Anatomy of a winning team

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SUCCESS AT THE GALLOP: Who are the unsung heroes behind Yorkshire’s £228m horse racing industry? Tom Richmond spent a morning at the Middleham yard of top trainer Mark Johnston. Pictures by Simon Hulme.

More recently, the same can be applied to jockey Silvestre de Sousa. The “boy from Brazil” – SDS for short – is well-placed to become Flat racing’s second successive champion jockey from Yorkshire.

Racing feature at Mark Johnston's stables, Middleham..Mark Johnston...2nd August 2011 Picture By Simon Hulme

Racing feature at Mark Johnston's stables, Middleham..Mark Johnston...2nd August 2011 Picture By Simon Hulme

The public faces of Britain’s winning-most yard, they hope to add to this success at next week’s Ebor festival at York and also Doncaster’s St Leger meeting where the emerging equine star Namibian is a serious contender for the country’s oldest Classic.

This doughty thoroughbred – a Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood winner – is one of an estimated 3,288 horses that are trained in Yorkshire, and which help racing contribute £228m a year to the regional economy.

Take racing out of Middleham – one of Yorkshire’s oldest (and smallest) towns where racing on High Moor can be traced back to 1739 – and little will be left apart from King Richard III’s castle.

Mark Johnston’s stable has become a substantial operation since he purchased the near desolate Kingsley House in 1988. Now spread across three sites, his stables employ 125 full and part-time staff whose labour-intensive work – often unglamorous – enables Johnston and the likes of de Sousa to prosper.

In short, they are the names behind each horse at the races.

Take James Fenney. As the bells chime at 6am at St Mary and Alkelda Church nestling behind Kingsley House, James is just clocking off. As night watchman, his job involves monitoring the horses, keeping them well-fed and monitoring any cuts. “It’s an important job,” he says.

An unheralded role, the pride in his voice is palpable while Jock Bennett, Johnston’s assistant trainer, speaks with calm authority to any who are unsure of their responsibilities at daybreak.

They shouldn’t be. Each morning on the gallops effectively starts the day before. At 4.30pm on the previous afternoon, Jock completes a giant whiteboard grid that comprises hundreds of carefully placed magnets. They indicate each horse’s name, age box and the type of exercise to be undertaken in each of four lots. The jockey’s name is also identified and which gallops are to be used.

It doesn’t end here. A horse’s injury – or the timing of future races – must be taken into account. One wrong move and the chances of big-race success could potentially be jeopardised. Colour coding is key.

Jock, who has worked for Johnston for 14 years, has thought about computerising the whole operation – but he’s worried the information will be lost at a critical moment.

He’s right to be concerned – O2’s mobile phone network is down, making communication between the yard and gallops almost impossible.

“It’s like a crossword, but when SDS or anyone comes in, they know exactly what they’re doing,” says Jock who points to an electronic “clocking on” machine that enables him to identify, at a glance, any unexpected absentees.

“I don’t think people realise the planning. Sometimes, they just think horses turn up and race.”

If only it was that simple.

The first part of Bennett’s masterplan comes to fruition as horses leave on time from Kingsley House and the Warwick House stables directly opposite the main office. But there’s no let up in the pace.

In the rafters of Warwick House (where Neville Crump famously trained three Grand National winners) Hayley Kelly, one of four travel managers, is sorting out the colours for the stable’s evening runner at Southwell and washing the tack of the yard’s runners the previous day.

She has a mental checklist of things to pack – horse passport, bridles, colours, any nosebands. In work at 5.45am, she’ll be lucky to be home by 9pm because of the Southwell meeting. “They’re long hours – but worth it when the horse wins,” says Hayley with relish. She joined the Johnston stable shortly after the trainer’s rich promise was confirmed by Mister Baileys winning the 2000 Guineas in 1994. “It’s all about the preparation.”

Andrew Bottomley concurs with that verdict. He is one of the yard managers whose input is crucial to Bennett’s master-grid. He’s engaged in guiding Illustration around 12 circuits of the equine pool – a key part of a horse’s recovery from injury. But Andrew is also responsible for breaking in some of the yard’s unraced yearlings, getting them used to a bridle, saddle and human instruction.

“They have to know who is in charge or they’ll be no good,” says Andrew, a father-of-two. “Autumn is busiest with 70-80 new horses. It’s about patience. The better broken in they are, the better they are to train.”

As a yard manager overseeing around 30 horses, he has a key role in the 8am management meeting. This takes place inside Johnston’s Kingsley House home while Polish-born chef Agata Olcehnowska is serving breakfast to the grooms, work riders and other stable staff.

“It’s important to keep everyone happy,” says the chef. “I don’t know much about racing, but the TV’s always on in the canteen while we cook breakfast and lunch and we’re sometimes the first to hear about the winners. Lots of smiles then.”

This is another Johnston innovation – a free canteen for his staff. The reasons are two-fold. It’s to sustain them, but he’s also aware of his wider responsibilities as one of Richmondshire’s foremost employers.

The smiles are rueful in Kingsley House where Mark Johnston and Jock Bennett are studying the forthcoming entries with the trainer’s wife Deirdre – just returned from riding out -– and secretary Georgia Jones.

There are three computers and four copies of the Racing Post (plus a bottle of tomato ketchup left over from their breakfast).

The computers are logged into the British Horseracing Authority’s site and Johnston’s own digital database. It’s a question of logistics. Declarations have to be made by 10am and decisions made. This is also the day when the British Horseracing Authority’s latest handicap ratings are available. There’s silence before Johnston makes a decision that is quickly logged.

Looking up, the trainer, a former vet, inquires why a horse passed fit to gallop yesterday has been omitted from the morning’s exercise. With 180 horses, it could be viewed as a minor mishap. But he’s a perfectionist – and he expects everyone to follow exacting standards at all times. “I phoned the owner yesterday,” he says with exasperation.

Fortunately, this frustration does not rub off in the main office where Nicky McGrath, back from maternity leave, heads a four-strong team of racing secretaries. Here the phone, and good humour, is non-stop as the 10am deadline for declarations approaches. Jockey agents want to know about possible rides – Darryl Holland is left disappointed today – while other stables want to know whether certain Mark Johnston horses will run so they can finalise their plans.

“I’ve been here five years in October,” says Nicky whose husband Richie, a top jump jockey, has been among those riding out for Johnston today. “I’ve missed one declaration out of 6,000 horses. Not bad. But that’s just part of it. There’s all the overseas travel – for horses and staff.

“There’s always a deadline but we have everything at our fingertips. I can call up a horse’s name and the latest report by the vet has already been typed up. We have to be that organised when so many decisions have to be taken.”

Today the air travel is domestic – a plane to take de Sousa from Catterick races to Southwell so he avoids any travel mishaps on the A1.

“The best bit of the job?” adds Nicky before breaking out in laughter again. “Seeing a horse get to the racetrack – you know you’ve done your job.”

Mark Johnston, 52, would concur as he drives through Middleham to Park Farm – 270 acres of gallops and stables that he acquired on Christmas Eve 2003.

It’s part of his expansionist thinking and means his horses have sole use of a Tapeta all-weather surface pioneered by the Yorkshire National Hunt trainer Michael Dickinson and likened to a cushion.

“When I dreamt of winning Classics, I had 42 boxes,” says Scots-born Mark. “I didn’t realise that winning trainers had about 142 horses.” He chose Middleham in 1988 because it was cheap and because of the proximity to the A1.

As he awaits the next lot of racehorses cantering past, he points to the tractor driver, Mark Willoughby, who is harrowing the Tapeta surface on the horizon. “Tractor drivers – another group of people racegoers don’t think about.”

His analytical mind quickly switches back to more pressing matters. He’s trying to establish, ahead of the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival, why his Knavesmire strike-rate is down. “I’ve entered Fox Hunt but I think he’s an Irish St Leger horse.”

It’s certainly not because of jockeyship – de Sousa has prospered as a result of stable stalwart Joe Fanning’s long-term thumb injury, and Mark rates the 29-year-old Brazilian highly.

He’d like him to be champion. He’d also like to win the St Leger – and is curious why this race has eluded a stable that specialises in Flat stayers of the quality of Double Trigger.

“We’ve been placed three times, including Double Trigger and Corsica last year. I’d also love to win the Epsom Derby.”

Back at Kingsley House, de Sousa has no doubts. “I think Namibian will win the St Leger,” he says.

This has been a quiet morning for the 29-year-old. He’s only ridden two lots, but it enables him to get to know the staff – and the quirks of the horses before he encounters them on the racecourse.

“Riding out for Mr Johnston, it doesn’t get any better than this,” says the rider who is oblivious to the Racing Post’s front page headline that talks up his champion jockey credentials.

Before dashing off to Catterick, and then onto Southwell, he checks on Namibian and feeds him some hay while sharing a joke with the horse’s Ukrainian groom Oleg Gavyrysh.

The word is that the groom does not speak any English, but he and his horse appear to be on the same wavelength. “You’ve very clever,” the groom tells Namibian after washing down the Classic contender.

“You’d sleep with the horse if you could,” jokes an onlooker.

“Good boy,” says Oleg as he continues his conversation with this laid-back colt.

The Urainian’s English is improving. It will be even better if the St Leger is landed.

De Sousa is encouraged. Relaxed horses, he says, make his job easier. “I’m just the jockey – Oleg and the grooms do the hard work.”

With such nationalities, says Mark Johnston, it’s important that every staff member buys into his mantra, “Always Trying”. It’s displayed prominently on every item of personalised clothing.

“I was at the races and frustrated by the same stupid questions – though Deirdre told me to try and calm down – “Will it win?”

“The even more annoying question was, ‘Is it trying?’ I said that we are always trying and it came from that.

“The great thing is that it applies to everything we do. Everything.”

Though he rode while growing up in Scotland, Mark believes that his background in veterinary science is a plus. It also enables him to survey his entire string – and spot any horse labouring in an instant. “If you’re riding out, you’re only training one horse,” he says matter-of-factly. It explains why his yard has its own vets and farriers.

“Nothing is left to chance,” says vet John Martin after treating a horse’s abscess. “We do everything from simple cuts to lameness. Also basic operations like gelding and stitch-ups. We have our own scanners and X-ray equipment. If it’s more serious, a horse will go the equine hospital in Newmarket.”

While horses are being ridden out, John Martin is in constant communication with John Brown who is one of three farriers.

Sweat is pouring off the brows of both men in the humid weather. A farrier can change the steel-plated shoes of eight horses a day. It’s exhausting work. One stray nail and a horse’s season can be over in an instant.

“In the winter, sometimes you grab a nail and they freeze to your lips when it is minus 18,” explains the farrier as he shaves away the rough edges. “We work with the vets. We spot stuff – and they do. We also have to plan the shoeing. When you create a hole in the hoof, it takes 12 months for the foot to grow. You have to plan ahead and work out how many times a horse will need shoeing.”

It’s another Mark Johnston trait – looking to the future, but with the horse always coming first. “People assume my role is more business based and that anything we do is because I’m better at running the business side of things than other trainers,” he says. “I disagree. The success is down to knowing about horses.”

As the clock bells signify midday, many of the early shift are preparing for lunch. They will be returning to muck out in the afternoon.

In the office, the landlines continue to ring relentlessly. Jock Bennett ferries messages to the farriers, vets and those still out of mobile phone range. Today has been a quieter morning. It will speed up at the end of the week when the stable can have over 30 runners.

Mark Johnston and Silvestre de Sousa just have time to smarten up before the short trip to Catterick races (where they go on to win).

Theirs will be the first names that punters look for on the racecard. They will know little of the team who’ve been up since dawn to ensure that the stable’s horses are immaculately turned out and have a winning chance.

“Everyone has to do their job,” Mark said.

Or as chef Agata Olcehnowska put it as she served the lunchtime lasagne, “Always keep smiling.”

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk