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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

The Racing Life of Ollie McPhail

Many racegoers have seen pupils let out of their classrooms for a day at the races, often brightly coloured with the old silks they wear. One of the leaders of this incentive that introduces children to horseracing is Ollie McPhail, a Programme Manager for Racing To School. Figuring out weights, distances and handicap ratings are effective maths lessons. In the future these schoolchildren may visit the races again, or even seek employment in the racing industry. Enthusiastic, amusing and a family man himself, there is no better introduction to this sport that Ollie himself.

Photo Credit: Mary Pitt

Ollie, 44, grew up in Winchester and competed regularly on ponies. Bitten by the horse bug, he progressed onto riding in point-to-points, starting off on a family-owned horse, and later in amateur races. He finished third at the Cheltenham Festival in 1997 on Lucky Dollar in the Kim Muir. His first winner under Rules came the following week, on Bright Destiny at Hexham for Jim Goldie. After being injured in the Aintree Foxhunters’, he recovered and turned conditional, joining David ‘the Duke’ Nicholson at Jackdaws Castle. No doubt there are many stories from this time, when Robert ‘Choc’ Thornton was still an unknown amateur. Richard Johnson was yet to rise in the ranks and cocky, lippy young jockeys were kept in check by older colleagues; a time when the implementation of employment laws was way off but when the likes of Viking Flagship and other top-class chasers were in training.

In 2008, Ollie retired from race-riding, having ridden over one hundred and twenty winners. Since retirement, he has continued to earn accolades: the JETS Achievement Award in 2013 and an McCoys ‘Outstanding Contribution’ Award in 2017, portraying how Ollie’s positive impact on racing has undeniably continued.

Ollie lives in Lower Oddington, near Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire with wife Gemma. He has two daughters, Samara and Poppy, and a son, Harry.

Did you have a horsey childhood?

I was very lucky to have had ponies since I was around six or seven-years-old and loved my time in the Pony Club. I was also very fortunate to have a brilliant 13.2 on whom I competed in the FEI junior event championship final.

How did you get into racing?

Although I had no family connections in racing. I can always remember wanting to be a jockey and, when I was fourteen, started working at a local Point-to-Point yard run by Hamish Rowsell that was only a mile from home. That was a great introduction for me and certainly made up my mind that I wanted to work in the industry.

When I was sixteen, I asked around twelve of my family members to form a syndicate so I could buy myself a pointer to ride whilst I was at college. My Stepdad and I duly went off to Ascot sales and came back with a not-hundred-per-cent-sound two miler! My first race ended with an Unseated at the last at Larkhill in front of all the family!

Which trainers have you worked for?

When I was 18, I went to Jackdaws Castle to work for David Nicholson. When he retired, I started riding as a freelance.

Please describe your time working for the David ‘the Duke’ Nicholson:

Working for the “Duke” was a brilliant experience and I met so many people and made friends during my time there. They still work in the industry in a huge variety of roles.

I nearly didn’t get the job though, as when I went for my interview, I mistook him for the gardener. You can imagine his response!!

Were you a jockey?

I rode as an amateur until I was twenty-two and had most success for trainer Jim Goldie, who gave me my first ride under rules and also first winner.

I had quite a bad fall in the Aintree Foxhunters, which put me out for a while. When I came back, I turned conditional.

I ended up riding 129 winners. I rode some nice horses for Alan King but rode most of my winners for Bernard Llewellyn, who, along with his son John, were my best supporters over the years. The best horse I rode was called Mondul for Milton Harris, on whom I won the Finesse Hurdle at Cheltenham. However, his best performance was probably beating Kauto Star in the Prix Amadou around Auteuil a couple of months later.

What’s your favourite racecourse?


What’s your favourite racehorse?

Paxford Jack, another of Milton’s horses who was the best jumper I ever rode and also gave me a first winner at Cheltenham.

Did you ride in the Grand National?

I had three rides in the National. I rode Camelot Knight in his last race for Nigel Twiston-Davis, a spare and the only ride I ever had for him!

I then rode a horse called Mantles Prince in a couple of Nationals for Alan Juckes, who was owned by a syndicate with Emlyn Hughes. Although he wouldn’t even jump over a log at home because he was so lairy, he actually gave me a great ride for three miles in our first attempt before we both got tired! I had expected to get fired out the saddle early so pulled my stirrups up a couple of holes shorter!

What roles have you done since?

During the last couple of years riding I started working for Racing to School on a freelance basis. There were a number of times that I ran some education sessions with schools at a racecourse on the morning of a race day and then ride in the afternoon!

I was able to do this through support from JETS, who really helped me prepare for a second career. It really is never too early to think about what you are going to do when you finish riding.

In 2008, a full-time position became available within the charity, I decided it was the right time for me to hang up my boots and a great opportunity to stay in the industry.

Please describe your role at Racing To School:

I now manage both the charity’s Education and Riders programmes. In practical terms it means liaising with Schools, Colleges, Pony Clubs, racecourses, funders, other racing charities and organisations that support us in delivering our programmes.

Please describe the importance of Racing To School:

Racing to School is an education charity that aims to inspire young minds through the provision of free, interactive, and healthy outdoor educational events for schools, staged at a variety of racing venues. In 2019, Racing to School delivered a record 372 events across the country – engaging over 15,000 young people. The global Covid-19 outbreak has impacted severely on the charity’s ability to deliver events and participation numbers have dropped to around 25% of the 2020 target. However, the charity is confident of a return to our growth strategy in 2021, which is Racing to School’s 20th anniversary.

We also deliver two Beacon Projects: the Aintree Beacon Project and Newmarket Academy Godolphin Beacon Project. They focus on engaging schools in racing areas with a bespoke programme of learning activity.

Please describe your role in the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards:

In 2017, I was asked to join the panel of Judges for the GSSSA to replace our Chief Executive at the time who was standing down. For me personally, the awards are a great way to stay in touch with the workforce in the industry. I have met some amazing people through the judging process. The awards really do showcase the inspirational work and dedication that so many people put into the sport. Many don’t realise until you tell them! I believe that for most people, just realising that their employers think they are worth being nominated makes them feel more appreciated.

How has racing changed since you worked in a yard?

When I first started working in racing, there was no formal pathway into the sport but now, through our work with the BRS and NHC, the Careers In Racing team, the PRA and Pony Club, NARS, Racing Welfare and the NTF, this has changed. I must say, I don’t think people working in the industry even realise how much goes on behind the scenes to support those within and coming into the sport.

As part of our Riders Programme, we work with Equine College students. When we describe to them the “package” Racing Grooms receive, they are surprised at how structured it is.

Do you think racing has a brighter future now regarding the stable staff crisis?

Horseracing is by no means on its own when it comes to staff shortages. It is always going to be a challenge recruiting staff because of the nature of the job. It is hard physical work. Part of our role is educating people before they make decisions about careers and this means being realistic about what the job entails. There is no point putting someone through a training programme without any comprehension about the role they will have in the workplace. I would say retention of staff is probably the most important aspect of moving forward.

What’s your favourite meal?

Normally an Indian but currently I am on a much-needed diet…

What’s your favourite day off?

Playing golf.

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