POINT-TO-POINTING FEATURE: Sara Bradstock on her riding career & the sport she loves - daughter Lily tells of her ambitions
Sara Bradstock is steeped in the sports of horse racing and point-to-pointing.
A daughter of the late and much-loved Lord (John) Oaksey, she rode between the flags and under rules herself in the 1970s and 1980s. Rides that included several victories on her father’s Cesarewitch winner Assured - before she married Gold Cup winning trainer Mark Bradstock.
Home to big race winners like home-bred half-brothers Carruthers and Coneygree, along with King Harald and Step Back.Their Letcombe Bassett stables in the Vale of the White Horse is better known as a licensed yard.
But she also trains three pointers for her daughter Lily to ride, including 2019 Cheltenham winner Southfield Theatre. I went to see the Bradstock family to ask them about their long-standing involvement with pointing.
“Good old Assured,” recalls Sara as I tell her that I saw her ride on my first ever visit to a point-to-point, at Siddington in 1981. “He was a good horse on the flat, but not sound enough to go jumping under rules."
"He went pointing after Dad had a conversation with his trainer Henry Candy at a dinner party. The lads said he was savage and that he wasn’t a young girl’s ride, but the only person he ever bit was Dad!
We won three races together and he gave me a Cheltenham winner as well as my first victory under rules at Hereford.”
“My first rides were on Tuscan Prince in 1978 and my first winner was Lean Forward at Lockinge in 1979. As well as my own horses, I rode for the likes of John ‘Mad’ Manners."
"I remember riding one for him when I’d got used to the well-behaved starts under rules. The horse ducked, I shouted ‘No, Sir’ but the starter let them go and I set off 20 lengths behind, swearing at him."
"I was called in by the Captain Tim Forster, the chair of the stewards and a surprisingly good friend of my colourful grandfather, who told me I was using such language because I had ‘bad blood’!”
‘The Captain’ plays an important role in the Bradstocks’ story, as it was his yard – from where he trained Well To Do, Ben Nevis and Last Suspect to win the Grand National – that Mark and Sara took over in 1994.
“Riding was all I’d ever wanted to do. I have no idea how many pointing winners I rode [Ed: it was nine] it was nine). But I think I had 13 or 14 under rules, before they stopped me riding because I’d hit my head too many times!”
Since Mark and Sara started training, she has been lucky enough to ride some proper racing legends like Carruthers and Coneygree in their work. I rode some good horses for David Elsworth and Nick Gaselee on the track, but one I particularly remember was a funny little horse called Watford Gap, who had his own way of jumping and won several races with me on board."
After Sara retired as a jockey, her connection with pointing was temporarily severed, until son Alfie - now a top showjumper - decided to give race-riding a go.
She remembers his first attempt with a shudder: “He was on Something Cristal and they were going well until the horse bled going to four out and they fell. They brought down the horse behind, who squashed Alfie’s ribs. If he’d been older, he’d have died, but luckily his ribs were still soft, so they buckled, but didn’t break.”
“I didn’t realise how bad Alfie’s fall was until I spoke to the doctors and heard the Air Ambulance was coming. But no, I was never nervous about him or Lily race-riding."
Alfie only rode for one season (2011) between the flags, but was followed five years later by younger sister Lily. She explained why she didn’t make her pointing debut – on stable stalwart Carruthers – until the age of 20: “As a child, Alfie was more into racing. Plus I spent time in hospital as a teenager after I was kicked by a pony, so didn't get into it as early as he did."
"However, once I was fully recovered and back riding full time, I was desperately keen to have a go at racing and Carruthers was no longer having fun in handicaps, so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”
I ask Sara whether pointing is just a hobby, giving Lily the odd horse to ride: “No,” she exclaims vehemently. “We’d love to have more pointers – and Lily would live more rides – but it’s difficult to attract owners when you’re not a big yard. The same is true for pointing as under rules."
"We've got some of the best gallops and facilities in the country and it would be great to have more pointers to use them! As the Irish do, we run our young horses in points if we think it will suit them better than a bumper.”
Pressed on her own ambitions, Lily smiles. “I want to keep going as long as I have anything to ride. Once Southfield Theatre retires, I’ve got to find another good horse!"
"I’ve ridden at the Cheltenham Festival, which is a dream for everyone and I’d love to have a go at the Aintree Foxhunters, as well as have a winner against professionals.” Sara chips in: “Lily wants to be champion amateur.”
Her daughter accepts modestly that “Gina Andrews is in a different league. It’s just nice to have winners - and I want to get some outside mounts, so am hoping to ride out for some local trainers.”
Mark, a successful amateur under rules while assistant trainer to the great Fulke Walwyn interrupts our conversation to drive me up to their gallops - high on the Ridgeway.
There are three – a mile right-handed, ten furlong left-handed and an all-weather strip – to which the Bradstocks have exclusive access. There we watch Lily gallop Damby’s Star, accompanied by Sara on Mark’s bumper winner Eglantier.
“I used to find race-riding a real buzz. I wasn’t the greatest jockey, but we had lots of laughs,” he says self-deprecatingly. “I remember riding alongside Sara in the four-miler at Cheltenham in 1987. There were 30 runners but only ten finished, so we went round singing, ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. I was brought down early and by the time Sara unseated she had to wait for a second ambulance as the first one was full!”
Gallop completed, we return to Old Manor Stables to discuss the state of the sport and my first question to Sara is what has changed between her riding days and now. “It’s difficult to gauge as I was out of it for a long time."
“It seems to have gone through phases. There have been times when you’ve had some very rich people racing pointers while farmers with one horse would struggle to win a Maiden. I’m ambivalent though. The money and the numbers coming in have got to be good for the sport."
“I don’t think it’s changed very much. If anything, it has done so for the better.”
“The ground’s improved,” says Mark. “As have facilities – they even have vegan bars! It’s professionally run, but it’s not the same as racing under rules.” Sara agrees.
“Fixtures used to be much of a muchness, but now some hunts make more effort than others, like the Heythrop at Cocklebarrow. But I love the informality of pointing. There’s a gentleness about it and I’m always keen to do things with fewer rules and regulations!”
“One thing we do need to do,” adds Sara, “Is think how to get more runners. Four and five-year-olds are important – they’re the future National Hunt horses, so why not have young horse Maidens for the ‘professionals’ and Open Maidens for the true pointers.”
“I still think we’re behind the Irish here,” Mark adds. “Although it’s changing. One thing we need is more stallions - there is so little choice. When we sent Plaid Maid [Carruther's dam] to Kayf Tara, it was a gamble - his youngsters hadn’t started racing yet.”
Before I go, I ask Sara if she misses anything about the ‘good old days’: “The only thing I miss,” she concludes with a smile, “Is that I’m no longer riding!”