SAMANTHA Drake knows there are easier ways to make money – Britain’s newest racehorse trainer is the first to understand the financial realities of life. But the effervescent young Yorkshirewoman doesn’t regard training horses as hard work. It’s a labour of love. “You’re not working if you’re doing your hobby,” she says forcefully. She means it.
The 28-year-old made the perfect start to her new career when her very first runner, Star Presenter, won at Catterick exactly a month ago on Janury 27 – coincidentally her very first day as a licensed trainer.
One runner, one winner.
She was in dreamland a week later when Raktiman, again expertly ridden by her fiancé Jonathan England, was a wide-margin winner at the atmospheric North Yorkshire track – her first four runners had yielded two winners. It’s a strike-rate the very top trainers can’t buy. And then reality hit home – she opened her monthly statement from Weatherbys, racing’s administrators, to discover she owed them £300, despite these two confidence-boosting successes, because of the cost of taking out a licence and complying with the sport’s various rules and regulations.
“I was gutted,” admitted Drake. “But you can’t worry about it. You have to have confidence in what you are doing – and just get on with it.”
It’s the story of her life. Born in Otley, she has spent her entire life surrounded by animals on the Guiseley farm owned by her parents Richard and Janet. Like their quietly determined daughter becoming accustomed to the challenges of racing, they, too, have had to come to terms with the systemic changes in agriculture. Manor Farm is no longer a thriving dairy farm. It is a livery yard, with horses residing in luxury in old stone barns that have stood the test of time.
Tucked away at the end of a lane, the early-morning hum of the Leeds rush-hour traffic is replaced by the unmistakable sound of the hooves of horses as they’re led from the yard to the former field where the Drake family have built their own gallop – an investment in the future – and from where a watchful deer surveys the scene. With a dozen or so horses, every minute counts. As soon as it is light enough, Drake and England – one of the North’s top young jump jockeys – have got the leg up their respective mounts. Drake is on the likable Attimo who is a new acquisition from Doncaster Sales; England is on the stable’s standard-bearer Distime who was a gutsy third over Aintree’s Grand National fences last December and is hoping to make the cut for the Topham Trophy at the Merseyside track in April.
“I’m not allowed to ride him (Distime) out any more. I can’t hold him apparently,” bemoans Drake as her fiancé sets a slightly impatient pace. “Jonny rides the nice ones and I get to ride the naughty ones to get know them.”
It does prompt England, now an adopted Yorkshireman after moving North several seasons ago to pursue his career, to gently point out: “You’ve got to have the job done right.”
This natural warmth and repartee lifts the early morning cold and gloom as the slate grey skies moisten. Both horses do three circuits of the four furlong gallop, gradually building up speed in a clockwise direction, before pulling up and repeating the process anti-clockwise. Trainer and jockey are both in agreement – the horses are in good form.
Yet it is only then that it becomes clear that this is a family concern. As the two riders return to the stables, the trainer’s parents, and assorted others, are mucking out, hosing down horses and tacking up the next lot to be ridden out.
And so it goes on before a brief adjournment for breakfast, the routine the same, as the horses are given the individual love and attention that is not always possible at those major yards where the numbers correspond with cavalries.
The only difference is the last word rests with Drake rather than her father, a gentle giant with the unmistakable gait of a farmer, who took out a permit which enabled the family to train a small number of horses until his daughter had gained the requisite experience to satisy the racing authorities.
“Mum, can you get the blacksmith to look at Distime’s shoes on Monday?” asks Drake.
“Already on the list,” replies her mother with reassuring authority. Yet the reality is that Drake was destined to become a trainer from the moment she was given a little pony called Bonnie. It changed her life. A pupil of Hawksworth Primary School, Drake joined Guiseley School where her attendance was less than assiduous – she admits to registering, skipping lessons to ride out, returning to class to register for the afternoon and then heading home to continue her education with horses.
When 16, she left school after resisting her mother’s overtures to train to be a vet, Drake began a successful association with Menston trainer Jo Foster, while also becoming an increasingly proficient point-to-point rider, showjumper and jockey good enough to ride, and win, under National Hunt rules – a fine achievement in what remains a male-orientated sport.
“Jo got me into racing and my parents got me a pointer for my 18th birthday,” says Drake. “I remember getting home and Mum and Dad had decorated my room. The problem was the horse had got a leg injury and I couldn’t ride him – they didn’t want to break the news.
“I always said I was the ‘poor kid’. Everyone had a nice horse and there was me riding everyone else’s cast-offs.
“Dad always said you feed them the best feed you can afford. You get them as fit as you can, you treat them well and keep them fresh. Why over-complicate it?”
It remains the stable’s mantra as the responsibility passes from father to daughter. Even though Drake had to go through various British Horseracing Authority courses – her fellow students included Sheikh Mohammed’s former racing manager Simon Crisford – she is predominantly self-taught.
She is grateful to the support of the aforementioned Jo Foster – and also the guidance from Yorkshire’s Grand National-winning trainers Sue and Harvey Smith whose gallops are just a short canter over the moor.
It’s a close-knit racing community – Guiseley was home to Dominic Elsworth who triumphed at the 2008 Cheltenham Festival on the ever-popular Mister McGoldrick.
“I used to have a poster of Harvey Smith on my wall,” says Drake. “He was my hero. On one of the days I was at school, I wrote a letter to him asking for help with a project.
“He buys cheap horses and looks to turn them around. Oh my God, that’s me now.
“It’s what we’ve always done – and it’s what we’re doing with the racehorses. A jockey once said the only way for a trainer to end up with £1m is to start with £5m. I hope he’s wrong.”
In a short space of time, Drake has built up quite a following in racing – and amongst her family’s circle of friends. Her granny, and her friend Margaret, are still poring over dictionaries after Drake used the word “stoked” in The Yorkshire Post to describe her reaction to Star Performer’s win.
Yet there’s more to life than training. She has created a special database to record each horse’s performance on the gallops, she’s created her own website and she’s looking to persuade potential owners to join syndicates where they can share the fun (and cost) of racehorse ownership.
Valentine’s Day was spent toiling on the gallops mixing some new fibre into the sand surface so horses can enjoy an even better grip. “Backbreaking” was her description minus the expletives.
She tells herself that it is time – and money – well spent. On training, she says the highlight is “the sense of pride” when horses run well, while she admits that dealing with the injuries is the most difficult aspect of her work, and this will always be so.
As for the future, Samantha Drake is certain what she will be doing in 10 years time – training winners while having fun.
And, hopefully, making money. “Sometimes I think back and say ‘oh my God’,” she adds. “But it beats working for a living.”
It always will.
Even when her aching body is telling her otherwise at 6.15am in the wind and rain at the start of another day doing the hobby that is not only her life but that, too, of her ever-supportive family.
• If you’re interested in owning a racehorse, or joining a syndicate, see samdrakeracing.com for further details.