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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

Summer Diary 2020 - Part 3

The skills of Estate Manager, Federico Bazan and his assistant Madalin ‘Doc’ Radu never fail to impress. They care for the 500 acres whole of Jackdaws Castle, including all the mowing, maintenance and a never-ending list of jobs. They also help out in the yard from fixing anything that is broken to changing light bulbs and mending tools. Often the yardies are drafted in to help out too – there is hardly any job that they can’t do.

However, a first was repainting the white lines on the main drive – Federico and Doc made a start but ran out of paint after doing the white dashes for one ‘give way’ marking. So, the council finished the job in a yellow highway truck with flashing orange warning lights. The workmen did a brilliant job and the white lines are very bright and pristine!

2010 Grand National winner Don’t Push It was famously trained out of the field and lived with six Jacob sheep. These now number three as they have died-off over the years, and the remaining ones are definitely more mutton than lamb. They are normally quite cute looking with stripey faces, horns and piebald wool but were looking motheaten, in bad need of a shear as they were suffering in the recent heat wave. So, Federico sheared them himself and the ewes looked much better, if not a bit patchy!

The beginning of August saw the delivery of a mobile home – soon to be made into a staff social house/gym using the £4000 the yard received for winning the Big Yards category of the Lycetts Team Champion Award. I’ll be honest: there is a lot of work to do as it arrived in a bit of a state, the flat tyres the least of its problems. Doc got to work straight away, ripping out the interior and filling up a skip and the dank, smelly building suddenly hinted at a lot more promise.

On August 6th, I mucked out my allocated stables and left with an empty two-box to drive to Newmarket. I had to pick up a three-year-old called Opine from Michael Bell’s. Satnav took me straight to the gates, that glided open. It was situated just off the bottom of the main high street and everyone was really helpful, guiding me to where I had to load up. They even collected Opine, booted him and bandaged his tail. All the staff, whether riding out or handling leaf-blowers, said hello; it seemed a happy yard.

I am older and too cynical but at times I am reminded how great it is to have winners any time of the year! That a double at Uttoxeter in the summertime is brilliant. On the 8th, Anywayyoulookatit won his first ever race when winning the handicap chase; his delighted groom, Florin ‘Fred’ Mirea was so pleased that he forgot to pull up his facemask in the winner’s enclosure. Later on, Present Chief, looked after by Megan Petrie who unfortunately had other plans, was led up in the last race by Callum Douglas and going racing for the first time. Callum didn’t care that it was an evening meeting and summer jumping – he was simply delighted to go. ‘Chiefy’ won and Callum was so chuffed that he slung an arm around winning jockey Jonjo Junior’s shoulders, social distancing all forgotten. Yet, these are minor glitches in a successful evening with happy staff. It was far from Cheltenham in March but it could’ve been, if the grooms’ colossal smiles weren’t covered by face masks or there hadn’t been an 8:30 sunset in the photograph.

On the 19th, I again mucked out my five then drove the four-box to the Quigley Horsebox hub near Whitchurch, Shropshire. I entertained myself with a novel, notebook and laptop in an upstairs office which one way looked over a huge, immaculately harrowed indoor school and, the other way, the workshop. There were bangs, clatters and whirrs of machinery, voices and drills all day as some men worked on huge HGVs that had as many pop-outs as a Winnebago. There was a brick bar with six optics, photos of winning showjumpers adorning the walls and trophies sat on every surface. It was a satisfying way to spend seven hours whilst the lorry had its rubber matting, now scuffed and worn to the metal floor in places, replaced and a couple of bolts on the back doors repaired. This was especially so when I heard that back home it lashed down with torrential rain all morning, everyone had five lots and got soaked.

As a method of communication, the office often pins up notices on the riding out board. There are laminated ‘polite notices’ around the yard, though some could be classed as ‘impolite’ or definitely stating the obvious. Some are written in capitals or printed out using red ink. The one on the drying room bellows ‘DOOR MUST BE KEPT SHUT AT ALL TIMES’. There are two in the lower drying room that state ‘Please Hang Up Washed Racing Kit. Stop Leaving it to Fester’, though they are often left soaked and waiting. On the huge industrial washing machine, I’ve stuck up a notice requesting Velcro fastenings to be closed together before washing. Nevertheless, more often than not I pull everything out to find boots, tail guards, cheek pieces, sweat sheets all stuck together in a jumbled clump and have to be prised apart before being hung up.

Last winter, I nailed up notices down the pens, where horses are trained from the field. Soggy rugs were left on the ground and, later that day, when I’d pick them up to put back on the horse and more than once, interrupted from a cosy nap, a rat would scuttle out.

On the 24th, Callum went racing to Southwell, this time picking up a spare lead-up, Lock’s Corner, in the chase. ‘Locksy’ had won his last two runs over hurdles. His former lad had left a couple of weeks before and it was a good opportunity for Callum to get more practise and learn further what to do at the races. You can guess what happened…Callum’s beginner’s luck continued and Locksy won really well! I didn’t want to burst Callum’s bubble of success and happiness by saying they don’t win all the time.

I was itching to go racing as I hadn’t been since the beginning of July and I happily went to Lingfield on the 26th. Prefontaine (Stevie) ran under Andrea Atzeni but he was very lacklustre and tailed in last. (The same thing occurred when he ran the following week over hurdles up in Sedgefield.) I half-hoped Stevie would have been invigorated by a holiday but he obviously preferred the sunshine and doing nothing at all. He had already been entered at the sales so was on borrowed time as it was.

On the 28th, I went to Goodwood with Rachel McMahon and Imperial Command (Pumba). It is a beautiful racecourse with an amazing stable yard, but two people are needed due to it being a box-up. Pumba was really well behaved and Oisin Murphy rode him. He finished fourth, needing to go further, but it was a fun day.

The following day, I rode two lots before loading up the three runners for Perth. I was accompanying head of travelling, Harrison Day, and Gabriel Ungureanu. I volunteered to do the first bit of driving to Tebay Services.

I hadn’t been to Perth for nearly ten and a half years and there was a huge change. No groom could ever quite forget the L-shaped buildings with beds that were narrow and too short in which to stretch out, even for a person of average height, showers that numbered three but only two had opaque shower curtains and a manager who was never welcoming and seemed never to sleep. There were always vermin poison boxes in the bedrooms and, until partition walls had been built, the boys’ sleeping quarters had been a long dormitory. The box drivers always preferred bunking up in their lorries, rather than take a bed inside the hostel. It was a box-up too and should have been bulldozed ages ago. I had visited a few times when I worked for Nigel Twiston-Davies and we usually took home winners, but the accommodation was always cringe-worthy (though the canteen had been very good). Then in 2016, the Lodge was built, a stone’s throw from the racecourse; a light, airy, modern hotel as far removed from the former accommodation as possible. The stable yard too was rebuilt and is very smart.

The journey took just under nine hours with Harrison and I sharing the driving, and after putting the horses to bed we checked in, receiving a warm welcome and a room key each. There were huge double bedrooms and a brilliant shower. At eight, we joined Fergal O’Brien’s staff at an Italian restaurant in Perth called Paco’s, which was lovely. There was no partying in That Bar, or upstairs in the Loft as there always was in years gone by – I was more than happy to go back to my luxurious hotel room.

The next day, we had led the horses out, giving them a pick of grass in the lorry park, and later shampooed them and plaited up. The Lodge supplied all staff with a complimentary breakfast and lunch. We had a successful day with At First Glance finishing fourth, As You Like (Ruby) running a fabulous race in the Perth Gold Cup to be narrowly beaten into second and Write It Down battling well to win his chase.

Again, I offered to drive the first leg, so as we past the remnants of the old stable yard, with the foundations only just visible, I reflected how lovely and relaxing this stay was; a lot different to the old experience of over-nighting at Perth.

Harrison, Write It Down, Gabby, Jonjo Junior and me at Perth!

Colleague Spotlight

July’s Employee of the Month was given to Katie Stubbs, who has been promoted to Assistant Head Girl, under Alan and Johnny. From Shap, Cumbria, Katie is bubbly, boisterous and is great to have around the yard. She looks after the unraced Fast Getaway, Frascato Bello, Morning Spirit and the impressive ‘point winner File Illico.

Previously, Katie, 23, worked in racing for Evelyn Slack, who spotted her at a local show where she learnt so much. She started part-time at 16, having still to complete her apprenticeship and then returned a few years later, working for son Ken Slack for two seasons. During this time, Katie rode in a charity race and the Slacks became her second family.

Photo Credit: Su Jones

Katie has also worked for Barnaby Bowman and his international driving team. This meant a lot of her life between 17-20 was spent on the road, caring for five horses, two carriages, and working alongside a very vocal HGV driver who taught her a lot of song lyrics. Katie learnt to drive the team of four horses, often warming them up before competitions. One of her best experiences was competing at Royal Windsor three times and loved hacking through the Queen’s gardens with a variety of other horsemen, including, once, the Mounties! The following year, the team was invited to stay in Windsor Castle for Royal Ascot and they taxied race goers to the course ‘in style’. They were up at 5:30a.m to prepare the horses and at around seven, Prince Philip would pass with his Fell ponies, asking if they needed eggs or food! They also took a ride out to McDonald’s with a bunch of firemen!

Katie also worked for The Devil’s Horsemen, who are involved with filming movies and TV. She went on to compete in the Netherlands with their driving team, Daniel Naprous and five white horses. She helped with a film in Scotland and was awed by the stunts. Katie joined us last summer but took a few months off to nurse a fractured ankle after being kicked. She has made good progress and now wants to concentrate on learning to run a yard.

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