Updated: Oct 4, 2020
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A week ago I didn’t know who Frankie Dettori was, and here I am, a young Cambridge graduate, ready for work in a moonlit stable yard. Some stories can't be told until you’ve lived them.
It’s always dark before it starts. The horses are still chewing sleepily, the cold air just touched with the sweetness of grain, and the smooth, warm smell of velvety noses.
In the middle of the redbrick barn, tucked between the wooden stables, there’s a single white room. Adi calls it ‘his room’. That’s where I first saw him, eating his cereal out of a Tupperware. There’s a whiteboard behind him and, next to the logbooks on the trestle table, four neatly-rolled bandages are lined up on a clean towel. Only one of the white cupboard doors is open, a dozen colourful silks are hanging inside: jockeys’ silks.
We’re in Newmarket, UK: ‘The Home of British Racing’.
Being the Head Lad, Adi is the first to arrive and the last to leave the yard where George Boughey trains racehorses. You could call him ‘Yard Manager’, but racing does love to have its own word for everything. Adi (pronounced Ay-dee) walks quickly and talks quickly. He hasn’t any time for talking about himself, so it was another lad that told me in a whisper “You know he used to ride Frankel?”
Frankel was once the highest rated racehorse in the world. Unbeaten. And, that’s not the only name up Adi’s pushed-back sleeves. It seems he has been walking quickly around famous stable yards forever. Here’s hoping this is one of them.
It’s only a year since George Boughey struck out on his own and started training. He’s tall and wears glasses, and if it’s hot you might find him washing down horses in his bright orange swimming trunks and a t-shirt. That was the first surprise, when I arrived to ask about a job. The second surprise was that he’s 28. I knew he was up-and-coming, but my image of those already up-and-come was all polo shirts and boat shoes beneath gently greying hair. The third surprise was that, at the time of writing, he’s got the best season strike rate in the country*. That means he’s won the greatest percentage of his races out of all the trainers in the UK.
The barn gets warm with voices as the lads filter in, ready to ride at 6am. Somebody turns on Kiss Radio and somebody else turns on a tap; the sound of brushing, and metal buckles, the quiet nonsense-talking of people to their horses and then – unmistakably – horseshoes on concrete. I was to ride a two-year-old filly called Series of Dreams. I smiled. She’s a slight, bay creature, small for a thoroughbred but tall for any other horse. Her eyes are bright and soft, almost worried-looking for the deep indents above her brows.
“Lucky girl, you are,” says Breaker, his voice still warm with Jamaica even after 20 years in the UK. “They got you riding Best Girl.” He gives her a pat on the neck, and a polo mint. She nuzzles in his pocket for another. His laugh is syrupy and irregular, “Hey Best Girl? She’ll be alright. You ridden a racehorse before, girl?”
A valid question. Newcomers stand out in the six square miles of stables, houses, tack shops, and pubs they call Newmarket. Still, nobody in America ever asked me if I’d ridden a quarter horse.
“No,” I tell Breaker, “but I grew up with horses.”
Breaker chuckles again. “It’s different.”
The horses’ breath billows white as we pull out, and I’m nervous; excited to be part of a real string, wearing my George Boughey hat silk. I’d visited ‘the gallops’ on my first day in Newmarket, watched the anonymous faces canter by. Pausing for the red flashing icon of a horse at a zebra crossing, I get the spectator’s view of our whole string reflected in the window of a closed newsagent. The Italian lad, Matti, lights a cigarette. We both exhale deeply. Urban pavements suddenly give way to the grass of Warren Hill, ‘the gallops’; the beating heart of Newmarket where dozens of horses stream up and down the paths that streak the hill like veins. Adi jumps out of his car to hold my bridle, he lets go, and we’re off.
Series of Dreams takes thundering flight, breathing heavily, her neck pushing, pushing forward to the top of the hill, matching the motion of her legs stride for powerful stride. I was raised out of the saddle, leaning forward and pushing on her withers to hold her back. Her hooves pounded the earth hard and keen and loud. True integral horsepower. Gaining the top, Series of Dreams still had more to give, more even – as it turned out – than George himself had dreamt.
Warren Hill looks different from the top; the horses exhale with the thrill of having run, and Newmarket stretches across the base of the lawn, fresh horses silhouetted against it. Far out of earshot, the hooves now jumping off at the bottom of the hill rumble with my pounding memory, cantering not past me, but right to where I’m standing.
I had always imagined that racehorses would spend their lives galloping; testing and extending those fabulous muscles under the watchful eye of trainers with stopwatches. Really, calling Warren Hill ‘the gallops’ is something of a misnomer. In racing there’s careful distinction between a hack canter, a canter, a gallop, and ‘work’, each being faster than the last. Outside of Hollywood, a gallop is a weekly thing, at most, and ‘work’ is the kind of thing you do before race day. Lads or ‘riders out’ walk their horses across town to the gallops, and (thoroughbreds permitting) organise themselves neatly into queues to canter once up the hill between those iconic white railings. Twice, if it’s time.
George had been watching us canter, binoculars over his shoulder. When I watch George watch the horses, it’s clear that he doesn’t just see each thoroughbred canter past him today – he sees today’s motion compared with every movement that that horse has done before.
“The biggest thing about training horses is routine,” he tells me later, “and if a horse does something that’s out of its normality, you’ve got to ask why.”
So, on the way back to the yard, George’s car cruised along beside the string, watching every muscle, joint, and bone, the horses’ demeanour, their eyes, their behaviour. There’s one filly, Widaad, who likes to run with her tongue sticking out; all elegance and grace topped with a great, pink tongue, lolling dog-like and ridiculous. She does it every day. No problem. In fact, we’d probably be worried if she stopped. On the other hand, if another horse suddenly started grinding its teeth, you might look for stomach ulcers, or stress.
Mental health is as much of a concern as physical health. On my second day, George took me ‘racecourse side’, where the horses were cantering on the flat Rowley Mile gallops. A nimble bay soared past.
“There goes Three C’s, the legend that is. He’s won five races for us.” George lowers his binoculars. “Warren Hill doesn’t suit him. The hill is good for a lot of horses, keeps them fit without having to canter them for miles, but this one, he’s only small, keeps his condition nicely on these flat gallops. Great horse, basically just doesn’t need a huge amount of work. It’s just a question of keeping his mind happy, really.”
For the same reason, we take a few horses out of their stables every evening to officially ‘have a pick’ at grass. There’s a rotation on the whiteboard and everything.
“I mean it’s just, it’s nature, isn’t it?” says George, “Makes them happy. If I had more grass I’d have them all out every day, but we’ve just got to make do with what we’ve got.”
It’s a delicate balance between boredom and stress, a balance that each trainer must tailor to each horse.
Physical health is perhaps easier to keep tabs on, but harder to restore if there’s an issue. For that reason, a vet’s job in Newmarket is to prevent problems from arising in the first place. Every week, George, Adi, the vet, and the farrier all watch as every single horse is trotted past them untacked. With the slightest variation from last week, the vet’s expert hand dances across the horse’s sleek back, or moves down its legs, always taking extra time over the forelegs, and carefully lifts its feet.
The magic of the chiropractor’s hands is equally elusive. She massages the horses’ shoulders, telling me as she does so that a twitch in the skin, like the muscular judder a horse might use to shift off a fly, is a sign of a mild trapped nerve. You can tell the horses like her. She bends the knee right up, lifting the hoof towards the stomach, then rotates the shoulder out and brings the bent knee around, all the way to the front, then finally stretches the leg out forwards. Her fingers go to tenderly massage the muscle once again, and, already, no judder.
Imagine, for a moment, that you take your most talented horse, fit as a fiddle and sound as a bell, and you run it. Will it win? The question on everybody’s lips. A ridiculous question until we know where the horse is running, how far, and against whom. That’s where the trainer really works their magic. First you’ve got to separate your ‘sprinters’ from your ‘stayers’; Usain Bolt probably wouldn’t win the marathon. Flat races are anything from five furlongs (1000m) to two-and-a-half miles (4000m). Take Three C’s again, “probably bred for shorter races, actually,” says George, “but I stepped him up a trip and he enjoyed it. He’s sort of found his niche at a mile.” Sprinters tend to be bulkier, all power of acceleration, whereas stayers have time to let the race play out; too much bulk is just more weight to carry.
Now, where is it running? The UK is not like the States, where every racecourse is a perfectly flat oval. Some courses are grass, some are sand, some are all-weather poly. The course at Epsom where they run The Derby undulates and curves, ascending steeply in the last hundred yards, even. More simply, Windsor is a figure of 8. I watched George choose between Windsor and Wolverhampton for a colt’s first race. We put him in the practice starting gates at Newmarket and watched him fly.
“Wolverhampton,” nodded George, “Too many bends to contend with at Windsor.”
Far more relevant though, is who your horse is running against. It’s still before 10am, two days before the race, so George has his phone in one hand and his iPad in the other, refreshing the declarations to see who else is running in both races, “Welcome to my life,” he chuckles.
It was a couple of weeks before I got to put all this theory into practice, and accompany the horse I had been riding to the races at Haydock. To me, the strange names and colours and numbers on the race card are little more than hieroglyphs, interspersed with jargon designed to exclude and confuse the uninitiated:
“3-time C&D winner since resumption and a credible fifth of 9 in handicap 13 days ago, not disgraced. Enters calculations.”
“3 lb rise fair enough and merits respect in her hat-trick bid.”
Luckily, it’s as formulaic as the cryptic crossword. Once you know the trick to reading the clues, you’re away.
Like cattle brands in the States, owners’ colours are unique worldwide, and the simplest colours are the most desirable (read: ‘expensive’). Clare, a lifelong racing lover, took me through the card that day at Haydock.
“Now, you’ll recognise those colours from Frankel, of course – pink cap and the lovely turquoise jacket with the stripe and white sleeves. So that horse, Breath of Air, that’ll be owned by the same man, Prince Khalid. Saudi Arabia, that is. Let’s see, here, some very classic colours. The pale blue jacket with the dark armbands? That’s Highclere, you know, fantastic stud there, just near Highclere Castle, where they filmed Downton Abbey.”
Clare’s reading the colours like a sheet of music; the owners names aren’t listed.
“So, if you look at Series of Dreams you can see it says ‘b.f’, bay filly, and her ‘Form’ is ‘6 2’.”
I get warm inside just seeing her name printed alongside all the others. A proper racehorse.
Clare continues, “Her ‘6 2’ form means she came sixth in her first race and then she came second. That number in bold, 75, is her rating, just tells you how good she is. Your famous horses like Ghaiyyath and Enable, they’re rated more like 130.”
Amazing how clinical the race card looks compared with the breathing, sweating, pounding reality of a horse race. If the numbers said it all, nobody would watch it, far less bet on the 100/1 underdog. But, the favourite doesn’t always win, and statistics only go so far against the immeasurable forces of luck and hazard, and the unfathomable, unpredictable mind and manner of the horse. For every winner there are eight, nine losers. Why do we keep coming back?
Because of the winners.
That meeting at Haydock was the first time I’d set foot on a racecourse. Of course, Covid-19 meant jumping through more hoops than there are fences at the Grand National, but, even as I looked around at the sweep of empty grandstands, it didn’t matter because there, straight ahead, was the track. Series of Dreams hadn’t seen it yet, she was merrily munching on her hay in the stables.
“Would she prefer shavings, straw, or paper?” the lady at the gate had asked.
“Right you are, Stable 45.”
It was strange seeing jockeys milling about between races, out the back. Not that there’s really a ‘front’ when there are no spectators, mind you. Nonetheless, there’s something almost sacrilegious about seeing a man in silks take his boots off – like watching a vicar remove his dog collar. Stranger still was seeing Series of Dreams with one of those tiny, shiny saddles on - they’re even tinier and shinier in real life than they are on telly.
She looked fabulous: sleek and so very alive. As soon as we hit the parade ring the penny dropped for this racehorse. With every step I led her around the ring, her strides grew longer and her eyes grew brighter until finally a gentle bell rang and the jockeys spilled out of the weighing room in all their colours. She knew. I spotted our burgundy and blue and grinned underneath my face mask. There are certain series of events, series of dreams, that aren’t credible until they happen. This was one of them.
I let her go where the tarmac met the grass, and watched the jockey canter her off to the starting gates.
And then the not knowing. The total blind innocence to what happens next. It rose, clinging, up inside my chest and found its place somewhere in my smile.
“And they’re off”
I couldn’t see Series of Dreams, only a wall of horses; specks coming towards us from the left. There she was! Stuck - wanting to go faster than the space would let her. I watched the screen with nerves wringing out my heart. My girl was last.
“Come on Series - find a gap”
She must have seen some semblance of a space, she began to stride through it, then a whack came in from her right. One of the other horses bumped her. Less than two furlongs (400m) to go now, and she was still fifth out of eight. I begged she wouldn’t give up.
The horses spread out across the width of the track, all going for gold. Suddenly, in a matter of strides, Series of Dreams streaked ahead into first place, overtaking Wordly Wise on the left hand side.
“Come on Series!”
In the final furlong they battled for position, neck-and-neck until the final yard, when Series fought forward just enough to be the winner.
A surge of ecstasy, and then total disbelief. She didn’t, did she? Did she?
“Go on Ali, quickly, you’ve got to go and collect her - take her to the winner’s circle”
Speechless, I ran to pat my girl on the neck. She did it! The cameras focused on her face and the jockey sang her praises, “Tough filly” he said. She actually did it.
There are a thousand more stories worth telling from behind the starting gates, inside the barns, and on the horse’s back. Racing is fascinating and confusing from the ground up. That’s why I’m here, on the ground. I want to tell you about the two lads from inner-city Liverpool who had never seen a horse until they enrolled in the British Racing School at 16, and have stayed in Newmarket ever since. What about the ex-taxi driver, who drives his old black cab to work at the yard every morning?
Throughout this project, I’m going to explore all aspects of British racing, from breeding to breaking; from sales, to training, to retirement. What challenges do people and horses face, and how do we overcome them? What do the lads wish the owners understood, and vice versa? I’ll find out what it feels like to be a jockey, racing three times a day instead of eating, and hoping for better rides all the time. I’ll get different perspectives on why horses break down, and if there’s anything that trainers, vets, jockeys and owners can change to further minimise that risk. Here in Newmarket, there’s a horse for every five people. I’m telling the living, breathing, feeling stories of both.
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(* Of trainers with 15 or more runners. George Boughey has won 24 of 89 runs, 28/09/2020)
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