Over the stable door: Training challenge with all but written off Jonny

Jo Foster sorting out the tack at her stables at Menston near Leeds.
Jo Foster sorting out the tack at her stables at Menston near Leeds.
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One of the new horses has surprised us. Jonny the giant had arrived with a blotted copy book in the spring, having been written off by a vet due to back problems and he was deemed unrideable by the yard manager where he was stabled.

The owner rang me in a state, determined her eight-year-old deserved a final chance to prove himself despite her vet’s insistence that Jonny would never stand up to the work.

Five years ago, Jonny won the coveted hunter class at The Royal Dublin Horse Show but had since proved too fresh for the hunting field. His owner pleaded with me to train him for a few months to see if he might amount to anything on the racetrack.

I wasn’t overjoyed at taking on a tricky ride but I promised I would try. Jonny arrived and I spent days lunging him in the sand pit before I dared throw myself aboard. He turned himself inside out for two days but having been taken off hard feed or anything which might ‘fizz’ him up he soon tired. During those first few weeks he threw a couple of huge bucks in hacking out. I ignored them. A regular workload suited him and he soon settled in. To avoid aggravating the back we did everything slowly, up a moderate slope and never circled, avoiding pressure on his sacroiliac. The physio gave him regular sessions.

After eight weeks we were ready to work up the gallops to see if he might show enough to remain in training. He wasn’t the quickest but he was big. Sitting aboard felt like you were cantering along until you looked across to the horse working alongside. It would be battling to do two strides to keep up.

I rang the owner to explain he might be worth continuing with. My attempts to avoid sounding too optimistic were quashed when she sensed mild excitement in my voice. She was elated at the thought of proving her vet wrong.

I plied the big gelding with work through the summer. He was a brilliant jumper, the bigger the fence the more impressive he jumped. If he had a future in racing it would lay jumping big fences over a marathon trip in the mud. First I needed to get him a handicap mark which meant three runs in novice hurdle races so the handicapper could assess his ability. He would need to be as fit as possible to even layup with his more experienced younger counterparts in these fast run races.

We found a race at Kelso for him. The distance was too short but it was as close to suitable as there was available in October. It was a warm race on paper but we just needed a clear round.

Jonny was twice the size of the other runners. I told our jockey he better set off at the front to delay getting lapped by the other runners for as long as possible. He laughed but at 125-1 it looked like the bookies thought it possible.

Jonny set off at the front with two favourites alongside him for company. The remaining ten runners were tucked in behind. He jumped big and neatly.

After two circuit’s he was still there with runners strung out like washing behind. He ended up finishing a gallant third. None of us could believe it. We were hoarse from shouting him home and everyone other than me had backed him each way.

The owner was understandable emotional. Her belief in Jonny had been proved right. It was a great result against the odds.