Down at the start with Gary Witheford - ‘the stalls man’ who gives racehorses the chance to win
The 5.10 race at Pontefract on Monday, October 6, passed off without much fanfare. But the result was a major victory for Witheford Equine of Burbage – the three-year-old gelding Dubai Star not only went safely into the starting stalls, but won at odds of 11-2.
It was Dubai Star’s first race and for this ‘tricky’ horse getting there had been quite a journey. He was bred in Ireland and bought as a yearling for 170,000 guineas: not an outrageous price paid for a horse sired by Dubawi out of Tango Tonic.
Dubai Star is owned by HRH Princess Haya of Jordan (wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Godolphin Racing fame) and trained at Newmarket by John Gosden. Last month at a Kempton Park evening meeting, Dubai Star was to race for the first time with Gosden’s stable jockey William Buick on board.
It was not a star race – with a total prize fund of just £4,000. But the three-year-old needed a race in case he was sent for the October sales or there was a need to convince his owner he should be kept in training to race next season.
Gary Witheford had been asked by Gosden to get him ready for the starting stalls. Gary had been to Newmarket several times to calm the horse and practise getting him quietly into the starting stalls.
After his usual negotiations with the racecourse officials at Kempton, Gary was down by the start for 6.10pm race ‘The £25 Free Bet at BetVictor.com Maiden Stakes”: “It’s going into the gladiator ring – it’s a challenge every time. When it comes off it’s great.”
Gary draped Dubai Star’s hindquarters with one of the lightly padded stalls rugs he designed himself to stop horses bumping their ribs or stifles on the stalls. The rug is designed to stay behind when the horse jumps out of the stalls.
He led Dubai Star in perfectly easily and the horse looked quite calm: “The calmer I am, the calmer the horse will be. But I am firm.”
But behind the stalls things were going badly with some of the other entries. One horse never made it into the stalls at all and another went in most unwillingly – delaying the start by crucial minutes.
After about four minutes waiting, Gary had to move out of the stall beside Dubai Star where he had been reassuring the horse and making it feel comfortable.
Then, when the delay reached about six minutes, Dubai Star had had more than enough and reared up hitting his head on the top bar of the stalls. Gary pulled Buick clear. The horse was brought out backwards and the race started without him.
Gary was very despondent. And people I spoke to as we made our way back from the start were indignant there had been such a long delay. As one punter put it: “That was a most unfair way to treat a jumpy horse.”
Driving back to Burbage Gary was pretty depressed: “I’m a perfectionist. That’ll screw me up for a week.” John Gosden came on the phone and was calm and understanding about the unfortunate start to Dubai Star’s racing career. His calm voice must have taken some of the sting out of Gary’s anguish.
Gary told Gosden he wanted to put Dubai Star through a stalls test. That took place ten days later at Newmarket. It’s a test in front of race officials and the horse has to enter the stalls and stand quietly for one minute. Dubai Star passed the test and would be allowed to enter another race.
And so he was entered for that Pontefract race to be ridden by Roger Havlin, understudy to stable jockey Buick at Gosden’s Clarehaven yard. And there to see Dubai Star successfully into the stalls was Gary Witheford’s son, Craig.
Now he has conquered his fear of the starting stalls, he could well be a horse to watch next season.
At most of Britain’s racecourses and many overseas courses too, Gary Witheford is well known to owners, starters, stalls teams, trainers – he is often known as “the stalls man”. He has made a successful business out of calming wilful horses and getting them to go quietly into the starting stalls.
In fact, Gary Witheford’s company, Witheford Equine, does much more than train horses for the stalls and attend at the start of flat races. And though he prefers the term ‘natural horsemanship’ for his skills, he is a ‘horse whisperer’ – it says so on the cover of his fascinating book.
Trainers also use Gary to ‘break in’ young horses. That is another term Gary would rather we did not use: he prefers ‘starting’ young horses. As during his process he does not ‘break’ anything. He can do in twenty minutes or so what takes several weeks by traditional ways of ‘breaking’ horses and he ‘starts’ between 400 and 500 young horses a year.
Trainers send their horses to Gary’s yard near Burbage – sometimes just for the morning and sometimes for residential care. They are shown how easy it is to go into the stalls. Then they go up to Gary’s gallops and get to jump out of the stalls at full stretch.
One day when I was at the yard he had a really very unruly horse from a local trainer. This horse played up terribly in the stalls – so much so that it scraped itself a little. But Gary was determined to see it right.
The vet was called, but the horse was none the worse for his tantrum and would be coming back to get Witheford Equine’s whispering treatment. One day he too will go on and win a race – at Pontefract or some other racecourse where Gary and Craig are trying to show the authorities that there are other ways of getting horses into the starting stalls than by manhandling them in like some many sacks of potatoes.
You can find out more about Gary Witheford’s technique and about his new book here at Marlborough News Online.