was ready to be trotted up. I sat back on my upturned bucket, awaiting viewers. Yet, I was a bit presumptuous and only got one request for a trot up! There was a tannoy system for the odd announcement: lorries to be moved or representatives sought.

I left with Pumba at 10:45am with Alan King’s two horses, which were the lots straight after me. I put on my mask as this was a requirement inside the ring. Pumba was very fresh up in the collecting ring, prancing and bucking so after trying to trot him up once, I didn’t try again.

In the ring, it was hot but Pumba walked round without a fuss. It was quiet compared to outside. The bidding rose and the gavel fell at 12,000 gns, which meant I received £12 from Accounts, a pound for every thousand he sold for. Pumba was brought by trainer Dave Loughnane in Shropshire, so not too far away. I was sorry to say farewell to Pumba – a sweet boy who hopefully will be lucky and win more races – especially when I found out the Boss had been the underbidder at 11,000 gns. I left a stable rug on him, and the obligatory headcollar, and gave him a lunchtime feed, for he always loved his grub.

On the way back, I made a detour to pick up two youngsters from Lambourn. I loved my trip to Tatts. I met a guy who had attended Course 9 at the BRS in 1985, discovered old friends and made new ones; I left Pumba behind but it was fabulous to have gone. I’ve had two overnights this October and have stayed in lovely places on both occasions.

Considering Wales was on a firebreak lockdown against Covid-19, it was ironic that I was at Bangor and Harrison took a lorry load to Chepstow on the 27th. We had a great day at Bangor, with Frisco Bay (Frisky) coming second, Morning Spirit (Sprigget) coming third and Pressure Sensitive winning the bumper first time out. Pressure Sensitive is known as Billy and he raced brilliantly and very genuinely but looked tired afterwards. Billy is done by Nick Healy, who has a hundred per cent strike rate in bumpers at Bangor (his Red Maple also won there at the end of last month). A special mention goes to Sprigget who won best turned out – he is looked after by head girl Katie Stubbs at home but was led up by yardie Ionut Gabriel Ungureanu (Gabby). Gabby plaited the mane and I did the tail so it was a group effort, but Katie got the money as she has a lot less opportunities to go racing now she’s looking after the barn.

There were no packed lunches but hot take away food from the canteen, which was delicious and a lovely surprise.

Pressure Sensitive winning at Bangor

The 28th portrayed the undulating fortunes within his sport. Skylanna Breeze, looked after by Lauren, won at Fakenham but Minella Beauty tragically sustained a fatal injury in the next race. It was a sad day for the yard and his owners Martyn Doherty and Berys Connop. Their previous horse Doesyourdogbite also passed away in his retirement this summer. He had been nicknamed Gromit and Minella Beauty had then become Wallace. Our Wallace and Grommy are sadly no more.

This week, the wearing of masks became compulsory all over racecourses. I totally understand this rule as there have been a few times lately that I’ve thought people were flouting the existing recommendations. There would be racegoers just at the side of the paddock not wearing masks and a few meters away from others in the paddock centre where masks had to be worn. People wouldn’t wear them when taking the colour bags over but had to in the paddock! I think this regulation is clearer and harder to misinterpret - masks have to be worn at all times.

After evening stables on the 30th, we had the judging of the inaugural Jackdaws Castle Pumpkin Carving Competition. The previous weekend, I had dropped off ten pumpkins, one to each hostel. Six reappeared transformed, though four had gone mushy and rotten, probably due to exposure to the hostel central heating. When asked where his pumpkin was, head lead Johnny Kavanaugh answered, “Down my trousers!”. Everyone groaned or laughed. It was very atmospheric with the flicker and splutter of tea light flames, and the scents of wax and singeing pumpkin flesh. Some of the designs had incorporated horses, the Jonjo on Dawn Run silhouette and the JJO; others were the usual grins of Jack O’Lanterns.

The Boss was the judge. He picked the pumpkin of Karina Amores’ daughter Lucia and Alan Berry’s daughter Eva; it had a heart, star, horse’s head and Dachshund carved into it. Second was Megan Petrie’s, which resembled what Hannibal Lecter would do to a human, let alone a pumpkin (and was my personal favourite). Third place went to Sydney, whose pumpkin had a wicked grin. All the others finished joint fourth. I’d had a booby prize for the Worst Pumpkin but this was obsolete as they were all brilliant. Everyone received a bag full of trick or treat candy and the winner received a bottle of Prosecco, which went to Karina, not Lucia and Eva!

I was touched by everyone’s creativity, the Boss’ judging and the fun atmosphere. Maybe it’s time to reintroduce the Joke Awards at this year’s Christmas Party!

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