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.
Laura Collett walking the course at Barbury (July 2015)British eventer Laura Collett, who used to be based at Membury and is now at Lambourn, and the Holsteiner gelding Mr Bass have won the title for seven-year-old horses in the FEI World Breeding Federation Eventing Championships for Young Horses 2015 at Le Lion d’Angers in France. But after a fall in the competition, William Fox-Pitt remains in hospital with head injuries.
The top German rider, Michael Jung on Fischerincantas - another Holsteiner - won the gold medal in the competition for six-year-old horses.
These Championships have been held annually since 1992, and this year 103 horses were entered representing a wide range of studbooks.
Collett was in seventh place after the dressage and had moved up to fourth by the end of the cross-country phase. She clinched the title with a perfect show jumping round.
The cross-country course proved tricky for the seven-year-olds. But 34 of the 67 starters went clear - adding no penalties to their dressage scores. Two combinations retired on the course and 12 were eliminated.
William Fox-Pitt at Barbury (2015) Among the latter was Britain's most successful eventer, William Fox-Pitt who was thrown when his horse Reinstated hit the Owl Hole obstacle towards the end of the course.
He was taken to Angers hospital with head injuries.
Forty-six year old Fox-Pitt, who has four children and is married to Channel 4 racing presenter Alice Plunkett, was said to be in a stable condition.
The Wednesday afternoon update (at 4.24 pm, October 21) on the eventer's official website said: "We have this afternoon received the update that William’s condition remains the same with no change overnight. He is still sedated and under constant observation."
Day two: with the dreassage stage complete, Jonelle Price is still in the lead. But Germany's Bettina Hoy is now in second place - 3.50 points behind Ms Price. The end of day two sees other members of the New Zealnd team falling behind: Jesse Campbell is in 12th place - Tim Price in 40th - and Daniel Jocelyn in 72nd place.
After day one (Thursday, October 8) of the dressage phase of the CIC3 eventing competition at Boekelo in the Netherlands, Mildenhall-based Jonelle Price is in the lead. Forty-four of the 85 competitors have completed the dressage.
This is an important competition for the New Zealand eventing team as they go for the only team place at the Rio Olympics available to Group G nations - which takes in Oceania and South-East Asia.
New Zealand takes on Japan and Australia for that single team place, although the latter have already qualified by virtue of their placing at last year's World Equestrian Games.
Jonelle is riding eight-year-old black gelding Cloud Dancer - known as Marley. Her very low dressage score of 34.10 is 4.80 points above her nearest rival - Britain's Pippa Funnell on Billy the Biz.
Jonelle and Marley's latest victory came in the CIC3* for 8-9 year-olds at the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials last month. Ranked fifth in the world, Price finished second at the four-star Luhmuhlen in Germany and fifth at Burghley.
Also in the New Zealand team at Boekelo are Dan Jocelyn on Dassett Cool Touch (currently lying at 36), Tim Price on Xavier Faer and Jesse Campbell aboard Kaapachino. Tim Price and Jesse Campbell 's dressage competition will be on Friday.
If the New Zealand team do not clinch the Rio place at Boekelo, they will have to wait for the international rankings to see if they go to Brazil.
A field of fourteen is set to go to post for the £50,000 StanJames.com Supporting Greatwood Gold Cup - the highlight of the seven-race card at Newbury on Saturday (March 5) - Greatwood Charity Day.
This is one of the main days for Greatwood's fundraising for its work at Clench Common, Marlborough with retired racehorses and disadvantaged children.
The weights for the handicap chase, run over just short of two and a half miles, are headed by Shutthefrontdoor (11st 12lb, Jonjo O'Neill/Barry Geraghty, 16/1 with Stan James), who finished fifth in last season's Grand National and was third over hurdles on his only appearance this season at Aintree in December.
Paul NichollsPaul Nicholls has landed the StanJames.com Supporting Greatwood Gold Cup an amazing seven times since its inception in 2004, including last year's race with Sound Investment.
This year the champion Jump trainer, based in Somerset, enters Stan James's 11/2 favourite Art Mauresque (11st 4lb, Noel Fehily) and 7/1 joint second-favourite Sametegal (11st 3lb, Harry Cobden (7)).
Art Mauresque won a novices' chase at Cheltenham in October and went on to finish a close sixth in the Grade Three Paddy Power Gold Cup back at the same course the following month, while fellow novice Sametegal scored at Huntingdon in November and was travelling well when unseating Sam Twiston-Davies in the Grade Two Fuller's London Pride Novices' Chase at Newbury later the same month.
Bennys Mist (11st 5lb, Venetia Williams/Liam Treadwell, 9/1) was the three quarters of a length runner-up to Sound Investment last year and has been in great form this season. Successful in the Grand Sefton Chase over two miles and five furlongs of the Grand National course at Aintree in December, he was last seen out when a close third to stable companion Dare Me in a valuable handicap chase at Ascot on January 23.
The 10-year-old runs in the Manchester United-inspired colours of the Mezzone family and Graham Mezzone commented today: "Bennys Mist has been an outstanding horse for us and exceeded all our expectations.
"He was second to Sound Investment in this race last year and they finished 17 lengths clear of the rest. We were really using the race last year as a prep race before going to Aintree so it was a tremendous effort.
"My daughter picked him out as a three-year-old when Venetia held a celebration at her stables after Mon Mome won the Grand National (2009) and he has been a real star for us - he has won almost 10 times what we paid for him.
"The horse seems to love Newbury and Aintree - they are the two courses he always seems to run well at. He has run four times at Newbury - he won a novices' chase, fell in a race when Aidan Coleman thought he would have won and ran a cracking race in the Greatwood Gold Cup last year.
French trainer Emmanuel Clayeux is set to saddle his first runners at Newbury in the StanJames.com Supporting Greatwood Gold Cup, headed by Pythagore (11st 8lb, Felix de Giles, 10/1), a multiple winner over fences in France including in a Grade Two contest at Auteuil in November. Clayeux's other starter is Vicomte Du Seuil (10st 8lb, Jacques Ricou, 12/1), who won a chase at Pau in December and ran most recently when runner-up in a hurdle at the same venue on February 2.
Other contenders prominent in the betting market with Stan James include Little Jon (11st 3lb, Nigel Twiston-Davies/Wayne Hutchinson, 7/1), successful over the course and distance in November, and Generous Ransom (10st 10lb, Nick Gifford/Daryl Jacob, 8/1), a winner at Cheltenham last season who hinted at a return to form on his latest start at Doncaster in December.
Colin Tizzard's yard is in great form and is set to be represented by Ultragold (10st 5lb, Paddy Brennan, 8/1), a comfortable winner at Wincanton last month.