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September 2023 Blog

Open Days v Owners' Days

Every year, most racing yards throw open their gates to the general public on an Open Day and to the racehorses’ direct connections on the Owners’ Day. Both mean a disrupted Sunday at the mercy of the British weather and are a head lad's nightmare.

In addition to their usual duties, the head lads must oversee the extra organisation of horses, tack and staff, making sure the yard and horses are at their most immaculate and that the timetable is adhered to. The creation of seating and parade rings are another job for the head lads or, if they’re lucky, that of the maintenance team.

On the day, horses and humans are exposed to the whining, shrill microphone, which is as unpredictable as the horses that are being announced. Some racehorses are rendered volatile by seeing hoards in their usually quiet homeplace; the familiar made unfamiliar. Most don’t mind suddenly being in a zoo, plodding through the parade but others, especially youngsters, raise their heads high, ears perky and eyes popping out, snorting and prancing like stallions. They know it’s not the sales or the races but they sense the excitement. Behind the scenes is a logistical nightmare of running around with bridles, swapping lead reins, a fluster of brushing off dust, flicking through tails and oiling hooves – all of which the head lads coordinate, along with the racing secretary and the maintenance team who would have finished being on car parking duty by then.

Leading up Jacdor at Robin Dickin's Open Day 2001

A few years ago, I was involved with the Open Days for former trainer Robin Dickin at his previous base of Alscot Park, Warwickshire. Beforehand, there was much tidying, sweeping, polishing, brushing and the obligatory shaving bales made into bleachers – and miraculously, it was always a sunny day.

Crowds mingled and overflowed with racing anoraks, flowery hanging baskets swayed gently and all the stable staff stood like sentries, uniformed in the maroon polo shirts of a long-ago sponsor. There was always an excited vibe as it was a bit of a tradition, one Robin continued from his mentor, David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson.

The parade then began, the viewers now corralled behind the relative safety of a post and rail fence, but this didn’t entirely prevent something calamitous occurring. One year, Robin, mid-banter over the microphone, was run over by a youngster, knocked out and had to be taken to hospital. Then, a few years later, amid the open day prep, Robin tumbled, with a cuss and a splash, into the ornamental pond, taking the urn, from which a fountain tinkled, with him.

With Kadito at the 2002 Open Day. Great Memories

Robin’s Open Days were followed by an owners’ lunch and then a staff party – music (CDs in those days), dancing and drinks. That was over twenty years ago and, of course, seems a modest event compared to the way the big racing centres of Newmarket, Lambourn and Middleham stage their Open Days. Good Friday sees the sprawling village of Lambourn swarmed by crowds right from Nicky Henderson’s, Ed Walker’s to Owen Burrows’ – the canival was the day's beating heart with Shetland pony racing, trade stands, sheepdog displays, showjumping and a parade of champions. Nowadays, Open Days have become prolific due to National Racehorse Week, which crescendoed into its third year and saw an increasing number of yards open up countrywide, portraying one factor: the love of the racehorse. Yards were a busyness of vet and farriery demonstrations, ROR displays, cakes and bakes, bunting and there was an outpouring of love on social media. Often yards hosted visitors with a charity element, giving donations afterwards. Most trainers offer a printed brochures too – Champion trainer Paul Nicholls sells his by the box load in aid of the air ambulance, raising thousands of pounds.

Although the same amount of planning and logistics go onto an Owners’ Day, they are more of an intimate affair and are a chance for trainers to thank their biggest supporters and, perhaps, sell a few horses for the season ahead.

At Nigel Twiston-Davies’, the one Owners’ Day that I worked at consisted of a BBQ, tables outside under the shade of a large canopy, a parade of the purchasable youngstock and was more alcohol fueled than most. I lost at least a couple of hours, was found in my bed and persuaded to go to the local pubs. I wasn’t the only person to have had too much to drink: in the ensuing fug, vet Tim Beauregard lost his mobile phone somewhere at the Plough. Sadly, this summertime institution didn’t continue for very long.

Nowadays, at Jonjo O’Neill’s, Owners’ Days are stylish and chic, with champagne, expensive perfume drifting on the breeze and more classically cut chinos than at a Saville Row outfitter. A lovely glossy brochure is produced with an A to Z of horses in training and gorgeous photos depicting the year gone by. Staff are smart in navy racing gear, until we dart about, helping to brush, bridle and lead round the excitable ones.

Up behind the helipad, a wedding-worthy marquee is assembled near to where the Duke had once spoken so eloquently about the horses he’d trained on the Jackdaws Castle gallops. Inside, trestle tables are adorned with pretty flowers and the hung-up silks dance like flags, adding to the ebb of laughter and conversation.

So, whichever you are planning to attend, an Owners’ Day, Open Day or next year’s National Racehorse Week, enjoy the day out and the experience – you never know what may occur.

Leading up an excitable Zonda at the Owners' Day, 2022

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Oct 02, 2023

You mentioned The Duke....what a trainer! Both horses and jockeys..and sorely missed.

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