IF the enigmatic Rex Imperator returns to winning ways in today’s Coral Sprint Trophy, York’s end-of-season finale, it will be another remarkable victory for ‘horse whisperer’ Gary Witheford.
He is the mesmerising man who found solace in horses during a troubled childhood when he was sexually abused, and whose special empathy with animals has seen him become the world’s foremost equine guru.
He was the expert who broke in a young yearling by the name of Sea The Stars, racing’s superstar of 2009, and he was deployed to the start before champion miler Kingman’s contests this summer.
Yet one of Witheford’s greatest achievements was the taming of Rex Imperator before the William Haggas-trained sprinter won last year’s Stewards Cup at Glorious Goodwood in the colours of then owner Steve Parkin, the boss of Yorkshire-based Clipper Logistics and owner of Guiseley FC.
The five-year-old is such a reformed character that Witheford will not even be at York today when Rex Imperator is loaded. The horse will be overseen by his assistant, Craig Bevan, who is a remarkable story in his own right – he had to give up his riding career after a serious car accident left him with multiple leg fractures.
Witheford, speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post, knew all about Rex Imperator from painful, personal experience when he received a text message from Skipton-born Haggas early last year asking for help controlling the giant gelding’s terrible temperament.
This, after all, is the horse, that smacked Witheford on the head, and knocked out the equine guru before leaving jockey George Baker nursing injuries of his own and then finishing last of 20 when favourite to win the Ladbrokes Portland on St Leger day at Doncaster in 2012. Witheford now thinks the horse ran while concussed.
“He’d been racing in Dubai and they sent him home from there for being the worst behaved horse in the paddock, when being mounted by his jockey and at the start,” said Witheford.
“He’d been switched to William’s and he sent me a text asking if I knew Rex Imperator. I said he was a complete so and so, but said I would do my best. The horse was a complete thug; he didn’t care what he did to anyone. He came straight off the plane from Dubai to mine. I said to William I would just get his confidence in the stalls and give him a bit of a break.
“We would just start to walk him through the stalls and then make him stand in there. All he wanted to do was rear up and trip over. I always use a three-metre length of rope, so if a horse does go up, the lead rope has got the length of the horse at full height and when it comes back down, you’ve still got hold of it. The worst thing is letting the horse rear up and get away from you: then it has learned it can escape and will certainly try it next time.”
Rex Imperator was a slow learner. It took even longer for him to become accustomed to going into stalls with horses on either side. A trial run after racing at Kempton one evening did not go to plan, the horse was his old recalcitrant self.
It was then Witheford decided to put Rex Imperator in a pen, strap his legs together so he had to lie down and then left him for five minutes. He then took the straps off and walked the horse into stalls without a problem. Since then, he has been a reformed character.
It stems from Witheford’s experience during his formative years at the stables of Stan Mellor, the former champion jockey, when they could not load a racehorse onto a wagon.
The then stable worker simply did some chores on the lorry within eyeshot of the horse who then followed him up the ramp in his own time.
“If you have a horse’s confidence, he will follow you at a stroke because he trusts you,” explained Witheford. “It’s not natural for a horse to go into stalls – which are effectively cages – and stand there for two or three minutes.”
Witheford still treasures the “you’re a genius” text that he received from Haggas after the Stewards Cup – and the hug that he received in the Goodwood winner’s enclosure from the trainer’s wife Maureen, the daughter of legendary jockey Lester Piggott. “They are real team players and the real team players appreciate what you do,” said Witheford. “I did a winner at Royal Ascot and I still haven’t been paid or thanked by the trainer. That annoys me.
“My son Craig was the first person to sit on Sea The Stars when he was broken in and I was at the start when he won the Derby, and the Juddmonte at York. There was no problem – that was John Oxx being John Oxx, dotting Is and crossing Ts.”
Witheford has also been instrumental in getting jockey James Doyle’s career back on track so he could ride horses like Kingman. “At one time he wanted to give up because he had lost his confidence – this game is all about confidence,” he said.
Proud to be associated with 14 Group One winners this year, the pleasure is all Witheford’s when horses like Rex Imperator load into the stalls – and then win. “I wouldn’t be who I am now, and where I am, without horses. I owe my life to them. I wake up every day thinking of them and go to bed thinking of them.
“I work 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and the horses know how to say ‘thank you’.”
n ‘If Horses Could Talk’, Gary Witheford (Racing Post Books, price £20).