THE instructions to jockey Tommy Dowson were short and to the point as he mounted Lady Buttons in the Doncaster paddock for the first time in a race. “Just take your time,” said trainer Phil Kirby reassuringly.
Yet the fact that Lady Buttons did hit the front too soon in a race previously won by subsequent Champion Hurdle heroine Annie Power could be attributed to the nine-year-old mare’s enthusiasm rather than the inexperience of the fresh-faced rider deputising for the injury-sidelined Adam Nicol.
As connections celebrated in the paddock after the horse, now known as the Queen of Yorkshire racing, cleared the last in the Mares’ Hurdle, Lady Buttons was, in fact, idling on the long run as the pursuing Indefatigable closed with every stride.
She got to within a neck of a shock win.
Yet, after a moment’s hesitation before the outcome was confirmed, owner Jayne Sivills – sporting the purple and white colours carried by her horse of a lifetime – sprinted to greet Lady Buttons and lead her back into an exultant winner’s enclosure.
The horse’s fourth win from as many starts this season, this was a first at Grade Two level and Sivills, together with her more reserved husband Keith who bred the horse, are living the dream.
Not only has Lady Buttons got a fan following to match her prowess over both hurdles and fences, but she has put Kirby’s yard at Catterick on the map and stable star now heads to the Cheltenham Festival.
She holds an entry in the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase – the field is headed by steeplechasing superstar Altior – and the two-and-a-half mile Mares’ Hurdle. Though the former is more prestigious, the latter is more winnable and Kirby wants to keep his options open.
His immediate reaction was one of relief after entrusting this high-profile ride to his stable conditional rather an a more experienced jockey. “It’s brilliant for Tommy who only came back from injury a week ago,” said Kirby. “I’m just pleased he didn’t get chinned on the line.
“When she gets to the front, she thinks she’s done enough. I think she knows where the paddock is. She jinked here last time at the same place.”
Though Dowson, 23 this week, did land Wetherby’s Grade Two West Yorkshire Hurdle on Nautical Nitwit last November, that win was unexpected while Lady Buttons was expected to prevail.
Full of praise for the pre-race instruction and support from both Kirby and the stricken Nicol, he did ride the mare conservatively.
However, he was surprised by how easily Lady Buttons took him towards the front in the home straight – and that he had to go on, to stay out of trouble, after a wayward Indefatigable veered left at the penultimate flight.
“Phil told me not to get the front too soon, and I did,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “She’s that good a mare that she takes you there so easily. As soon as you give her a squeeze, she gets there. She’s a class horse. She knows what she’s doing. She’s probably different class to them – she’s a serious mare. I couldn’t be happier for Phil, the owners and the whole team. I haven’t experienced a ride like it.”