Gary Witheford at the startThe 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.
Dubai Star goes into the 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.”
Gary keeping Dubai Star calmBut 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.
A cross Dubai Star taken out of the stallsThen, 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.
A disconsolate Gary leads Dubai Star away from the startGary 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.
The practise stalls on the gallopsIn 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....and they're off!
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.
Not happy with the stallsOne 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.
Spirit Son - in his hurdling daysThe French-bred racehorse Spirit Son was a successful 5-year-old when he suffered an unexplained collapse. The gelding, owned by Michael Buckley and trained by Nicky Henderson, had four wins from five starts and was fancied to win the Champion Hurdle at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival.
However, a tendon injury ruled him out of the race. He recovered and was sent away to recuperate and get him ready for a return to racing.
Then disaster struck. Spirit Son was found collapsed on the floor of his stable. Nicky Henderson rushed down from Scotland to see what could be done.
The horse could not get up – and people feared the worst. But he rallied and was soon able to stand while being supported.
About six weeks after his collapse, he was well enough to be taken to the O’Gorman Slater Main equine hospital in Newbury where a scan revealed he had a neck fracture. For a more precise diagnosis he was taken for a CT scan which revealed he had two fractures – one each side of his neck.
As Nicky Henderson wrote in the Racing Post: “There were two known surgeons who could perform an obviously extremely complicated and undoubtedly dangerous operation, one in the USA and one, John Walmsley, in Hampshire, who luckily was prepared to perform what was going to be a huge task with major risks involved. But it was the only option.”
An operation under general anaesthetic was tricky for a horse that was still recovering his balance and strength. But a most unusual surgical procedure was carried out using metal implants. And it was successful and Spirit Son recovered.
As Henderson wrote: “The prognosis for racing always has been and still is very low, but he deserved a chance to have a life, whether it’s on a racecourse or in another role.”
He was not to race again and Spirit Son arrived at the Greatwood charity for retired racehorse at Clench Common near Marlborough on November 6 last year. Announcing his death, Greatwood said that his condition had deteriorated during the summer months and he had to be put to sleep this morning – October 8.
Sometimes you pick up a book about a sportsman’s life – whether autobiography or ghosted biography or a bit of both – and you wonder whether it might not be a tad too soon for this person to warrant a book. You could never think that about Marlborough-based Andrew Nicholson and his new book Focused.
He has, after all, been representing New Zealand in the Olympic Games for 30 years. He was the world’s top eventer in 2013 and in that year topped the British eventing standings for the fifteenth time.
The book is published during an eventing season in which he has scored two unrivalled hat-tricks – winning Barbury and Burghley three times in a row with the same horse, the amazing Avebury.
Focused is subtitled My Life in Pictures and it has an excellent collection of photographs from his youth in New Zealand up to recent triumphs.
It was written with Catherine Austen who used to report for Horse and Hound: “We’ve looked at thousands of images and selected some really interesting ones – not just pretty shots of horses jumping fences, but ones that tell a story and show the progression he has made as a competitor and a horseman.”
Andrew Nicholson, now aged 53, told Marlborough News Online that he wanted the book to have a balance of the bad days and the good days: “It shows what you have to go through to get to the good days.”
His introduction reveals much of the horseman he has become. And he is frank about his ambition to be number one in the world, “but first and foremost I have to make a living”:
Andrew Nicholson & Avebury at Barbury (2014)“It was this basic necessity that started my involvement with horses, breaking in young thoroughbreds for trainers in New Zealand and then working as a farrier at the age of 15. I then progressed to earning money from training and selling horses, and finally from the prize-money. The financial principle is the same today.”
The book makes it very clear that top eventing riders do not just ride their top horses in top events. In order to bring young horses on, they need to go to many of the lower ranked events and to competitions that cater especially for less experienced horses.
And that’s where travel comes in: “The travelling is what I find gets me down.” At the busiest part of the season, he may only be at home on Mondays: travel on Tuesday, vet inspection on Wednesday, competing Thursday to Sunday, usually getting home late on Sunday.
Among the intriguing photographs in the book is one of Nicholson with his four eventing four star winners. Nicholson writes: “You can see that they are all different shapes, but what’s more interesting is how much more different they are to each other when they are not eventing fit.”
“Quimbo looks the most thoroughbred of the quartet, even though he probably has the least thoroughbred in him; Mr Cruise Control looks like a gigantic hunter; Nereo stays reasonably elegant, while in the middle of winter Avebury looks like a hairy kid’s pony.”
Avebury - after a good rollOne of the books main attractions is the way Nicholson writes so clearly about his horses and their idiosyncrasies.
Nereo & Avebury - doing their own thingWhen Marlborough News Online visited Andrew Nicholson’s Westwood Stud near Marlborough, Avebury was not looking very much like the smart horse that enters the dressage arena with such aplomb. Alongside Nereo, Avebury bred by Nicholson and born when he was based near Devizes in 2000, was out in the field enjoying some well-earned R and R.
As Nicholson said, he was ‘being a horse again’ – so much so that the two horses avoided eye contact with Nicholson just in case he had come to take them away from the freedom of the field and put them inside again.
I asked Andrew Nicholson whether he agreed that too much emphasis in eventing was now put on the dressage stage of competitions: “It’s starting to change back to cross country. This season at WEG [World Equestrian Games], Badminton and Burghley cross country played the major part. Ten years ago you could get away with a rubbish dressage. Now you have to be good at all three stages – because the standard has come up so much.”
Nicholson is not sure whether he will go to the Rolex Kentucky event which starts the new season in April 2015. He won it in 2013 with Quimbo. But last year Avebury was decidedly off-colour after his first trip by air: “Avebury felt flat – I don’t know whether he didn’t like the plane or didn’t like America!”
Jet Set IVTwo of the season’s final eventing competitions are in France. Le Lion d’Angers championships are for young horses. He will be taking Jet Set IV for the seven year-olds’ competition and Swallow Springs for the six-year olds’ competition.
Then he goes to the season’s finale, the four star competition at Pau. Nicholson won that in 2012 with Nereo. This year he is taking Qwanza the eleven-year-old mare he rode to seventh place at Kentucky in 2012. Last year they came to grief at Luhmühlen…
…and which is the family’s favourite photograph in the book? I assumed it would be the happy family groups of the children on their ponies. But as we left, a small voice said that his favourite photograph was the one of “Daddy in the water” – and there it is: Andrew Nicholson and Qwanza all but submerged after falling at the first water complex on the Luhmühlen cross country course last year.
It shows vividly that even the best of eventers have those bad days: “You see”, he said with a broad grin, “what I have to put up when I get home!”
You will have to buy the book to see that photo of Andrew Nicholson.
Focused – Andrew Nicholson My Life in Pictures – with a foreword by Captain Mark Phlillips (Racing Post Books) £20.
[To enlarge photos click on them - then <&>]
Neil King There is now another King training racehorses on the Marlborough Downs. This is Neil King who held the first open day at his Ridgeway Racing yard on Sunday (September 14) at Upper Herdwick Farm just east of Barbury Castle.
From the top of Ridgeway Racing’s new all-weather gallop you can look over toward the other King’s yard and glimpse Alan King’s gallops and the Barbury Horse Trials grounds. The landscape of Neil King’s 300 acre training area is truly amazing – with views across it and beyond it to hold the eye whatever the weather.
The new gallopNeil and his wife Clare only arrived in Wiltshire from his previous Newmarket yard at the end of July. Already he and his staff – some moved with him from Newmarket and some are new, local hires – have transformed the yard and gallops, developing the yard he took over from its previous occupant, trainer Jim Old.
The covered training ring is now more spacious and has a floor of waxed sand recycled from Wolverhampton’s all-weather track. They have a new horse walker and have renovated the three staff bungalows.
At the open day, Neil King told the owners – including many from the yard’s ownership syndicate, the Racing for Fun Partnership – that he had already benefitted from the chalk downs’ ability to absorb rain. The rains of August, he said, would have kept him off his Newmarket grass for many days.
Trevor WhelanOpen days are mainly about horses. King brought a handful from Newmarket and has been busy assembling new owners and buying new horses. He trains for the National Hunt (NH) jump season, but has already had winners from Upper Herdwick farm in this summer’s NH flat races.
Helping the staff lead out the horses was Trevor Whelan – first jockey for the yard. King said Whelan had been “key to many of our successes this season.” He rode 17 out of the yard’s 25 winners – as well as another 12 winners for other trainers. This put him third in the conditional jockey’s title.
Thirty-five horses were paraded for the visitors – among them horses for sale and horses to watch this coming National Hunt season all with the added plus of their local interest. In the best tradition of taking a pin to select a horse from the race card, here are five of the horses currently at Neil King’s yard – just a sample:
|Looks Like Magic
||LOOKS LIKE MAGIC – is a five-year-old grey gelding owned by Mark and Tracy Harrod. Neil King bought him for them in November 2012. In summer 2013 he ran a creditable fourth at Stratford. Last June he had an unsuccessful outing at Fontwell. But he is now looking good for the autumn. He is a very attractive looking horse.
||MERCERS COURT – a six-year-old bay gelding. Since April he has twice come second at Fontwell. But at the third attempt, when set to win, he jinked to the side and unseated Trevor Whelan for a painful fall. Neil King reckons he has a future as “a nice chaser in due course.” Owned by David Nott, Ken Lawrence & Tim Messom.
||ZEROESHADESOFGREY – is a five-year-old grey gelding from Ireland. Last year, having been turned out for the summer, he came back, says King, “looking twice the horse he was.” He won two bumpers early this year and is “an exciting hurdler for the new season.” Owned by Mrs J.K.Buckle.
||TOWN MOUSE – is a four-year-old chestnut gelding. After four disappointing runs, he came good a year ago at Huntingdon at 50-1: “I think it was quite a good race he won there, and he has since confirmed this was no fluke, finishing second at Kempton and winning again at Huntingdon.” He won again at Huntingdon in November 2013. This year he has come home fourth in two of his five races. But you are not likely to find a bookie giving 50-1 on him now. Owned by Brian bell & John Smith.
||TENDER SURPRISE – a five-year-old bay filly. She has had her problems while in training, but is now, says King, “in the form of her life”. And to prove it in July she won two hurdle races at Uttoxeter meetings. She may run at Plumpton this coming Sunday (September 21) – one to watch. Owned by David Howes.