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A Day in the Life of....... a Travelling Head Lass

21 September 2015

Donna Blake has worked for Paul Nicholls for nearly 15 years and has been Travelling Head Lass for 11 of them. We find out what is involved in her day-to-day routine and how busy she will be travelling to and from the Cheltenham Festival.

"My daily routine will depends on where the racing is that day, if it's local I can ride one or two before going racing. Let’s take a day at Wincanton for example;

6.45am - I get to the yard to put the hay round to the horses with Clifford (Head Lad) who will feed them their breakfast. I saddle up and ride two lots grabbing a quick bit of breakfast in between.

11am – I leave for the racecourse, aiming to arrive two hours before the first runner or three hours if racing is further away and therefore the horses have been stood on the lorry for a long time.

11.30am - Arrive at the races and once we’re here I'm responsible for ensuring the jockeys get the right silks, the horse is wearing the right sponsorship on the rugs and handler. I also ensure that the staff have the horse well turned out and they all have the right bridles and girths. The aim of my job as Travelling Head Lass is to not only drive the horse around the country but to ensure they are well looked after and ready for the race - my job is to reduce the worry for Paul [Nicholls] on the day.

I also help train new staff, so they know where and when they need to be doing the right things at the races and at home on the yard.  

Although we like all our horse to be well turned out [look beautiful] we don’t actually plait any of their manes and tails anymore, we took the decision not to as some horses don’t like it and it’s easier and fairer to do none of them than picking and choosing.

4.30pm - After the afternoon's racing, I head back to the yard and we'll be back early if it's a local course such as Wincanton or Taunton. I head home to bed and early night, ready to start all over again the next day. The days are longer when racing is over in the East, so courses such as Sandown Park, Kempton Park, and Huntingdon, in which case I might only get to ride one horse before I go depending on the time of our first race.

When we are off racing at Haydock Park, Aintree and Doncaster I will normally be leaving by 6am so it is a much earlier start and later finish. Ayr, Perth and Mussleburgh are all over-night stays which involves me driving most of the day, around eight hours. Once we arrive we’ll walk the horses, feed & water them and put them to bed. Then there is just about enough time to feed ourselves before falling into our beds! In the morning we’ll walk them out and prepare them for the races, once they have performed they have a good hour or more to recover and we’ll set of driving home again, often returning very late at night.

We have a huge string of horses and staff so we normally have a team at a couple of different racecourses on the same day. I can’t be in two places at once so I’ll always go to what Paul considers to be at the ‘first meeting’ where the best horses with the best chances are racing. I get to travel abroad with our runners in Ireland and I even got to enjoy a trip to Auteuil [France] for the first time this season. It was lovely - I’d highly recommend a visit!

During Cheltenham week I’ll be getting up earlier and ready to leave the yard with the right horses and staff by 7am or 7.30am in the little lorry which is a bit quicker! The aim is to arrive before 10am as the traffic is carnage through the town, it’s not ideal to be in a stop-start queue with the horses. Once we arrive we’ll give the horses a good walk and then into their allocated stables at the racecourse. There will always be someone with the horses to ensure they are ok.

Once all the horses have ran their races we normally wait until 1 ½ - 2 hours after last race to allow for the traffic to go. We also like to give the horses a bit longer to recover as they often run their biggest races of the season at Cheltenham.

I am really looking forward Cheltenham where Zarkandar’s in the Champion Hurdle and Silviniaco Conti’s in the Gold Cup - they should both run exciting races. 

It has been a real privilege to work as part of the Ditcheat team for so long and it is beyond belief how many top graded winners I have had the honour of leading back into the winners enclosure over the past years. I couldn't be anywhere else; it would never be as good.

Kauto and Denman were huge highlights in my career and we miss them but they’re being well looked after elsewhere now."

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