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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

October Diary 2020 - Part 1

On October 2nd, I took Opine to Huntingdon, where he ran in the juvenile hurdle. He ran really well, finishing second. It was the start of the busy week! The next day, it rained torrentially all the way to Fontwell. The wipers could hardly clear the rain smashing against the windscreen and it was still like a monsoon when I got King Pellinor (Pelly) off the lorry. We were absolutely soaked – my boots squelched and I could have wrung out my jeans. The lower boxes in the stable yard flooded and those horses were moved to dry ones. The rain cascaded off roofs, drains were swollen and guttering overflowed.

Before the first, there were plenty of people sitting in cabs, engines running, windscreens fugged, socks drying in the jets of hot air! (I learnt a few years ago to always carry spare ‘essentials’ in my racing bag.) Understandably, Pelly didn’t appreciate all the rain and finished out the back! Head of travelling, Harrison Day, and I left early the following day for Ffos Las, Wales. Harrison told me Ffos Las translates from Welsh into ‘blue ditch’ – I can think of many other unprintable ways to describe it. ‘My’ March Is On (Marty) ran over fences for the first time but the bigger obstacles weren’t to his liking – he’ll revert back to hurdles. Jolymaker finished third in another rainstorm, which stopped for a bit and turned to hail as we were preparing to go home. The ‘Blue’ meaning in Ffos Las obviously refers to how it’s nearly always bitterly cold!

That Saturday, Georgia Plumb and I left at lunchtime for an overnighter in Kelso. Once again, the rain lashed against the windscreen and the wipers were going constantly. Fuelled by food from the BP at Ashchurch, near Tewkesbury, we headed up the M5 and towards the M6 and then, ground to a sudden halt just past junction 16 of the M6. A couple of artics were still in mid-lane change when they stopped. The accident was only a quarter of a mile ahead, so we could see the blue flashing lights of the emergency vehicles and the emergency workers in fluorescent yellow with their umbrellas up against the rain. Two fire engines, three ambulances and, after a bit, a recovery truck all passed on the hard shoulder. An hour and a half later we set off again, cones cordoned off the accident site where, what seemed to be an engine, was still rammed into the dented central reservation. We reached Tebay at 7pm for food, as well as to water the horses and swap drivers. Georgia drove the rest of the way to Kelso racecourse – we arrived at 9:10pm, in the pitch black and rain.

After unloading, rugging, feeding etc, we were told we were in a B&B three miles away, and not in the pebble-dashed oblong hostel of usual overnights there. Due to coronavirus precautions, no yard could mix or share bathrooms. We put the postcode in the sat-nav and drove past the B&B’s entrance a couple of times before eventually driving up a long and winding driveway to Edenbank House, to arrive just after 10pm. The owner, Christina Moffat, opened the door and ushered us into her lovely home. Beautiful pictures adorned the walls that were painted in gorgeously warm colours; there were books, antiques and a very warm welcome. To be honest, it was far better than the hostel, a few drinks and dinner in town.

We were in a twin room, scrumptious in décor and homely. We certainly slept well. I got up at 6am to feed and water the horses, before driving back to return to bed. In daylight, the house was beautiful; edged by thick rhododendron bushes and beehives up the drive, all of which had been lost in the darkness of the night before. Set in green fields dotted with sheep – the quietness struck me; it was so tranquil.

We had an amazing cooked breakfast – Christina and her fox terrier Belle were amazing hosts. It certainly set us up for the day’s racing, and we were sorry to pack up and leave.

Later on, Perfect City (Perf) was unplaced because the ground was too soft and His Dream finished a good second. We had a great day. There were no packed lunches but a free scram van, offering burgers and jacket potatoes!

Our journey home was going well until the driver’s side windscreen wiper broke. This meant we were stuck at Tebay services for an hour and a half waiting for the breakdown service. It literally took ten seconds to put on a new wiper and we were off. We flew home, finishing up at 2:15am. It was certainly a good introduction for Georgia on the tribulations of overnights!

The Employee of the Month went to our racing secretary Jade Aspell. Jade, 28, grew up in Lambourn. Both her parents worked in racing and she took part in all the Pony Club hunting, eventing and showjumping. At 15, she went on work experience to Noel Chance’s and he offered her a job riding out on Saturdays and in school holidays. Jade stayed at Chance’s until she went to Australia in 2010 after taking her A-levels, intending to only go for a gap year. She eventually stayed for five years, riding track work for trainers there, including Jason Coyle, Graham Begg and Peter Moody. She was there when Moody’s yard sent out four Group 1 winners at Randwick in a single day!

Returning in 2015, Jade worked for Jamie Osborne but, deciding she didn’t wish to be a stable lass forever, she left for Malcolm Bastard’s to ride yearlings and work for a few pre-trainers whilst enrolling for the secretarial course at the BRS. She says, “I then got the position of assistant racing secretary at Charlie Hills’. This was a great place to learn as the girls there were super knowledgeable and did everything the proper way,” remembers Jade. “I was there for nearly two years, when I got the racing secretary job at Sir Mark Prescott’s in Newmarket, which was fascinating. I was there for a year before making the move to Jackdaws Castle to be closer to home in Lambourn.”

Jade always looks back on her years in Australia with fondness but she brought a forever reminder of her time there. She flew Diglet back on the same flight as herself, a sausage dog cross Jack Russell, aged 7, whom she bought from an Australian chicken farm! At the yard, Jade’s favourite is Dream Berry – she loves a grey, but especially Dream Berry’s ghostly flea-bitten colour. She rides two lots out every morning and has become a massive part of the team in the short time she’s been here.

On October 9th, Soaring Glory won first time out at Chepstow. He had won two bumpers last season and it was great to get a winner at the first ‘proper’ National Hunt meeting of the season. Glory is a gorgeous horse, with a quiet, friendly nature. He is Georgia’s pride and joy, which she both rides daily and looks after.

We recently received lots of cake that got shared out during morning stables. Nick Healy’s parents brought us cupcakes to celebrate his 22nd birthday. A yard tradition, started last season, is that if a person falls off, they then have to bring in a cake. A fall is now followed by a chorus of “Cake, cake, cake!”. Two boxes of the most delicious brownies and cupcakes arrived from the Cotswold Larder. We were all a bit over-sugared and ‘caked’ out but then we missed munching between lots when everything had run out.

I have now reverted back to my winter duties; I’m back looking after the fields and the pens. The pens are where Don’t Push It was trained – the horses live outside and get turned out throughout the day. They are a mixture of bleeders, picky eaters, box walkers, quirky characters or ones that simply need a change from the main yard. Now, I muck the field shelters out first thing and bed them down with clean straw and poop-scoop the pens (which is a bit difficult in the dark). I ignore the rustling of vermin but love to listen to the hoots of owls and yelping barks of foxes from the inky woods that edge each paddock.

Niamh Wellman – 1985-2019

On October 6th 2019, I had the heart-shattering news that my sister-in-law Niamh ‘Nia’ Wellman had died, ultimately way too early at the age of 34. She left behind, of course, my brother Tony, their eight-year-old daughter Isla, her parents Phil and Margaret, brother Tom and us, my side of the family.

Previously, I had lost family members at a rightful point and friends far too early but nothing numbed me like losing Niamh. Suddenly, being at work didn’t ‘help’ or pass the time as it should have. Even racing passed by in a daze. I’d always presumed that my family was moulded and modelled over time, that it wouldn’t now alter.

Niamh was fun, clever, feisty with a wicked sense of humour and an even more wicked chuckle. She was scatty, sassy, with beautiful dark brown eyes. She was quietly Welsh, from Haverfordwest, but the Welsh accent always crept out ‘after a few’.

Niamh loved racing, she loved Cheltenham and the Festival. She was there with her friend Lucy when my heroic Imperial Commander won the Gold Cup in 2010. She fought through the bookies at the end of the walk back in, flinging her top half over the white rail – hollering, ecstatic, a cascade of wavy blonde hair. She found us, later on at the dope box, vaulted the rails, jumped on me so we both fell over. She’d confidently backed him, and she was there with my parents and Tony down the Hollow Bottom that evening, drinking champagne.

Celebrating the 2010 Gold Cup

Niamh loved champagne, Cornwall, boats, reading, smart fashion, hats and terriers, especially one called Twiglet. She grew up alongside ponies and Pony Club, becoming a fabulous horsewoman. She successfully showed her own horse Otto, reaching HOYS twice, winning the accolade of the highest placed amateur. She gained a degree, had a gorgeous daughter and helped my brother run his business.

I found little to dissipate the grey cloud that descended when Niamh left us that Sunday, except a song sung by Bruce Springsteen, ‘Hello Sunshine’. I played it repeatedly. Its melodic, trudging rhythm and the words seemed to offer me the little sunshine in its title; it felt very vivid to me.

I see Niamh in her determined, bright daughter so a part of her will always be with us, but in the words of the song, she “walked too far”. For a long time, I have wanted to write something for Niamh, a tiny acknowledgement but can never do such a sparkly lady justice, even now. So, I’ll try to be a great Aunty, read the books, live my life like Nia would have done.

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12 hours ago
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I went to school with Niamh, and she was my first true friend. You've written a beautiful testament to a beautiful person

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