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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

The History of Jackdaws Castle

The inspiration for a training establishment to be built at Jackdaws Castle, near Ford in Gloucestershire, arose from the mulling over a pint and musing about the future.

The Duke

The late David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson and his long-time owner, Colin Smith were in the Plough Inn, and Smith pointed to the steep hillside opposite and queried its suitability for being changed into gallops. At that time, sheep grazed the land but the tenant farmer was giving up. Smith, the landowner, was thinking primarily about keeping the rent money coming in and the Duke training racehorses. Smith, his wife Claire and local Jenny Mould had owned Charter Party, which the Duke trained to win the 1988 Cheltenham Gold Cup. The Duke was based a few miles up the road at Condicote, a location of many big race victories, but the prospect of a new purpose-built training facility was too good to turn down.

The idea spiralled. The plans were formulated and, within twelve months, planning permission had been granted. There were complications – the gallops were easy to envisage due to the steep gradients but the positioning of the large number of stables and living accommodation that were needed was difficult. This was eventually solved by placing all of the buildings within the indentation left over from the former quarry called Jackdaws Castle, at the top of the hillside. Therefore, the village of Ford would never see the newly built yard, let alone the scenery be ruined.

Being old quarry land meant a lot of stones. To be precise, five hundred tons were mechanically removed before the grass gallops could be made suitable. Princess Anne officially opened Jackdaws Castle in October 1993.

The Duke retired in 1999, and Jackdaws Castle was taken over by his assistant Alan King and then Richard Philips. The yard was sold in 2001 to JP McManus. A huge barn was built to house a new equine pool, four walkers, an indoor school, a workshop space and ample storage. Non-slip rubber matting was laid throughout the yard, the trackways were tarmacked and more white rails were added which previously only existed at the top and bottom of the gallops.

Having sadly passed away too early in 2006, the Duke’s presence is still felt at Jackdaws Castle.

At the top of the schooling ground, shadowed by gnarly trees, is a lichen-spotted gravestone, the inscription only just visible. It is Waterloo Boy’s, who won seventeen races in total, including two Tinglecreeks in 1991 and 1992, the 1992 Haldon Gold Cup and the 1993 Game Spirit Chase.

Lying next to him in a line, but unmarked, are Very Promising, also a winner of seventeen races, Duke’s Mount, a winner of four races who ran in the colours of the landowners’ Charter Party’s colours and Chesterfield, who had won team bronze at the 1996 Olympics when ridden by Blyth Tait and who tragically died on the gallops.

The ghosts of the past whistle in the wind around this beautiful estate. The drumbeat of galloping hooves echoing those that once worked and schooled with the backdrop of trees that were then saplings and hedges that had not been planted.

Present day: A bird's eye view of Jackdaws Castle

Photo Credit: Jonjo O'Neill Racing

With thanks for helping me write this article and for the old photos:

Sim, A. (1993) Jackdaws' Castle David Nicholson. In: English Racing Stables. Surrey: Dial Press, pp148-151

and also, the amazing memory of Gordy Clarkson.

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