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Newmarket 01.10.09

"If a horse is no good, there's a place in every yard for a reliable hack"

  PICTURE: Getty Images  

Hope rides on the narrow shoulders of yearlings

AT this time of year, only those who have to or the clinically insane ride out on Newmarket Heath.

As one who has opted to make a living as a freelance racing journalist, I fall neatly into the latter category and an absence of any great riding talent coupled with a failing nerve serve only to highlight the insanity.

Yet amid the seemingly non-stop high winds and lashing rain, there is some gratification to be had. Right now it is witnessing at close quarters the day-by-day progress of yearlings who pranced gleamingly from the Tattersalls October sale, now a little less gleaming after a month of Beverley House Stables mud, but who are in the throes of becoming professional young racehorses.

This pony-mad girl sadly did not develop into work rider material despite much time spent fantasising on the subject. So, how else does a hapless hack get to mix it with equine bluebloods from the great vantage point of the saddle rather than the paddock rail?

First, move to Newmarket (check), con some unsuspecting trainer into marriage (check), persuade said trainer that riding skills are not as bad as they seem and would be seen to best effect aboard stable hack (check, sort of), find perfect hack (check).

Our recent yearling sales purchases go nowhere without another Tattersalls graduate from one of the company's lesser sales.

February 8, 2007, is unlikelyto be surpassed as the worst day of my working life. I had not taken into account the fact that the horse with whom I had recently fallen hopelessly in love would be passing through the ring in the February Sale just a few lots from the close of play.

In the week running up to the dreaded day I suffered constant nightmares that I would be outbid on the rather forlorn-looking four-year-old Royal Applause gelding named Pantomime Prince.

Every piggy bank in the house was raided and a nail-biting day of poor concentration on the press bench was endured until, from the dark and snow outside, emerged my dream horse into the ring where anybody could have taken him from me.

Nobody did. In fact, nobody even bid. He was mine for the minimum price of 800gns, a sum he has repaid many times over as my trusted daily mount and as an invaluable, unflappable nanny goat for our yearlings.

The stark contrast between yearlings who have benefitedfrom a sales preparation and the homebreds who arrive straight from the field has been amply illustrated in our small yard this season.

The homebreds are both ours and represent a fledgling breeding operation that is surely doomed to failure. The oft-repeated phrase 'needs time' has never been more appropriate than when it comes to the two recent arrivals from France and Norfolk, both exceptionally well cared-for by their boarding studs but both with an awful long way still to travel to become racehorses.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the fillies, bought to fulfil orders for 'early two-year-olds', are streets ahead in both mind and body.

The teams at Langton Stud and Burton Agnes Stud, who produced these daughters of Bertolini and Tobougg, can be justifiably proud of the job they’ve done.

Broken in with the minimum of fuss, they have trotted happily across town to racecourse sidefor a few weeks: one unbelievably laidback, the other concentrating fully on her job, ears flickering back and forth as she tries hard to please.

Then last week, the windiest yet, they made their first foray onto the busier Heath on Bury side. With Panto at the head of proceedings, silent prayers and heartfelt thanks were issued as cars came to a halt to let us cross onto the Severals and then to the Heath.

The brave girls, in partnership with their regular riders Hugh Fraser and Adam Harris, never flinched as we passed tractors resurfacing the all-weather on Long Hill and a string came alongside us on the adjacent Town Canter.

More prayers were muttered in realisation that Mike de Kock's noisy treadmill was not in use as we made our way past the back of Abington Place towards the feared Neckstrap Corner, the spookiest place of all the Heath's thousands of acres where the ghosts of great racehorses past play havoc with today’s incumbents.

Safely negotiated, we turned into the fierce headwind for home, satisfied with another small achievement on the rocky road to the racecourse.

With few horses in strong work in the town now, this could easily be seen as the dullest time of the year. But there's one thing that helps racing folk survive the brutal East Anglian winters and it's the hope that rides in on the narrow shoulders of the yearlings, who, at this stage in their lives could be anything.

And even if they’re no good at all, there's a place in every yard for a reliable hack.




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