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A gruelling day with students at the British Racing School

26 October 2015

‘If you’re not passionate about it, it’s too hard a life’

Katherine Fidler spends a gruelling day with students at the British Racing School, where hard graft is essential in order to succeed.  


5.45am Feeding
6am Muck out, hay, water
7.30am First lot
9am Breakfast
9.30am Tack up
9.45am Second lot
11am Yard jobs
Noon Lunch (phones allowed)
2pm Video analysis and Equicizer session
3pm Evening yards
4.30pm Feed
5pm Dinner
6pm Evening lecture
8pm Block jobs

IN HER book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand writes: “A jockey’s life was nothing short of appalling. No athletes suffered more for their sport.” Thankfully times have changed on both sides of the Atlantic since the Great Depression, and much has been done to ensure the word “appalling” is no longer an apt portrayal of a jockey’s life – yet never more true is the label “athlete”.

In the 21st century, jockeys and their understudies, work-riders, are both expected to operate at a level of physical fitness few have a chance of replicating – as discovered when spending a day at the British Racing School. Despite failing three of the four basic entry requirements – EU citizen, check, aged between 16 and 22, long gone, under 60kg, no, and physically fit, definitely not – the Newmarket academy kindly agreed for me to spend a day alongside the students of its flagship level 2 diploma apprenticeship course. Kind indeed, given I hadn’t sat on a horse in two years and spectacularly failed the fitness test required of students wishing to join the course. Frankly, the idea anyone can hold a plank pose for four minutes seems beyond comprehension, but Yariv Kam, one of the school’s fitness instructors, assures me this – and the whole fleet of seemingly impossible tasks I wheeze and sweat through – are not unreasonable for those who hope to work in the industry.

As highlighted recently in the Racing Post, the number of recruits joining and staying in racing has been unable to keep up with the demands of the sport – much like my legs, as I will later discover – so one of the school’s main aims is to turn out graduates who are physically and mentally up to the demands of an industry that offers unparalleled highs, but also its share of cavernous lows.
“Our ethos is to make sure the students are ready for the workplace,” says BRS chief executive Grant Harris, who picked up the baton from Rory MacDonald in 2014. “I’ve been out speaking to a lot of trainers, to see what they want, but getting the right placement is just part of the puzzle. It’s a bit of a culture shock for 16-year-olds, so the course also covers the life skills they need, including basics like cooking and washing.” So too is it a culture shock for a born-again Londoner, for whom seeing 5.45am is usually the sign of a darn good night out. At the BRS, that time marks the start of a 14-and-a-half-hour day taking care of the school’s 70-plus horses – including the legendary Our Vic, whose care I’m charged with for the day – and learning the tricks of a trade that demands nothing but absolute dedication from its participants.

Instructor Aideen Marshall says: “Working in racing is a lifestyle. It’s hard work, and there’s no point pretending it’s not going to be. We have to instil a good work ethic.” Since joining the industry at 15, Marshall has worked across the globe – an opportunity she impresses upon the students – and before joining the BRS was head girl for Sir Henry Cecil, riding out the likes of Midday and enjoying the thrill of the Frankel era. “It’s very rewarding to pass on that knowledge and passion,” she says. “If you’re not passionate about it, it’s too hard a life.” Yet on a dark and misty morning, with a nip in the air that will soon morph into an icy grip around the Suffolk town, the 16 students on course 297 are certainly not lacking in enthusiasm, having hit the halfway mark in their nine-week course and with the potential for a career in racing unfolding ahead.

By 7.30am all horses have been mucked out, hayed and watered, and following a quick check of the riding list, it’s time for first lot – although that deadline passes by when the new arrival forgets her radio, an invaluable piece of kit ensuring the instructors maintain constant contact with a group of teenagers on board former racehorses travelling at high speed. The school takes every precaution to keep the students as safe as possible – even if it means the entire string hears Marshall say “Katherine, you’re holding the reins like you’re pushing a shopping trolley” as we head out on to the gallops. Quite true, and in all honesty after the morning’s ten-furlong canter a shopping trolley would have had more grace and poise in the saddle than I, barely being able to stand up on board the wonderfully patient Record Breaker – a nine-time winner for Mark Johnston – whose kind nature led to the misfortune of having me on his back. 

The first circuit of the school’s two-and-a-half-furlong round gallop was a delight. I hadn't yet fallen off, and judging from our shadow cast by the slowly emerging autumn sunshine, Record Breaker and I looked a pair in unison. The feeling of borrowing speed and power from one of nature’s most awesome athletes is one many have tried to paint through words, few successfully so – myself included. An ancient Arab proverb comes close – the air of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears. While that feeling alone is not enough to balance the long working hours and often low pay of lads and lasses, it is often the moment future staff become hooked in the first instance.

ALSO hard to describe is the feeling in my legs after the third of four circuits, but it was something akin to having a white-hot poker driven down each thigh muscle from top to bottom, and in that instant I swore never again to laugh at the charity-race rider who falls off from fatigue after crossing the line. Yet the day is only just beginning. Even after a full English breakfast – the students are extremely well-fed – a second ten-furlong canter on board local lad Extreme Conviction – a winning hurdler for John Berry – is beyond the capabilities of any of my four limbs.

And still the day keeps going, the students unaffected by this marathon test. More yard jobs follow second lot, and after lunch a video analysis of the morning’s work followed by a session on the Equicizer – more punishment for the legs. Evening yards follow and after the horses are fed at five, it is the students’ turn – but shortly afterwards they are back to work, this time in the classroom for a lecture on the history of racing. Only at this point do the group ever reveal their young age, with plenty of chatter – louder from the boys and plenty of complaints over having to take notes – while a ball appears from nowhere to be thrown at unsuspecting neighbours. This is a small glimpse into the easier life they could have had by staying in school – so why did they choose the BRS? “I’ve always been into racing,” says Niall Reynolds, a 16-year-old graduate of the pony racing sphere. “My dad is a farrier at courses like Aintree and Ascot. After the course I’d like to work for Alan King – or any big jumps yard, but to go to him would be brilliant – and if I could become a conditional in two years that would be quite good.”

Head boy Henry Newcombe, 17, was advised to join the course by point-to-point handler Colin Rae, for whom he worked. He cites AP McCoy and Graham Lee as his racing heroes. “I bumped into Graham in Tesco and asked for his autograph,” says Newcombe. “He asked if I was taking the mick.” Fellow student Maisie O’Reilly, 16, saw the course online and, following years of showjumping, made the switch to racing. So too did Alex Comoy and Elisha Whittington, both experienced riders. All one day hope to ride under rules. Earlier, Harris touched upon managing expectations – clearly from the ratio of jockeys to stable staff, not every graduate will achieve their dream of becoming a jockey. Some will, joining the illustrious BRS alumni who include Sam Thomas, Oisin Murphy and James Doyle. That dream is surely helping to power the students through their final task of the day, block jobs – cleaning their accommodation and canteen followed by a check of each student’s dorm. The practice is standard in the military, and serves as a fitting analogy at the end of a long, hard day.

The BRS demands total dedication and discipline from its students, from seven-day weeks to a mobile-phone ban in the yard. The instructors, Marshall and Sarah Ashley, provide leadership to each group, while the camaraderie between students is clear – the beginnings of a bond that can be found the racing world over among stable staff. They are the troops who keep this global, multi-billion-pound show on the road, working through wind, rain, sleet, snow and sickness to ensure their artillery – that which fires not at people but can certainly blow a howitzer-sized hole in bank balances – is ready for battle. And the fitness. Athlete or soldier, jockey or stable lad. Physical fitness is key to success, and is something both the BRS and its students take seriously to ensure they are up to the rigours of the job. Which I am certainly not.

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