Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Somewhere Down The Road

In the days before syndication became as big business as it is nowadays in Australian racing, a group of old school friends from Melbourne got together and bought a broodmare in the hope of one day breeding a Cup winner. Road was her name, a daughter of Whiskey Road. 
The Cup dream hasn’t yet been realised and, in keeping with most people’s experience of racing, there’s been plenty of heartbreak interspersed with the happy occasions when a number of Road’s offspring have saluted at the track. The mare died a while back but one of her daughters, the nine-time winner Spaceage Juliet, now 19 herself, is keeping the dream alive.

The friends called their syndicate ‘The Empire’ and their shared racing interest has in many ways provided the means to uphold strong bonds that stretch back more than four decades to primary school. The Empire has expanded over the years and, back in 2006, I was drawn in to its embrace. 

Although it has become the norm to refer to racing as an industry, let’s not forget that it started as a sport. Many of us working in racing came to it first as a fan and later were fortunate enough to be able to turn it into a job. I also now live in a small racing stable and the success of the horses trained here by John means so much to us that I tend to go to the races filled with worry that something will go wrong. Sometimes it does, and sometimes that means that I enjoy racing a lot less than I used to. It has become a business, even if it started as, and remains in many ways, one of life’s unmatchable pleasures.

That’s part of the reason I have enjoyed the involvement with the Empire horses so much. We’re removed from them geographically and though we take great pride in being a very small part in their lives, watching them grow and eventually race, to a great extent they are someone else’s concern. 

More than that, however, they are the stitches in the fabric that holds together a fantastic group of people with an age span of five decades, spread across Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai and England. Regular emails between us, which have evolved into what’s app messages, would always be signed off ‘GTE’ – Go The Empire.

John’s friendship with this group goes back farther than mine, to the days when he was pupil assistant to Luca Cumani in the 1980s and working alongside Joff Dumas, who eventually returned home to Australia but remains one of John's greatest friends. Joff is really the one who holds the whole thing together. He has the thankless task of being the syndicate manager, of collecting fees, of refereeing discussions over naming the horses and deciding which stallions to use, of delivering news from trainers and stud managers, both good and bad.

Joff, with his brother David, and old school friends Cameron Plant, Dan Happell, Patrick Stock and Mark Ritchie, formed the original core of the Empire which now runs to 18 members. Eighteen friends.

The most recent horse we raced together – unsuccessfully, sadly – was a grandson of Road, named Thousandmilesaway. All of the mare’s descendants have been named after songs by the Empire’s favourite band, The Hoodoo Gurus, and Thousandmilesaway seemed particularly appropriate given the geographical spread of the group. 

In recent years, my work for TDN has taken me to many places around the world. Any trip to a major race meeting is a thrill but being away from home frequently can sometimes be a little disorientating. Fortunately, on travels to Melbourne, I know I’ll see my Empire friends. It’s an extraordinary feeling spending almost 24 hours flying to the other side of world and stepping off a plane to find yourself very much at home. That’s what their friendship has given me, along with a deep-rooted love for Australia.

Many of the Empire members have stayed with us in Newmarket over the years and the most frequent visitor among them was Cameron, whose work also caused him to be away from home often. For the last four years he’s been based in Dubai, meaning I could see him annually, at least, when at the World Cup meeting.

Cameron also took a share in a horse with us in Newmarket. Perhaps only an Australian could view a ‘short’ six-hour flight from Dubai to the UK as being perfectly feasible in planning to see the filly race.  

In recent weeks, as the news around the world has united us all in a common fear, there have been several upbeat bulletins from Wangaratta to give the Empire a little lift in times of trouble. Adrian Corboy has been pre-training our two-year-old gelding by Puissance De Lune out of Spaceage Juliet and, in his own inimitable fashion, has relayed news that this one ‘might be alright’.

While we have all come to accept bad news on the equine front over the years, on Easter Sunday the news Joff had to deliver to us all was of an altogether more desperate kind. Cameron, more than halfway through a fortnight’s enforced quarantine in Melbourne after arriving home from Dubai, had taken his own life.

It is unbelievable even to have had to type those words. To think of the person that I only ever knew with a smile on his face to be gone just like that.

The dreadful new normal of all our lives in the last few months has been to switch on the television and hear of an ever-increasing death toll. The relentlessness of the bad news is almost numbing but, to many of us, there are no names and faces behind these numbers to make them seem real. 

There is now a different reality to those of us who were lucky enough to call Cameron a friend. He didn’t die from coronavirus, of course, but it’s hard not to connect his demise to being isolated at a time of his life when he needed more than ever to be among people he loved and who loved him. 

We’ll never know if the outcome would have been different without the pandemic constraining everyone’s lives. Perhaps not. But what I do know is that it has robbed us of the chance of spending any more happy days with him at the races.

Perhaps people will read this and think ‘there’s more to life than racing’, and of course there is. Much more. But what racing gives us is the chance to forge friendships with people from different parts of the world who we’d never have met otherwise. And it means that as race meeting after race meeting is cancelled in the pandemic’s wake we know that, for a while at least, we will miss not just the sport we love, but also those regular meetings with friends. At a picnic in the car park at Ascot, on the rail at the pre-parade ring at Newmarket to cast an eye over Classic hopefuls, in the bar afterwards to celebrate our winnings, cut our losses.

This loss, however, is one which will be keenly felt for years to come. The technology we all rely on these days means that we’re never really that far apart. From Dubai, Cameron kept a close eye on our runners in England and I knew that, without fail, he would be the one person to send me a message pre- and post-race on any day that my mare Hope Is High was running. He sent messages of support and solidarity when things didn’t go her way, and took as much pleasure in her winning as I did. And that’s one of the special aspects of a racing friendship – that shared joy in someone else’s success.

There will be more days in the sun for the Empire even if for now it feels as though darkness prevails. And when we are all able to meet again at the races, Cam will be with us still in heart and mind, his camaraderie and love of the game galloping on through every horse we are fortunate enough to share. GTE.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Days like these

The racing world is no different to the world at large in that the politics of it all often spoil the sheer fun of day-to-day existence.

I’m not suggesting that my life is a constant barrel of laughs. It’s not. I worry about things all the time: horses, friends, horses, money, horses, work, oh yes and horses. But I also know that I’m incredibly fortunate to live in a racing stable in a part of the world that isn’t as terrifyingly dreadful as other parts of the world, to do a job that I truly love, to be pretty healthy, to have many wondrous friends and family, and to have my special dog Blakeney lying at my feet as I type this, just as he does for most of the thousands of words I type every week.

Stan and Bean with the fearless Natagora
But even with those blessings life can sometimes get you down. Little jolts of sadness interspersed with bigger jolts. The deaths in February and March of Johnny Winter and Peter Temple were just two such jolts in a year which started badly and stayed fairly gloomy for a long time. The thought of either of those two excellent men no longer walking among us is enough to bring a cloud across a blue-skied heatwave. And then there are the little stabs of mental anguish that come without warning, like when meeting Billy the blue greyhound on Friday and almost bursting into tears in front of a man I barely know because I still miss my greyhounds so much, almost two years after they died.

I guess I’m lucky to have been given a temperament that searches almost endlessly for a silver lining, and usually one can be found if we keep telling ourselves that it’s out there. Even so, that mentality has been sorely tested over the years by my involvement with this sport we all love.

Roy, right, wins for the ninth time. Photo ©George Selwyn
This week started with the hope of four runners, all of which should have had a decent chance. Two were ruled out almost immediately, Hope Is High having had a frustrating but not serious setback which means she’s on the easy list for a short time, and the perplexing Solitary Sister being just marginally unsound enough to have missed her intended stable debut on Thursday. Sussex Girl went to Yarmouth with an excellent chance and indeed started favourite. She failed only by two noses to win, which was tedious but not desperate, though an abusive email to our website as soon as she crossed the line just served to rub salt into a very fresh wound.

The message was actually tame compared to those sent to Roger Charlton and Mick Appleby this week, which were completely abhorrent, but this kind of modern-day poison-pen letter, made so easy by websites, email addresses and social media, really is a side of the racing business I could do without. Does anyone emailing John or me with abuse really think that we wanted one of our horses to be beaten? In racing, we all have to take losing with grace and dignity but that doesn’t alter the fact that winning matters above all else. It is the difference between us having a business and not having one, so please, anonymous, spineless critics, think twice before you spew forth your streams of bile.

But enough of that. It’s silver lining time, and the silver in this case doesn’t come much more precious than Roy Rocket. ‘Roy’, as he is now known by just about all and sundry (even yesterday’s Racing Post headline referred to him simply as Roy, which made me laugh) lives in the stable nearest to our house. It wouldn't surprise me if I came home one day and found that John had moved him into the house, such is his affection for the naughty, quirky, adorable creature that he bred some eight years ago.

I’ve managed to talk myself into believing that I’m a jinx for some horses. Ex Con won five races for this stable and I wasn’t present for any of them. It got to the stage where I felt that I couldn’t go racing with him as it would be my fault if he didn't win. I now feel like that with Roy. I’ve been racing masses of times with Roy but never on one his nine winning days, which is a shame, because as we all know, he only wins at Brighton, and I love going to Brighton. I especially love seeing and hearing the response to him from the crowd at Brighton, which starts as soon as we arrive and the lovely, friendly man on the crossing between the horsebox park and the racecourse stables booms, ‘Ere ’e is, the Brighton Legend’. And he’s been saying that for years, long before he was the Brighton Legend. But I think we can all agree, weird though it is that the word legend be applied to a horse of such glaring mediocrity, that Roy is approaching legendary status, and I’m pretty sure he knows it too, the clever old monkey.

Approaching Epsom
My plan had actually been to go to Brighton as I had arranged to spend the morning in Epsom with Simon Dow on Friday with the intention of heading south after that. Then I remembered my jinx-like ability and the list of features I had to write before leaving for the sales in Deauville on Thursday and decided to opt to head back to Newmarket instead.
But even without being there, Friday was a very memorable day for a number of reasons. 

A 4am alarm call isn’t everyone’s idea of fun but it’s not too bad at this time of the year, and beating the M25 traffic to arrive in Epsom for 6.30 made it well worthwhile. Apart from the fact that I’ve been going to the Derby meeting for years, and then to some smaller meetings, usually with Roy, I don’t know Epsom at all. What I do know is that the first view of the Downs, having cut through a suburban road not long after leaving the motorway and then ending up at Tattenham Corner, where that fantastically quirky course rolls away beneath you to draw your eye to the ocean-going liner of a grandstand, is just about one of the most spine-tingling sights in racing.

I love Epsom but I’ve always wondered if that’s simply because I love the Derby and the Oaks and the way the history of those races weaves through pedigrees like threads of spun silver, meaning that I’m simply excited about being there on that weekend.

But it’s not just that. Epsom is properly special. I love watching racehorses being trained anywhere and hearing trainers of different nationalities and stable sizes talk about issues, problems, thrills that are common throughout the sport. But I have to say it’s pretty bloody special being at Simon Dow’s Clear Height Stables on a sunny day. 

There’s a clue in the name. Being on the top of the Downs, a hop, skip and a jump from the stands and the Rubbing House, you have to one side the most magnificent view across London’s cityscape: Canary Wharf, the Wembley Arch, the London Eye and the Shard — they’re all there as the eye scans across. But then swing around and there’s that most famous of racecourses, which, on a normal day, is criss-crossed by the 200 or so horses trained in Epsom as they go about their daily exercise. I’ll save the best bits about the morning for a piece I can’t wait to write for TDN, but I will just say now, that if I didn’t live in Newmarket and still lived in London, I would be making a regular pest of myself at Simon Dow’s yard, begging to have a share in a horse in training with him, and finding any excuse to spend a few moments with Billy the greyhound.

I would put Simon very much in the same category as John: a workaholic, obsessed with his horses, doting on his dog, passionate about the historic training centre in which he lives, seemingly a very kind boss and a good trainer who deserves support from owners because it’s just obvious in everything he says and does that he would do all in his power to ensure that their horses run well.

Brighton racegoers cheering home Roy Rocket
So that was a super start to the day, and getting home in time to watch the racing made things even better. Because Roy runs so frequently at Brighton and it’s often one of only a few meetings on At The Races on the particular day, the ATR team really does do a good job of building up Roy’s appearance (and actually, generally, ATR just makes watching racing fun). Maybe some people find it too much but of course we love the fact that a member of our family has become so popular. Matt Chapman knows John well and always does a good pre-race interview, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that it was Luke Harvey in the studio yesterday. 

Luke is the current HWPA Broadcaster of the Year and he really deserves to be, because when it comes to racing he totally gets it. He knows all about the blood, sweat and tears, because he does it himself, training his point-to-pointers that he clearly loves as children. I was once lucky enough to be at an Easter Monday meeting when Luke’s dear old Cecil won and the look on his face when he led the horse back in was one of pure unadulterated joy. As Cecil’s daily rider, Luke knows just how John feels about Roy.

Luke said many kind things about Roy and seemed really to be enjoying the result of what was a moderate handicap as if it had been Derby day. In the week someone suggested to me on Twitter that I was wrong to say that Brighton’s August meeting was one of the best of the year. I had perhaps phrased it badly. It is clearly not the best as regards the quality of the races themselves, but the sheer delight of being on the south coast (on a school day!) with views out across the sea, having fish and chips, a pint and a punt, makes it one of the most enjoyable racing experiences I’ve had.

Brighton has a faithful crowd and a really friendly team at the racecourse, to the extent that you walk in through the gates and think ‘ah, here I am again’ with a sigh of happiness. I was stupid not to go and share the fun of Roy’s ninth victory with the ‘golden girls’ who always accompany Larry and Iris McCarthy to the races when Roy runs. We all miss Larry’s father and Iris’s late husband, Joe, in whose lucky old silks Roy runs, but somehow Joe’s luck as an owner is still rubbing off on us all, and I know that nobody would have enjoyed the Roy Rocket story more than Joe. In a way he was its inspiration.

Brighton’s card on Friday certainly wasn’t all about Roy though. Poppy Bridgewater, an up-and-coming apprentice I feel sure we’ll be hearing plenty more about, rode her first double. The first leg came aboard another wonderful old Brighton warrior, Pour La Victoire, who, like Roy, is now eight and is one of those low-grade wonders who make midweek racedays a bit more special
Roy and Wasted Sunsets on the Al Bahathri...
...followed minutes later by the great Enable and Frankie
Then rather poignantly, Black Caesar was one of the last runners for Philip Hide, who had made a positive start to his training career but recently decided that the show couldn’t go on. It’s clearly not a decision he wanted to take, and I wish it was one he hadn’t had to make. Listening to Philip’s young daughter waxing lyrical about Black Caesar and instantly becoming tearful about her family’s stable flagbearer was a reminder that, however small the meeting, or relatively moderate the horse, there are people out there for whom these results, these horses and these days really matter.

On Wednesday morning I’d gone up to watch Roy gallop on the Al Bahathri and only moments later Enable followed the exact path with Frankie Dettori. However much we all love Roy, and however fanciful my writing becomes, this is really the only legitimate time I can write the names Enable and Roy Rocket in the same sentence. She’s one of the best in the world, he’s not even the best in our own small yard. But just as Enable matters to Juddmonte and Prince Khalid Abdullah, Roy Rocket matters to us. And whatever the level of talent each horse possesses, if they can bring fun to the many while racing, even on the small days, or just to one person once retired into a different lifestyle, then that really does make racing’s lows much easier to bear while we wait for the next day in the sun.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Old Year's Night

It’s New Year’s Eve, almost Old Year’s Night as my Scottish friends would say, and whether you like partying through the night or, like my husband, aim to be tucked up in bed well before 10pm, it’s hard not to be in a reflective mood as we flit from 2017 into 2018.

The real world of Brexit and Trump is just too ghastly even to contemplate, so I'm going to stick to my small world of horses and run back through a year which, typically in racing, had some jolly old highs and a few depressing lows. And, when I say small world, I'm restricting the reflections specifically to this stable as I spend much of the year writing about the racing and breeding world beyond the gates of Beverley House Stables.

Two stable favourites, Hope Is High and Roy Rocket
On this day last year I asked John what he thought about the coming season for Hope Is High and he said he would be disappointed if she didn’t win three races. Well he wasn’t disappointed at all, and neither was I, as she won four and was arguably unlucky not to win five as she stumbled out of the stalls on one of her starts at Yarmouth and, despite trailing the field in the early stages, fought her way right back into contention to be beaten only a head. Hope was only a small part in Silvestre de Sousa's personal record of 206 wins in 2017, which saw him crowned champion jockey, but it was a pleasure to be involved, even on the fringes, with such a professional and hard-working jockey.

Ah, Hope Is High. If only all racehorses were as consistent and as straightforward as she is. She’s given us nothing but pleasure since we bought her in February 2016 and of course we hope she can continue on her upward climb, without wishing to be too greedy. She’ll return from her winter holidays next week and I’ll be counting down the days until the start of the Flat turf season and seeing her back on a racecourse.

Delatite and Will Kennedy win by nine lengths at Sedgefield
But, if this year has taught me anything at all, or rather reminded me, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to horses. I’ve had an unbelievably lucky year as an owner, with Delatite becoming my first homebred winner when romping home in a Sedgefield bumper in October. I’d been at his three previous races, including driving home as fast as I could from Deauville to Towcester to see him in action in May, but I couldn’t be at Sedgefield as it was the first day of the October Yearling Sales and I was on duty for TDN. I watched the race with my friend Liam in the back bar at Tatts and seeing him pull clear of a fairly decent field to win by nine lengths will live long in the memory. When I returned to my desk I struggled to write anything as I was shaking so much and by the time Delatite, John and Abbie returned late that night from the north, Liam, Conor, Peter and I had rolled back from the sales a little the worse for wear to greet the returning hero.

Little did I know then that I’d used up all my luck for 2017. Three weeks later Delatite’s life hung in the balance after the onset of an aggressive infection that came out of the blue and caused severe damage to his off-hind fetlock joint and suspensory ligament. We went from dreaming about what looked to be a bright future to praying that he’d survive. Thanks to the skills of the brilliant team at Newmarket Equine Hospital he did survive surgery and looks almost back to his old self nine weeks on, though it will take a lot longer than that for us to be able to ascertain whether or not he can return to training. The likelihood is that his ligament has been damaged too badly for that to be possible, but just occasionally horses can make miraculous recoveries and I’ve set my mind on giving Delatite every chance of that being the case. He’s being allowed off box rest at the end of January and will return to Hilborough Stud, where he spent plenty of time in his formative years, to continue to recuperate.

Delatite wasn’t the only one of our horses to see the inside of the NEH operating theatre this year. In early February, Kryptos returned from exercise safe and sound only to be thrashing about in agony within minutes of going back to his stable. A twisted gut was swiftly diagnosed and he went under the knife of Mark Hillyer to be put right. Thankfully both horses were model patients and though Kryptos made a later debut for this stable than originally intended, he paid us back many times over.

Three winners together: Kryptos, Sussex Girl and Kilim
In five starts for Tony Fordham, he won three and was second and third, his rating rising to 100 in the process. He’s a very talented horse and we’re lucky still to have him in the stable still as he caught the eye of a number of parties through his glorious summer. He had his season curtailed abruptly when some heat was detected in a leg but he is coming to the end of his semi-box rest and will resume training in the coming weeks. Fingers are tightly crossed that there is plenty more to come from him in 2018.

Our season wouldn’t feel quite right if Roy Rocket didn’t win at Brighton and that he did – for the sixth time – on his seasonal debut on 25 April. He went up 6lbs for that and has struggled a little since then but he’s dropped down the handicap a little again and, turning eight tomorrow, he’ll be back for more before too long.

Our new Brighton specialist towards the end of the season was Kilim, whose final three runs of her career came at the course. She won there on 22 August under a very canny ride from Nicola Currie and was then second twice, beaten half a length and a short-head respectively. Kilim has now retired to the paddocks and we wish her new owner Jenny Norris the best of luck in breeding plenty of winners from her.

And not to be outdone, of course, was the horse who is more entitled than most to be a winner at Brighton – Sussex Girl. She is following in the footsteps of her half-sister, our Brighton Cup winner Ethics Girl, so it was highly appropriate that she should record her first victory there on 19 October. Proving that she can cope with faster flat tracks just as well as the undulations of the South Downs, she followed up five days later with a second win at Yarmouth.

Sussex Girl will also be back in training in the coming weeks and in the meantime we’ve welcomed Ethics Girl’s first foal, Ethics Boy, to the stable. He’s just been broken in and ridden away and will be racing in the colours of his part-owner-breeder Lawrence Wadey.

After a successful summer for the stable it was disappointing not to have any yearlings come in from the sales. It’s definitely getting harder for small stables as the big yards continue to attract record numbers. I’ll never see the appeal of being an owner of one of 200+ horses in a big yard but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Future hope: Dereham with Steve Barry
We will have one other two-year-old this coming season and he’s one who will give me a huge amount of pleasure to watch on a daily basis as he’s a Sir Percy half-brother to Delatite, named Dereham. I am immensely proud to have bred him as he’s a super little horse who has recently been broken in and is in pre-training with Katy Lyons and Steve Barry of L&B Equine Services who have done a fantastic job with him.

There are also a few unraced horses in the yard who will be making their debuts in the coming weeks and months, including Irene Wilde, a lovely, strong staying filly owned by Charles Wentworth, and Das Kapital, a strapping son of Cityscape, owned by Jonathan Wilson, Jocelyn Targett and Simon Sweeting, aka The Geezers.

We’ve had snow, wind, mud and high water aplenty over the Christmas week but, grim weather aside, there’s plenty to look forward to in Newmarket. After all, it's only 15 weeks to the Craven Meeting.

A happy and peaceful new year to you all.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Riding the rollercoaster

I didn’t write anything about Delatite’s very exciting win at Sedgefield on 3 October, partly because it was the first day of Book 1 of the October Sale and the middle of a long sales run of churning out reports day after day, and partly because I felt, quite reasonably at the time, that it was the first successful step on what might be a long career ahead.

Apart from being slow to come to hand and once impersonating a kangaroo to attempt to jump out of his stable from a standstill, Delatite has never really given us a moment’s concern, and there aren't many five-year-olds you can say that about.

Delatite on the Al Bahathri last week with Ivona
This week, however, that all changed. It’s a week I’ll long remember for the worst of reasons when in many ways it should have been a happy one. As I watched the racing at Ascot on Champions’ Day my mind was already more on what might happen at Pontefract on Monday and I can’t remember feeling more excited about a race.

Delatite had been showing such a turn of foot, both in the way he won his bumper by nine lengths and in his increasingly impressive work at home, that John had been emboldened to try for a maiden on the Flat and we both felt pretty confident that he wouldn’t be disgraced. By the time I got home from Ascot, however, John told me we wouldn’t be going to Pontefract as the horse appeared to have a foot abscess and was lame. I remember being bitterly disappointed that he would miss a few weeks’ work and would probably end up running during the next round of foal and mare sales when I would once again be unable to be there. I’d happily settle for that situation now given the events of the last few days.

After several days of strong antibiotic injections to try to reduce what NEH vet Stuart Williamson correctly felt was a leg infection rather than a foot problem, Delatite’s condition worsened by such a degree that on Tuesday evening Stuart decided he had to go into the hospital for further examination. Despite there being no outward sign of how the infection could have started, X-rays revealed that it had got into his hind fetlock joint and the suspensory ligament, a troubling assessment which meant that he would require surgery to save him, with no real guarantee of a positive outcome.

I spent much of Tuesday night awake fretting about whether or not be would be able to be stabilised sufficiently for it be safe for him to undergo general anaesthetic but he had rallied a bit by Wednesday morning and into surgery he went. Thankfully, he came through that and, 24 hours on, remains under observation in a leg cast in the ICU looking half the horse he was as he cantered around the heath on Saturday morning.

I’m fortunate of course that he’s even made it this far. I’ve had many reasons to be grateful that we live on the doorstep of one of the world’s best equine vet clinics and this is another occasion that the quiet professionalism of the excellent team at NEH has been a source of comfort. Delatite is by no means out of the woods, however, as all sorts of complications could still arise from what he’s been through, not least the fact that his good back leg is taking a lot of the strain while his other leg is in the cast, although he is at least shifting his weight across a bit.

I felt quite positive until I went to see him again this afternoon, less woozy now than he was after anaesthetic yesterday but with a look in his eye that was a mix of bewilderment and pain. It probably sounds stupid to people who don't spend much time with horses but when you see a horse every day you know their expressions as you would a member of your own family and the expression on the face of the usually kind and sweet Delatite was one I hope I never see again. There is of course only one way for him to get better and that’s by going through this awful recovery, and while I pray he continues to recover I also hope that the discomfort he must be feeling will be short-lived.

There have been happy moments this week, and Sussex Girl winning her second race in less than a week was certainly a highlight. It has in fact been a particularly pleasing second half of the season for this stable. The horses are currently running at about a 40% winning strike-rate, which is incredible, and from my own perspective I’ve been hugely fortunate to see my colours carried to victory five times this season – the first four by the mighty Hope Is High, who is now on her winter holiday, and most recently by Delatite.

As much as I love Hope, who has now won five races and has never been unplaced for us, it was Delatite’s win that meant the most and will remain one of the best racing days for me, even though I couldn’t be there. I bred Delatite from the first racehorse I ever rode when I arrived in Newmarket. Dear old Desiree has been a bit of a hopeless broodmare until this horse came along, but like her son she has a lovely nature and has been a very good mother to her foals.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Delatite. If he can survive beyond the weekend, and another week or so in NEH, then hopes for him having some kind of comfortable life in retirement will improve. At this stage it seems unlikely he can ever return to being a racehorse but only time will tell. The only thing I do know is that I’d give back every single win and happy day of the year for this never to have happened to him.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

At the going down of the sun

It is always worth keeping a sense of perspective, or trying to at least. Last night I watched part of the service of remembrance from Ypres to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Despite the fact that my husband thinks I have a heart of flint, I had tears rolling silently down my cheeks listening to stories passed on to the relatives of survivors. Stories of complete and utter horror, that many of us, in our cosy, easy lives these days, couldn’t even begin to imagine.

The wonderful Hope Is High, as honest as her trainer
And I was thinking about those sacrifices made mostly by men young enough to be my sons as I drove home from the races today, telling myself to get a grip for feeling so miserable after what was essentially the best run of Hope Is High’s career. She was second, beaten a head, after stumbling coming out of the stalls, losing at least six lengths and causing Silvestre de Sousa to lose an iron temporarily. Silvestre’s a brilliant jockey – as is evident from yet another four-timer on the day from him even without our red-hot favourite – and he did his best to rebalance the filly and work their way into the race until they had a fighting chance. And fight they did, all the way down the straight, a head to the deficit at the post, and ahead of the winner The Detainee two strides later. Ah well, that’s racing. It’s a small disappointment on an otherwise nice, sunny day, and both horse and jockey have walked away none the worse, which is the only thing that matters.

This wasn’t what put me in a bad mood. That started when a foul-mouthed racegoer leaned over the rail, clearly disgruntled at backing a losing favourite, telling Silvestre he should have “f***ing hit it”. I felt like hitting him but managed to keep my cool until John’s phone rang as the ‘horses away’ announcement was made. It was from a withheld number and it was quickly easy to ascertain that John was on the receiving end of an earbashing from someone, who it transpired called him a number of names and implied that he had cheated.

The mood darkened further still when the lady serving the tea in the owners and trainers’ area adopted a ‘computer says no’ attitude and refused to give John a cup of tea as he didn’t have a voucher (he didn't have one as he drove the horse to the races and so came in through the stable entrance instead of the main gate as I had). We both had metal badges but this wasn’t good enough for the rude person who clearly needs not to be doing a job which means interacting with members of the public.

As a quick aside, this is now the third incident within a month or so at racecourses owned by ARC where we or owners connected to this stable have encountered rudeness from staff in areas specifically designated for owners. Racecourse staff shouldn't be rude on any part of any course because everyone who is there is either with a horse and thus is helping to provide the entertainment, or is a paying customer and is entitled to be treated courteously on what is often an expensive day out. The first two incidents came at Windsor, and I wasn’t surprised by Richard Hughes’ column in the Post on Saturday, which criticised Windsor for its treatment of owners. I used to love going racing at Windsor because I grew up there so it was the first racecourse I ever attended and it still feels like going home. I’ll try to avoid going home now if I possibly can. I don't really want to add Yarmouth to the blacklist as I always love going there, even though it’s one of the shabbiest tracks in the country. But it’s convenient for us, the track is fair, there’s fish and chips or cockles and whelks with a whiff of sea air, plus the biggest pick ‘n’ mix stall I’ve ever seen. Who could ask for more? Well, a cup of tea would be nice, I suppose.

I can get over all that but I can’t allow anyone ever to call John a cheat. I’d like the cretin who phoned him to call back so we could arrange for him to spend a day shadowing John. That day would involve being up just before 5am to ride out one lot with Lucinda before Jana, Ivona and Abbie arrive. The dedicated Lucinda then goes off to work for Juddmonte while John rides usually another four lots, along with feeding and dealing with the never-ending amount of admin before either going racing (always driving the box), or spending the afternoon writing one of his various columns for TDN, Winning Post or Al Adiyat, or perhaps doing a shift on ATR. If he’s not at the races, he’ll always be at evening stables, feeding again, perhaps fixing fences, etc. During all of this he rarely loses the smile and friendly manner that so many people in this town and in the wider world of racing love about him. 

His smile might slip if he realises I’ve cooked him something suspiciously spicy for supper, but if it’s good old meat and potatoes, he’s happy until he falls asleep, usually in his armchair around 9pm.
Underneath the smile, though, just like any other trainer, John has an unrelenting desire to win. It’s not a win-at-all-costs attitude that would ever see him overlook the welfare of a horse just to keep the strike-rate up, but he needs winners for his own sense of pride in the job that he’s doing, for his owners, their horses, and the people who work with him in this yard.

Anyone who thinks that John would stop today’s 5/4 favourite winning by cheating has no idea what it means to him every time another number 1 goes up on the board next to his name. Nobody remembers all the places you chalk up – and Hope has never been out of the places for John – it’s the winners that matter. Losing out on one today mattered to John, but being called a cheat hurt him even more than that.

Even winning would only have brought an extra £1,700 to this year’s tally – Yarmouth's meeting being embarrassingly impoverished next to the riches on offer this week at Glorious Goodwood – but it would also have brought an enormous amount of satisfaction and joy. For being beaten that head, we ‘brought home’ £547 instead, though once we take into account entry fees, jockey fees, box hire, diesel for the lorry and my car, and Jana’s expenses for the day, more than £400 of that is already accounted for. And if we hadn’t run Hope, whose form figures at Yarmouth are 2-4-1-2, thus guaranteeing she’s always a good betting proposition there, only seven runners would have lined up for the race, a figure that the bookmakers demanding yet more and more fixtures hate to see.

So we played our part, brought our horse along, were rewarded with abuse and rudeness, and left with a feeling that if ARC doesn't start to pull its finger out and commit to honouring the minimum £6,000 prize-money levels as called for by the BHA through the extra funding being made available next year, then it’s really not worth supporting their tracks. Well, maybe our beloved Brighton, but the staff are never rude there, and it’s Roy Rocket’s favourite so we have no choice.

Of course, in the wider world, none of this really matters at all. The sun is sliding down, it will rise tomorrow and I will feel less grumpy. The boys lost at Passchendaele enjoyed far too few sunrises in their short lives, and that’s something which brings true sorrow, even to this flint heart.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

From Florence to Delatite

Florence Annie and Billy Barnes in their 1942 engagement photo
Ten years ago, the Easter weekend was spent in and out of hospital visiting my grandmother Florence Annie Barnes after she’d had a stroke.

She was in and out of consciousness for the last few days of her life so I’m not sure really how aware she was that her son, daughter and eight grandchildren were there at different times over that weekend but I’ve always just hoped that she somehow knew.

She was a very small person who had a very big influence on my life ­– one that continues in everything that I hold dear as we approach the tenth anniversary of her death. I used her full name above because when she was alive I was the only person who could get away with calling her Florence Annie. She hated her real name and all her friends knew her as Nan or Nancy. I like to think that as her eldest grandchild I had special privileges but, in truth, she loved us all the same and, in my biased eyes that still cloud with tears when I think about her, she was the perfect loving and indulgent grandparent, with an amusingly feisty edge at times.

I’ve been thinking of her quite a bit this week, not just because Easter is approaching, but because today at Towcester we run Delatite, a living, breathing, furry, 16-hand reminder of her legacy.

When Florence died she left some money to each of her grandchildren. I’m sure that my three sisters spent theirs more wisely but mine was foolishly frittered away on the decision to send Desiree to stud. I started riding Desiree when I first met John and became so attached to her that when she retired from racing I couldn’t bear the thought of her leaving us for good.

In truth she wasn’t really good enough to be a broodmare, though I live in hope that Delatite, her third foal, may prove me wrong. It almost certainly won't be today. It’s his second run in a bumper and even though it’s a small field, almost all of our opponents boast quite good recent form. He wasn’t disgraced on his debut on Boxing Day, however, and he appears to have come on a bit since then so we’ll see. But we travel very much in hope rather than expectation.

The real Delatite
Incidentally, the photograph to the left is the view looking across to Mount Buller from Bob's Cottage at the Ritchie family's lovely farm Delatite in Victoria, Australia. It's one of my favourite places in the world and was the inspiration for this horse's name.

Whatever happens today or in the future for Delatite, his full-brother Dear Alix and half-brother Dereham, they and their mother have already given me more fun and pleasure than any other hobby I could imagine. I say hobby because even though I take the business of breeding very seriously when I am writing about it for work, my personal involvement is a mere toe in the water compared to the major breeders around the world.

It’s taught me plenty, however, not least the art of patience. Any morning I’ve managed to sneak away from my desk to see Desiree and her various youngsters over the years in Norfolk have been hours that I’ve cherished.

Desiree’s breeding record is not good, though she still has some chances to come and I remain convinced that Delatite will be her first winner, even if it’s not today. She’s still very much a part of the family and is living in retirement as a companion at Hilborough Stud with Chris and Nicky Murray who have looked after her so well throughout her career as a broodmare.

She’s still young enough to be brought out of retirement should any of her offspring suddenly do something extraordinary, a scenario that wafts across my mind every now and then.  And that’s the other great thing about breeding horses – the chance to dream. Of course reality is likely to come crashing down around our ears eventually but no-one can take away those quiet moments of joy as you watch a young foal gambol across a field and wonder to yourself if he might just be the one.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Now cracks a noble heart

Ex Con wins for the fifth time, with the All Points West P'ship
There are no worse days in racing than when you have to say goodbye for the last time to a much-loved horse. Today has been one of those days.

Even sitting down to write this has made the tears return but I can’t finish the day without paying tribute to our old friend Extreme Conviction who left this world peacefully at noon. 

He’s actually been gone from this stable for more than three years but he’s never been far away as he retired to become an extremely valued member of the British Racing School’s team of horses, a fact which fortunately meant we were able to visit him regularly and hear constant news of his progress from our friends there.

Ex Con, ridden by Anthony, with Alcalde and John
Known by one and all as ‘Ex Con’, the giant son of Danehill Dancer had been an expensive yearling and initially joined Jeremy Noseda’s stable after John Warren bought him for €110,000 at the Goffs Orby Sale.

However, he proved to be a rather backward sort and two years later Ex Con ended up as an unraced three-year-old in the July Sale at Tattersalls, where John was able to buy him for the All Points West Partnership for 8,000gns. His owners Ken, Tim, Jason, Kevan and Richard were all big jumping fans and the big, rangey gelding appeared to fit the bill as a future National Hunt horse.

In the March of his five-year-old season he won a bumper at Stratford under Will Kennedy, and went on to win four more races over hurdles, three with Will in the saddle and once with Rhys Flint. Obliging in every sense of the word, the dear old boy even managed to spark huge celebrations by winning on Ken’s 50th birthday.

With his biggest fan Gemma
Ex Con’s racing career wasn’t without issues. A tendon injury forced a prolonged break towards the end and he ultimately had a breathing problem plus the occasional bout of lymphangitis, which, combined, hastened his retirement in the spring of 2013. 

The Racing School takes on a number of retired racehorses each year and it was decided that Ex Con fit the bill perfectly to join their team. Not only was he a really easy ride – witness the fact that among this story you will find a photo of Anthony, then aged nine, riding him on Newmarket Heath – but he was also a very good jumper, making him a valuable asset for the jump jockeys coming to the school to complete their licence training.

Over the years, Ex Con became as adored by the team of staff and students there as he was while he was at our yard. He was stabled for most of his time at BRS next to a rather better credentialed jumper in the Grade 1 winner Our Vic, but I know he was every bit as cherished as his more illustrious neighbour. Simply, it would be impossible to find a kinder horse than Ex Con and this naturally made him a favourite of the students, a number of whom had never even sat on a horse when they arrived at the school.

Behaving like a true gent in a BRS lesson
Through the last few years, Ex Con continued to suffer intermittent bouts of lymphangitis, a condition which caused his off-hind leg to swell up on occasion, sometimes to a very painful degree. A lymphatic drainage expert eased the situation last year with the addition of a special boot and compression bandages but in recent weeks the problem returned with a vengeance and was causing him considerable discomfort. 

The BRS team, led by Julie Lingham, who devoted hours and hours of her own time to looking after Ex Con, did an excellent job in managing his problem and keeping him sound and happy to continue his role at the school.
Adored by his trainer, as he was by us all

Within the last week, however, it became apparent that we were fighting a losing battle and sadly, on veterinary advice, we all decided that it was no longer fair to ask him to carry on. It’s not a decision that can ever be taken lightly and, even though I knew deep down it was the best thing for the horse, I’ve spent the last few days questioning it and praying for a miracle. 

There was of course no miracle but I’m grateful to have had the chance to say goodbye properly, and to know that every avenue was explored in trying to save him. Many racehorses don’t make it to the age of 12, but for me, this was still far too young for him to have left us. We were so lucky to have him with us for as long as we did. 

Rest peacefully, Ex Con. I only wish you knew how much you were loved by so many.