THE annual allure of Cheltenham is encapsulated by Yorkshire pub owner Jayne Sivills and her horse of a lifetime Lady Buttons who lines up in one of the main races on the opening day of the National Hunt Festival.
Sivills, and her husband Keith, find themselves competing against legendary racing figures like JP McManus, Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins – respectively the winning-most owner, jockey and trainer in the history of the prestigious meeting.
Yet the fact that they are daring to dream – the Phil Kirby-trained and Tommy Dowson-ridden Lady Buttons lines up in the Grade One Olbg Mares’ Hurdle – shows there is still a place for the unheralded who are the grassoots of National Hunt racing.
And while recent festivals have been dominated by powerhouse owners, and stables, on both sides of the Irish Sea, Lady Buttons is unbeaten from four starts this season and has become known as the ‘Queen’ of Yorkshire racing.
She has become so popular that her racing fans now wear purple and white scarves, one of which adorns the bar at The Tiger Inn hostelry at Easington which the Sivills run with their two sons Gary and Mark.
All the talk at the bar, as regulars prepare to make the long trip to the Cotswolds, is Lady Buttons who had not even been born when the couple purchased her dam Lady Chapps.
We’re not frightened to take them on. It’s nice to be there and up against them. I’m sure they will be looking at Lady Buttons in the race, but we’re there on merit.Jayne Sivills
It was a case of ‘buy one, get one free’, says Sivills who is a familiar sight on the country’s racecourses in her purple and white regalia as she cheers her horse – and then sprints to the winner’s enclosure to lead in Lady Buttons.
And because she has so much faith in her trainer, and the team that the ambitious Kirby has developed at a redundant farm near Catterick that has been converted into state-of-the-art stables, she is unfazed about the opposition after opting – following much agonising over the weekend – for this race instead of tomorrow’s Queen Mother Champion Chase.
“Fifteen declared, half of which are Irish-trained. Dare I say, there’s nothing to be too frightened of, other than the Benie Des Dieux and her stablemate Limini,” said Sivills, as she studied the form of the two ante-post favourites who are trained by the aforementioned Mullins for the racing tycoon Rich Ricci.
“My only doubt is the two and a half miles, but Phil and Tommy are sure she will get the trip. The soft ground will not bother her at all. It’s nice to be up against these big names, to take them on and see where we are.
“We’re not frightened to take them on. It’s nice to be there and up against them. I’m sure they will be looking at Lady Buttons in the race, but we’re there on merit.”
Born and brought up in her parents’ pub at nearby Scaling Dam, Sivills’ horse is fourth favourite and has an impressive 12 wins from 26 starts to her name.
Yet, while the mare has proved her versatility by excelling over both hurdles and fences, the favourite Benie Des Dieux – said to be one of the ‘bankers’ of the four-day meeting for the Walsh-Mullins axis which has been so dominant in recent years – has not been defeated since moving from France to Ireland over two years ago. Equally Elimay and Slowmotion, carrying the green and gold colours of McManus, will not be making up the numbers as the leading owner – and legendary gambler – looks to add to his big race success.
“You have to keep living the dream,” says Sivills, a Middlesbrough FC season-ticket holder. “Will it ever happen again? You never know. It’s not all down to what you pay for a horse. People can pay £100k or £10k and the cheaper one is the better one.
“The main owners and stables can keep spending the money – but we’ve been so lucky to get the one (Lady Buttons) we’ve got at the moment.”
The thoughts of Sivills are also with regular rider Adam Nicol who remains on the injury sidelines after breaking his leg at Musselburgh in a horror fall in New Year’s Day.
He will be at Cheltenham cheering on the horse – and offering support to Dowson, 23, who partnered Lady Buttons to her Grade Two win at Doncaster in late January.
For Dowson, it will be his first ride at the National Hunt Festival – the fresh-faced jockey is also due to ride Nautical Nitwit in the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday – and he says the confidence shown in him by the owners, and Kirby, is significant.
“To ride her at Doncaster was a massive help and I’m grateful for the backing of the owners and the whole team,” added Dowson, who had a confidence-boosting win on Little Bruce in last week’s Cambridgeshire National at Huntingdon and foregoes his conditional rider’s three pound weight allowance in today’s race due to its elite level status. “She is in good form.”
As for Jayne Sivills, the joke back at The Tiger Inn, as she helped to serve Sunday lunches at the weekend, was whether her cries of encouragement will be heard above the packed 40,000-plus crowd – ‘yes’ she replied in the affirmative – and how fast she will run through the enclosures if her adored horse wins.
She added: “I’ll be an emotional wreck.”