Published: 30/12/2003 (Features) Michael Caulfield
“Good night Knebworth, good night Wembley, thank you legends”
said Warren Marston as he acknowledged the adulation of the crowd
before him. Actually, it wasn’t Knebworth, it was the back
bar of the Lygon Arms in an otherwise deserted Chipping Camden but
that didn’t lessen the enthusiasm of those who had gathered
for the Richard Phillips Christmas party.
I had been told in advance that Warren Marston’s karaoke would
be the highlight of the evening and he didn’t disappoint.
His rendition of “Bat Out of Hell” was faultless but
only served as a warm up for his version of Robbie Williams “Feel”
which everyone loved so much that they demanded two encores. It
also meant that he had to go for three and a half minutes without
swearing which is quite a feat for Warren.
The party was a chance for everyone associated with Adlestrop stables
to come together. Full and part-time staff, jockeys, maintenance
men, rug cleaners et al had swapped waterproofs for party gear.
This year’s event was well timed and much needed for it had
been a difficult autumn with the recent lack of winners. Everyone
joined in and it was good to see important traditions continued,
such as jockeys who ride for the yard putting money behind the bar
for the staff. It was not wasted.
We were entertained throughout the night and not a bad word was
exchanged. We were all collected and driven back to Adlestrop by
minibus and, remarkably, I counted them all out and I counted them
all in. As ever with a racing party, the final words exchanged are
“don’t be late in the morning” and no one was.
The party had fallen on a Sunday this year which meant the horses
were a little fresher than the staff on this particular Monday morning.
I would remain welded to my neck strap throughout the morning, particularly
as I was riding a recently arrived youngster for third lot. If that
wasn’t bad enough my mood was not helped when I saw a smiling
Carl Llewellyn standing by the entrance to the outdoor school where
the string gathers every morning. “I see you haven’t
lost it then” was his opening remark as my young, fresh horse
snorted and leapt round the school clearly enjoying being in control.
When I eventually started breathing again and asked Carl what he
was doing here, it turned out he was riding out for two local permit
holders, illustrating why he remains at the height of his profession
and setting an example to others in the process.
The party had worked and the staff were in good form if a little
tired for the work in the run up to Christmas. The following day
saw the arrival of Colin Smith, a man who commands respect from
Phillips and all who worked with him at Jackdaws Castle. Mr Smith,
who built and sold Jackdaws retains a sharp eye and holds strong
views on the conditions for stable staff. He values their role and
wants to see their job properly structured but states that racing
spends “too much time talking about its problems”. Smith
is still an Owner in the yard and is looking forward to seeing his
bumper horse Sharp Jack make his debut at Huntingdon on Boxing Day.
He is full of optimism until he learns that I have been riding the
gelding in some of his work.
Christmas Eve sees the main work morning of the week but for once
the team of Jockeys, who are very much part of the yard, are nowhere
to be seen. The local hunt meets today and they are keen to support
it. So many of the great jump jockeys have learned their trade in
the hunting field and the past and present generation of Cotswold-based
Jockeys are keen to maintain the tradition.
I manage to complete my two bits of work without a bollocking and
the staff remain ever helpful. Dave (check name) who is a great
worker in the yard tells me that he had his first ride at 12 years
old, weighing 5st 12lbs when working for Michael Cunningham in his
native Ireland. 27 years later he is still riding work and looks
the same weight as he did then. Dave is always on the move in the
yard and likes to see “the job done properly”.
Time off at Christmas is counted in hours, not days, and the staff
have the choice of working on the afternoon of Christmas Eve or
Christmas Day. The compact yards look bigger than usual as we sweep
up, while those who have the afternoon off head for home. One of
those staying behind is Sticky. She graduated from Nottingham University
last year with a degree in physics and astronomy but wants to build
a career in racing. She admits that University life was comfortable
in comparison with life as a groom, but she says that working in
racing teaches you “not to be lazy” which might be more
valuable than a degree. We all meet up after work in the local and
the mood is good. Once again the final words of the later than planned
evening are “don’t be late in the morning”.
The string pulls out at a time when dawn was meant to break on Christmas
Day but we were back in the yard before the dawn. We all gather
in the office after finishing and everyone looks tired. The horses
had been working well and were well entered up so the pace of the
yard was sure to increase in the coming week.
The mood on Boxing Day morning was not good. Some of the staff had
been on the road at 4.30 am to make it back to work on time. La
Landiere was running in the King George, so Phillips’ mood
was as tight as a girth and there was no point in asking him if
he’d had a nice Christmas. Adlestrop felt more like Moldova.
It was a dark wet morning and the staff just wanted to get through
the morning’s work with little fuss. When I asked Michelle,
Jayne and Simon what they did on Christmas Day, “sleep”
was the most popular answer.
La Landiere flew the flag for the yard in the King George. When
you see her run and jump you begin to really appreciate why this
way of life keeps sucking you back in. Back in the yard for evening
stables in driving rain and gale force winds that sent horses into
the corners of their boxes, you sensed the fortunes of the yard
could be changing.
My final Saturday morning confirmed these thoughts. Everyone in
the yard was focussed and wanting to work. The horses were ready
to pull out at first light and the string looked impressive as Phillips
read out the work list. Led by the team of four Jockeys, the horses
jumped off at perfect intervals and you could almost feel the concentration
as everyone was entrusted to ride work. I even heard a cry of “settle”
from Phillips as I breezed past him impressively on Senor Sol with
Michelle Stephenson on Cash Converter. It was the kind of morning
which prompted Michelle to explain why she had abandoned life working
in an office in Darlington for the Cotswolds.
After one further lot, it was time to drive assistant Gordy Clarkson
and two Owners to Wetherby. The yard needed a winner and General
Gossip was dispatched to Wetherby with one specific aim. Win well
and illustrate that he and the yard full of novices were ready to
run in the New Year and get some winners on the board. Kate Cunningham
who, looks after General Gossip, had been looking forward to her
weekend off but that plan was abandoned as she wanted to see her
horse win. As with the morning work, everything went to plan and
General Gossip strode clear to win decisively.
The day’s sponsors Sky Bet were giving £100 to every
groom in charge of a winner and this was gratefully received by
Kate who shared it with travelling head girl Charlotte Illingworth.
I had to lead up Terek and Warren Marston in the last. He too ran
well confirming that the Phillips string was approaching form.
Back in the muddy Wetherby stable yard Kate and Charlotte got ready
for the long journey home. The man wearing his brand new white Trainers
regretted the decision as the horses were led round in the thickening
mud. As she waited to load the horses I asked Kate what was going
to be the highlight of her weekend. She replied with an answer that
I suspect might become the most treasured possession for all stable
staff in 2004, “a day off”.