The Racing Life of Belinda Keighley
No one loves horseracing more than Belinda Keighley; it’s her life in every way possible.
Growing up in Condicote in the middle of National Hunt country, she was pony-mad; ponies soon developed into racehorses that set the precedence for her busy life today, with a husband and two sons thrown in. Belinda met her husband, the trainer Martin Keighley, through racing. ‘Whilst still at school, Martin did his week of work experience at David ‘The Duke’ Nicholson’s where I was riding out. He then came to work there full-time.’ She chuckles. ‘We hit it off straight away and were great friends from day one but I just took time to come around to agreeing that there was more to it than that!’
Their eldest Freddie, 15, is racing mad and started via the Shetland Pony Grand National, through which they travelled the country. He qualified twice for Olympia in 2019 and 2021 at The London International Horse Show. Now, he is pony racing, winning five out of six races and his ambition is to be a jockey. He rides out regularly for Dan Skelton, recently did school work experience at Paul Nicholls', plays football for Northleach Woollies U15s and is a Manchester United fan.
Harry, 12, was talented at Pony Club but football took over. He plays for Broadway U13s, loving to score goals and try out a new celebration! Although Harry is too young to play League games, he is allowed to play in friendlies for Freddie’s team and has scored in every match. As well as excelling at football and other sports, Harry follows Manchester City and is a big F1 fan. ‘We are so fortunate,’ muses Belinda. ‘that our owners often organise tickets to Man City and Man Utd so we’ve regularly seen them play as a family.’
Supporting the running of the yard and home, Belinda’s many roles include work rider, racing secretary, parttime bookkeeper, PR, Mum, boys’ taxi driver, point-to-point trainer, first aider, Head of HR, referee and mediator! The Keighley family and their black Labrador Willow live in the same village in which Belinda grew up in, their house right on the yard that consistently sends out winners.
Did you have a horsey childhood? My grandparents lived on a dairy farm in Icomb, near Stow-on-the-Wold, which is now Appletree Stud where Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton, whom we met at The Duke’s, is now based. Mum loved animals and, although she played hockey for England and is still the most capped Gloucestershire player, she took my older brother and me for riding lessons. When I was eight, I got my first pony Tuppence, and I was in the Heythrop Pony Club Eventing (my dream was to win Badminton!) and Dressage teams (finished second at the Championships).
I enjoyed sorting out naughty ponies; I rode before and after school and was never out of the saddle for long. At fifteen, I was longlisted for the British Pony Three Day Event Team on a pony I’d schooled myself called Abercrychan Onlooker (Onny) and he went on loan to Kitty King when she was ten. Kitty was the first eventer to represent GB in the Pony Team, Junior Team, Young Rider Team and then the adult Team; I’ve stayed friends with her and her family ever since.
How did you get into racing? Growing up, The Duke’s string rode past our house daily, although back then female jockeys weren’t really a thing so it was never a dream to be a jockey. Every August, my dad did the car parking for The Duke on his annual Open Day and, when I was about thirteen, he asked Dad if I’d like to ride out. I never looked back, progressing to riding out every day before school, missing the school bus so my amazing mum had to drive me there. One week, my mum’s car was in for servicing so I went to tell The Duke I couldn’t ride out and he replied ‘Yes, you can because I’m going to take you!’ True to his word, he did and, although it was a little bit daunting at the time, I thought it was pretty cool too!
During my childhood, Peter, Maz, Tom and Michael Scudamore also lived in Condicote and Maz Scudamore advised me if I enjoyed admin to go into racing as a racing secretary, combining riding out and office work, which was the best advice I had. I left school after my A-Levels and took a secretarial course, and here I am as Martin’s Racing Secretary!
Were you a jockey? When I was sixteen, Brenda Russell, mum of my Pony Club friend Alison, offered me the ride on her pointer and, after she’d brought him over to school in front of The Duke so he could make sure it was safe enough, she let me have about four rides on him. We didn’t trouble the judge but I absolutely loved it, vowing to do it again.
About ten years later, Dolly Maude kindly offered me the ride on her family horse Newton Point (pictured) and he was an absolute dude. He was a lazy ride under Rules but won lots of races; he just needed a strong jockey. Somehow, he seemed to love a girl on him, letting him do what he wanted, as well as the easier life in the point-to-point field. He jumped for fun and we won first time out at Barbury Castle, returning to a huge roar from so many friends. A day I’ll never forget. He was a very special boy and I won on him twice more.
By then Martin had started to get a few horses to point and I rode winners for him but my most memorable was winning The Ubique Hunters’ Chase at Sandown on Bosun’s Mate, who was the horse that started it all for us.
Another very special day was riding a double at Andoversford. I won the Hunt Race on Macy for Martin Jones, who now backs lots of our youngsters, and then won on Palmers Peak, for the late Jo Stainer who was our first outside owner, and the most amazing man who supported us from the start and whom we miss so much. My mum was in Cheltenham Hospital, having cancer treatment at the time and they allowed me in after visiting hours to take the cups to show her.
I retired the day I won on our own Prince Dundee at Chaddesley Corbett finishing with a career total of nine winners pointing and one Hunter Chase. However, in 2017, I came back out of retirement and won The Macmillan York Charity Flat Race on Buckle Street, trained by Martin for a special group of owners, who were all there supporting and in doing so, raised over £30,000 for Macmillan. To ride a winner in front of my boys was out of this world and the sponsor had generously laid on trays of champagne refreshment, which we all enjoyed in York’s Paddock afterwards. Over thirty of us then had supper in York and enjoyed a brilliant weekend in glorious sunshine.
Left and middle: winning at Andoversford on Macy and (right) the Sandown Hunters' Chase on Bosun's Mate
Describe what it was like to work for The Duke: I ‘only’ rode out for him but he was like a second father to me and so supportive in everything I did. Latterly, we spoke daily on the phone; he loved a gossip so we shared lots of stories and he generally found out everything! He was so much help to us when we started training – his advice and knowledge was unbelievable. He didn’t mind giving you a bollocking – and sometimes you thought it was unfair – but Richard Dunwoody told me that if he wasn’t interested in helping you get on in life and didn’t think you were worth it then he wouldn’t be bothering so he said to take it as a compliment!
My eighteenth and twenty-first Birthdays coincided with his Open Days (Condicote then Jackdaws Castle) so he allowed me to use the marquee after for both of my parties. He was a very generous man and helped us so much; definitely shaping the people we are today. He started the career of lots of people in racing and so many of our closest and oldest friends are from those great days.
What other roles have you had in racing? I rode out for The Duke for nearly ten years until he retired and then Martin was at Twiston-Davies’s then so I rode out there on Saturdays.
Favourite racecourse: Since training, we’ve had so many special days at our local track Cheltenham. Before we started training, The Duke had amazing days at Cheltenham too and my two favourite mares from my school days, Lisaleen Lady and Deadly Charm, both were Cheltenham winners. Freddie rode a pony race winner there this year too. I’ve not given up on the idea of getting Harry to ride in a Pony Club race there but he doesn’t realise that yet!
Having won my Hunter Chase at Sandown and then the most special day we had when I won at York, they have to be right up there too.
Most favourite racehorses: Such a difficult question as I’ve had so many over the years – the list of special horses is endless and we couldn’t be doing that we’re doing without them. For over three years, I’m fortunate enough to ride out Mr Mafia every day; he is almost human and the most adorable horse. Freddie has recently schooled over fences for the first time on Mr Mafia so that was amazing. However, I could easily name you about thirty horses, maybe more, that have touched my heart in a huge way.
Best days in racing so far: Again, so many special times with amazing people so it’s hard to name just a few. Personally, Sandown and York were fabulous for me as was Any Currency winning the Cross Country Race at The Festival (although he devastatingly had that taken off him six months later). Every Cheltenham winner is emotional and amazing but winners in smaller races at smaller tracks can be just as satisfying. For Martin and the team to bring such joy to people is an unbelievable feeling – if only you could bottle it!
What have been your best days out of racing? Aside from my wedding day (twenty-five years ago in July!) and giving birth to my boys, I say we are ‘life rich’ as we’ve had lots of fun days. If I had to single one out: being invited to The Decade Birthdays at Windsor Castle in 2000 (HM The Queen Mother 100, Princess Margaret 70, Princess Anne 50, Prince Andrew 40) was an unbelievable and unforgettable experience.
Describe how team ethos plays a big part in your yard: The Team are everything and we are a big family, and I try to help anyone whenever they need it. People often comment that our yard has a lovely friendly feel and that makes me proud; I’m sure it helps the horses feel good and run as well as they can. The Team Lycetts Award has helped us focus on what we do well but also where we need to improve – we are proud to achieve top honours with the judges every year. Without the team we couldn’t operate – it’s a tough job to do and so they need rewarding and, along with our generous owners, I like to think we do that well. Martin enjoys cooking for them so we often have yard get-togethers, especially in the summer.
How do you you juggle being a Mum and running the yard? It’s a huge juggle! I’m not sure how I coped when they were smaller as both my parents sadly died when I was pregnant with Harry (Mum after years of battling cancer and Dad three months later from a heart condition) so it was quite hard but we muddled through. In the past, I’ve had to move heaven and earth to go mid-week racing so usually it was easier not to go. That’s also easier now with helpful friends dropping Freddie and Harry off at home, plus they’re more independent.
Has racing changed its attitude towards women and motherhood? If I was born later, I’d have loved to race ride more and giant strides have been made in the last ten years with so many top females riding now. Racing has moved on and women are, in my opinion, now treated as equals with so many great female trainers and jockeys. We certainly don’t have issues with whether people are male or female – as long as they love horses and do the job well then gender is immaterial.
By the time I had my boys, I was working for us here so I had no maternity leave at all and it was quite a juggle, but I’d like to think parents now are treated far more fairly than in the past.
Describe your ideal weekend: Any time I spend with my family and friends is great. After so much racing, I think an ideal weekend would be a long weekend somewhere like Salcombe with fun, laughter, delicious food and plenty of champagne!
Favourite meal: Seafood like lobster or a rare fillet steak.
Favourite drink: Champagne.
Favourite movie: I’m not great on concentrating long enough but if I do, a romance with a bit of comedy.
Favourite music: Tina Turner, The Killers, Mumford & Sons are the best I’ve seen live but I mostly love pop music.
Favourite book: Dick Francis and Jilly Cooper (I know, I know!).
Favourite holiday destination: Salcombe, Portugal and Skiing in Switzerland.
Other interests: Outside racing, I don’t really get any time off but I enjoy Freddie’s pony racing and both boys’ playing football, and taking them to watch their beloved footie teams. We love skiing and have gone regularly since they were tiny and are just getting into paddleboarding but they are far better than I am! I love spending time with friends but that is usually whilst doing some of the above, or eating good food and drinking decent wine!
On a favourite - Mr Mafia