The Racing Life of Jessica Kelsall
Racing runs in Jessica Kelsall’s blood. She’s the daughter of former Worcestershire-based trainer Peter and has been involved in racing her whole life. Jess, 36, worked in yards as stable staff and an assistant trainer before becoming an Instructor at the Northern Horseracing College in Doncaster. She is now a Welfare Officer in the west for Racing Welfare.
Over the years, through her different roles, Jess has trained up future jockeys and stable staff, looked after the sport’s newest recruits in their first jobs and now cares for all stable staff, including retired beneficiaries. Testimony to Jess’ dedication was her being shortlisted in the top ten in the 2023 Goldolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards in the Community Category.
Jess lives in Worcester with her cocker spaniel-cross and best friend Alfie and she owns a seven-year-old ex-racer called Frenchie.
Did you have a horsey childhood? I was introduced to horses at a young age. My father and uncle owned a couple of racehorses and I used to go with them to visit the yard as a toddler. I started lessons aged four at a local riding school and truly caught the horse bug!
At seven, I was fortunate enough to get my first pony as we moved to a lovely place with some land in Hanley Swan. She was a little chestnut mare who lived up to the stereotype! I spent a lot of time galloping round cross-country courses and showjumping rings out of control, giving my parents premature grey hairs! She was a menace but taught me lots and was a great preparation for the future…
Then, I had a Connemara cross Thoroughbred pony who was able to join in occasionally with the string at home, so when I was 12-14, we had great fun exercising up the Malvern Hills.
After that, I exercised the racehorses for the first time. We had a mixed range of rides and I got some good experience and got my first spin on the local gallops which I was hugely excited about. After that, there really was no looking back!
What is your favourite childhood memory? My family having a Cheltenham winner.
There’s no better place for atmosphere, history and the feeling of watching your horse come up that hill in front. Rufius winning was an emotional day; a lot of blood, sweat and tears had gone into his preparation as he wasn’t the easiest character at home, making it all the sweeter. I couldn’t have been prouder of him and, with it being a family effort, it was a special day for everyone. For a small yard like us to beat the ‘big boys’ was pretty satisfying!
It was New Year’s Eve, so the celebrations were amazing!
The Kelsall Family and Carl Llewllyn with Rufius, their winner at Cheltenham, 31st December 2002
What was your favourite horse? The lovely Rufius! He was a beautiful dark bay gelding with a big star and was the main reason I fell in love with racing. He was sensitive, very nervous; a real challenge to keep happy. He used to get extremely stressed and hated being stabled overnight so spent most of his racing career living out. I’ll never forget catching him from the field on the morning of his Cheltenham win and seeing his muzzle whiskers all frozen!
We formed a deep bond over the years, he really trusted me, and I tried to understand his quirks and ensure his happiness. I felt physically sick watching him run – all I wanted was him back safe and sound. I was a nervous wreck until after the last!
I rode him every day in training and he looked after me in my first point-to-point. He followed me to the NRC in his retirement and put plenty of students through their paces with his antics… certainly teaching many to use their neck strap!
Sadly, we lost him a few years ago at the grand age of 25. He’ll always be sorely missed and fondly remembered: a legend.
What trainers have you worked for? Between 16-22, I worked with my father Peter full-time before starting work for NHC. Over the years, I’ve been lucky to ride out at several lovely yards, including Ian Williams, John Spearing, Richard Lee, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Jonjo O’Neill and Alan King.
It’s always interesting to see how different trainers do things, their facilities and fantastic gallops. Over the years, I’ve ridden very nice horses in stunning locations, which I’m very grateful for.
Do you still ride out? I ride out weekly for my local trainer, Ian Williams, which I really enjoy. There’s a great bunch of people, lovely horses and plenty of banter!
How did you get a job as an instructor at the NHC? I started as an Instructor in June 2010; I’d just finished training with my father and sought a new challenge. I’d always been interested in the idea of teaching and when the chance arose to combine this with my love of horse racing, I wanted to go for it. I went up to Doncaster for the interview, not quite sure what to expect and the rest is history!
During your years as an instructor, what was the funniest thing that happened? Oh wow… there are so many! One of my favourite funny memories must be first lot one Monday morning. I was teaching a group of about fourteen students in the indoor school and the horses were feeling fresh and well. A few liked to buck and kick out at the boards and one did just that… It was like a domino effect…
We finished up with about ten loose ones, you’ve never seen anything like it.
It was comparable to the stampede scene out of Disney’s Lion King. Being ON FOOT in the middle of loose horses is not recommended!
Trying to catch horses, attend to the riders on the ground (lots of screaming and crying) and trying to persuade those who were still on board not to jump off was certainly an experience I’ll never forget! I think a few could have been extras in War Horse off the back of that morning! Happily, no one was hurt, and we all had a good giggle about it afterwards.
How did you make the change to become a roving assessor? I was given the chance to become a roving assessor in November 2016 when a job covering my home area became available.
This was a chance for me to move back to the Midlands, and was a new challenge for me professionally, so I felt it was the right thing to do. I was also interested to have more interaction with the employers and see the students in action using all the skills they had been taught. It was lovely to see students who I taught years ago doing fantastically in their careers. I still bump into ex-students who are now working in senior roles and it’s brilliant to see how far they have come.
When did you start working for Racing Welfare? I started in January 2020; I was keen to give something back to the industry. Plus, also promote the RW's services in my local area - I was keen to do more here as it was a bit of an untouched area.
Please describe your present duties: Welfare officer work is varied; no day is ever the same! We generally work with beneficiaries to support and advise on any number of issues, these can be emotional support, financial worries, physical health and careers. I work with all ages, from 16 up to 90s. We run community events for our local areas , including coffee mornings, trips to the seaside and sports days!
What is the most rewarding part of the job? Seeing the impact of your work and feeling you have made a difference to someone’s life is amazing and obviously the amazing homemade cakes brought along to many of the coffee mornings!
In your opinion, what does racing do well? Racing is very inclusive and always looking for ways to encourage new people into the sport, which is great. The racing community is like one big family, I love the comradery and close-knit feel it brings.
And, in which aspects could racing improve? Flexibility: looking at new ways to encourage people to stay in the industry. Making the job more viable in the long term for more people, including flexible working, shifts, childcare and thinking outside the box more to keep looking for further ways to improve and develop.
Why do you think the well-known staffing crisis in racing has occurred? A lot of this is to do with modern society and the work/life balance expectations of today. Now, people want more of a balance between their work and social life, and rightly so. However, when working with animals, this is always going to be a struggle unless you have the staff to cover a reasonable and viable rota as inevitably horse welfare always comes first.
Racing has been going the right way with this, in terms of afternoons off and the progression to working one in three weekends instead of every other. This is particularly something that all yards should strive towards, as this has a hugely positive impact on staff morale from what I’ve witnessed.
Also, the new initiative from some trainers to have split shifts on the yard has been positive and could be more widely looked at by others. Some yards have kicked the traditional ‘morning stables, break and back to evening stables’ routine and now staff have the option to work through so they can be finished by 3pm each day. This gives staff the chance to have a more ‘normal’ working week and they then have the time to do things after work and make more plans, giving them the social aspect a lot of them crave. This, however, can only work if there’s enough people willing to work the evening stables hours, so I do appreciate not all yards are able to offer this.
The industry is going to have to keep evolving and changing with the times in order to attract more young people, so hopefully this will continue to improve with the support of organisations like NARS, NTF and RW.
The key thing for me will always be passion. People need to be passionate about their job and genuinely love what they’re doing. This is something which we endeavour to instil into the students at the racing school from the very beginning, but it also has to come from within the individual. If the passion isn’t there, then inevitably I think people will continue to look for an ‘easier option’.
My view is that racing needs to have passionate, dedicated and skilled staff to ensure it continues to prosper, but the industry needs to be appealing in order to initially attract those sorts of people.
What is the best racing party you’ve attended? Employee day at Cheltenham in 2020 was pretty good! The night finished dancing with Ed Chamberlain, Ruby Walsh and Rachel Blackmore!
What does racing mean to you? Racing has been all I have known since a young age; it’s in my veins now and I can’t imagine a time when I won’t want to be involved in the industry.
Favourite meal: Roast dinner.
Favourite drink: French Martini.
Favourite holiday destination: Portugal.
Ideal day off: Spent with the dog or horses!
Other interests: Riding, hiking, netball.
If you didn’t work in racing, what would you like to be? A detective!
Days off with Alfie the spaniel-cross