In my case circumstance took the main role.
I have always been drawn to the speed and power of the thoroughbred whether riding out at a local yard, in my capacity as a working RA or simply witnessing the majesty of my "teachers" at play in my paddocks.
Anyone who has read my website profile will understand how much influence racehorses have had on my life. Yet some how I never fully acknowlgeded how they continually took me to the next stage of my journey. I resisted the pull towards the industry I had felt an affinity with, it was there right at the start through my first encounters with consumate horsemen, both of whom were exjockeys and truly loved and "gentled" horses.
We run clinics at home and I'm often asked about my views on the lives my horses previously led when in race training. I openly share my experiences and that of my horses as, in the main, they had happy and healthy careers, being retired from lack of form or natural ability. Increasingly I began to feel, as an RA, I was being asked to somehow justify my position around my association with the industry itself. This came to a head in 2009 when we took in a young horse from a flat racing yard for one of my livery clients. Sestet was to be handled and turned out in preparation for her new career as a brood mare. I was asked my advice as to where to send her to stud, I had no idea. I visited a friend in Lambourn to ask his advice and came home the owner of half a racehorse in training. He observed that if I were to learn, the best way was to get involved. I don't think either of us had any idea where this would lead us.
Hatman Jack ran on the all weather tracks over 5 to 7 furlongs through the winter of 2009/10. I travelled to see him working at home and when he raced. On one memorable December morning I watched the string, walking out to the all weather gallops in -10 degree temperatures, along snow covered ground in total silence, they and their horses' hair and lashes beautifully dusted with frost! It epitomised the dedication these people have to the horses in their care, to each other and the owners who support the yard. It may be glamourised in the media but there is nothing glamourous about the job; day to day just pure hard work, attention to detail and team work.
Inevitably I became very hands on and eventually had Jack home for his holiday. I had a miserable 4 year old TB who did not appreciate being asked to stay out in April in one of my paddocks and eat grass. He wanted to be asleep in his stable. After a few weeks he began to adjust to his new regime, it was a bit like watching a kid accept being sent to brat camp; he felt sure there had been a mistake! Jack teamed up with one of my horses and another holiday visitor named Home (but more about him later!).
We now had 10 racehorses in three groups all having a lovely time getting fat and rested, being much admired by visitors, many of whom were surprised to see these animals socilising and hanging out, unaware racehorses had holidays, let alone in paddocks like "normal" horses. It was still unsettling when people implied I was breeched my ethics by owning a race horse, let alone having him in active training.
I began to feel I faced a choice, until Jack needed to begin his ridden work again and my trainer suggested I do it.
I began with ground work and it soon became apparent Jack had read all the IH books, he accepted a saddle, long lines, a rider and was obedient to stand for mounting relaxed to ride, this was not what many people would expect from a horse that had been started as a racehorse at two. He did tongue loll, so we fitted him with a small ported Myler (05) and he began to find the proper place for his tongue, flat and inside his mouth. Six weeks later back to Lambourn he went loading happily and confidently after his three and a half month field break with us. I was impressed at how prepared for life he was and not at all what I had expected, highlighting a few preconceptions of my own.
On his return he worked well and everyone remarked how filled out he was and how he had chaged shape, helped by his improved head carriage, which continued as Jack retained his Myler bit.
In May 2010 I went to a local point to point and got chatting to the owner of one of our holiday residents, he said the horse was showing a loss of form. One thing led to another and I purchased this little horse, half shares with someone else.
As with all life decisions hindsight is a wonderful thing but in this case I could not have envisioned what lay ahead for Home and I, of such things dreams are made. Home finished his six week break and returned to his current trainer. Once again I visited his yard to see him work and attended his first race. Here my experience changed, although all seemed well with Home, he was tense at the track and saddled in the stable area . I was informed this was normal practice with Home and he ran in a tongue strap when raced.
I never presume to tell my trainer how to do a job they are more than qualified for, neither do I offer opinions unless I am asked to. However I did feel less informed about Home than I had been about Jack. My horse ran well, finished a close fifth and back to the yard we all went.
Over the next few weeks I had the opportunity to visit both my horses at their respective yards and when my co-owner pulled out I took the decision to have both my horses in Lambourn.
We ran Home at Fontwell a few weeks later as a fact finding mission, he was saddled in the pre-parade ring as is the norm and behaved completely differently. Finishing his race it was apparent why a tongue strap had been used as he made an awful noise .
Following Veterinary advice Home underwent an operation to stabilise his soft palate following a period of rest and refittening we headed to Kempton for a flat race and finished third, my first placing as an owner. The team were very excited as Home had finised his race well, no noise and more importantly could breath correctly enabling him to gain confidence, especially in the last part of his race.
Despite all Home's positives, Jack's performance on the track deteriorated and we began to realise he had a problem. Through tests and observation it was concluded he was bleeding when galloping and this did once result in a bust blood vessel following a race. We took the decision to retire Jack, as horses with this pattern tend to worsen, the understanding around diagnosis and prognosis is still being investigated and treatment felt like dam plugging. Jack is now enjoying a new career as a dressage horse on a lovely farm in Gloucestershire.
February 2011, I now had one horse in training and was sole owner. At Southall with my trainers' 16 year old son on board, his second ride under rules, Home gave myself and his jockey our first win. The joy of seeing Home finish 7 lengths clear, running on, can not really be expressed with words. Reality hit two days later when the handicapper gave us a big weight penalty prompting a rethink.
As a dual purpose horse Home jumped so we thought we might try hurdles and see how my nerves coped. Late March on good to soft ground we finished fifth, April saw a return to Fontwell where we finished fourth running on up the hill. We were now seeing a different Home he was beginning to dance to the parade ring and his eyes had a real sparkle. His jockey, Sam Jones, commented how well he jumped and why hadnt we tried chase fences? The handicapper again played a part in the decision, to go over fences would reduce the weight Home would carry. However, he is barely 15.1hh, chase fences are imposing and solid, a whole new ball game.
Eleven days later my daughter and I returned to Fontwell to watch Home. I was a bag of nerves, I hadnt even checked who our was jockey. I should have, it was AP Mcoy!!! AP was egoless, charming, chatted easily in the warm April sunshine, mounted up and guided my precious horse to a 7 lengths win in his first steeplechase. As the pictures show Home jumped fluently, with heart and hardly blew.
Following the win we now had the opportunity to run again quickly and stay ahead of the handicapper. My trainer stepped us up a grade to give us a weight advantage. At Towcester six days later we won by 14 lengths, AP apologised for the margin, as the handicap would increase again. Our choice step up another grade, stop for the season or step back to hurdles and put a younger jockey up who would claim a weight allowance? My nerves said hurdles, my heart said stop, my trainer let me decide so we went to Fontwell, hurdling, on Royal wedding day and got our third win in a row!! Fontwell is out local track and the place went wild, what an evening it was.
When the euphoria died down I was left with a huge dilemma. We had so much weight on us in our current grade Home had little chance of winning or placing again. Home was entered in a grade three at Worcester on June 4th but I decided a rest would be sensible, then we heard from Dave Roberts on June 1st, AP wanted the ride. The race was the feature race of the day and AP felt Home could win it.
We didnt win, Home fell when in second closing on the favourite, both he and the champion jockey got up unscathed but I was shaken. When I got back so many people sent messages asking if Home was ok and wishing him well, my brave little horse had quite a following. Everyone felt Home would have won, even me, so after a few weeks rest we returned to Worcester to a grade three hurdle, whether it was the jockey change, lack of confidence or end of season tiredness, Home finished well down, fading on the run in.
The holidays called and Home is here with us now. As to the future who knows.
What I can say is I grew from this experience. The sheer joy of sitting on the gallops watching strings of fit horses canter, learning from their movement, whilst driving my trainer mad with endless questions he patiently answered. The people I got to know and the respect we mutually exchanged for our differing forms of horsemanship that have so many techniques in common.
I learned that as an owner whether as an individual or in a syndicate you are your horse's advocate and the choices you make you must live with. Yes, horses die racing and get injured, it is a high risk sport. But these horses have a job for which they are bred and trained, my role, which my team invited me to take, was to be a cog in the wheel that enabled my horses to do their job, to the best of their ability, and to make informed choices when this ceased to be the case. I no longer feel the need to choose or justify my involvement I just continue to marvel in the presence of these majestic athletes. [Train Equus - Ex-Racehorse Clinics]