“HERE THEY come,” says trainer Phil Kirby, a study of concentration as his racehorses stride purposefully up the gallops towards him.
There is silence and the air under clear North Yorkshire skies is still.
His eyes then focus on the lead horse – and they do not deviate away.
“How was she?” he asks the work rider as the horse in question is pulled up. The reply is a reassuring one: “Fine.”
This is no ordinary horse as ‘third lot’ complete their exercise on this frosty winter’s morning.
She is Lady Buttons, the mare whose high-profile successes and burgeoning reputation are putting the ambitious Kirby, and his team, on the racing map.
An eyecatching winner at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase day when Kirby recorded a notable treble, she was then even more impressive at Newbury when she recorded her 10th win from 24 starts.
Now Lady Buttons, whose ever-enthusiastic owners Jayne and Keith Sivills run a pub near Whitby, is on track for Wetherby’s historic Castleford Chase next Thursday, heading the 16-strong field.
Even though the two-mile chase has lost some of its lustre it has been previously won by steeplechasing icons like Tingle Creek, Badsworth Boy, Waterloo Boy, Viking Flagship, Mister McGoldrick and many others.
“She’s been brilliant for us,” Kirby tells The Yorkshire Post as he watches the horses pull up. “We’ve had her since she was a foal. She won her Bumper and has just got better and better.
“She managed to win a novice hurdle when not right and that’s when she went wrong and did a tendon. Keith and Jayne gave me as much time as I needed to get her right.
“It’s hard to keep sound ones (horses) sound. It’s even harder when they’ve had a problem.
“But she’s had a real clear run now. She’s a very, very athletic jumper – that’s the main attribute.
“She’s quick, brave and has lots of scopes to go with it. She’s very clever.”
She is also the embodiment of the progress that Kirby – and his team – have made since he purchased the run-down Green Oaks Farm at East Appleton nearly three years ago.
Just a short canter away from Catterick racecourse, and the A1M for ease of getting to and from other tracks, he and his young family have been able to put down roots.
The farmhouse is now a family home. Another barn has been converted into an office and large farm buildings now contain stables for racehorses in training – as well as foals, yearlings and younger stock being nurtured by Kirby with an eye to the future.
And then there is the uphill gallop, a combination of wood chip and felt from car interiors.
Harrowed by Kirby and his longstanding assistant Simon Olley after every gallop, it is making a difference.
Now on the 50-winner mark after Niven’s success at Hexham on Thursday, the target for 2018 is 52 successes on the Flat and under National Hunt rules – each success faithfully recorded on two boards in the office.
Instead of being restricted when he could use Middleham’s gallops where he was previously based, Kirby can set his own tempo to the day.
The downside, he says, is the work that it takes to maintain the facilities.
He and his assistant manfully lift obstacles into place so two younger horses can have some practice jumps, and he does so while dealing with various mobile phone calls.
“My biggest nightmare? Missing entries,” he says while also scanning entries on his phone for forthcoming races in case there are unexpected opportunities.
By his own admission, he struggles to relax.
“Not really. You can’t. It doesn’t happen. There is always something to do or someone to ring,” says Kirby, who invariably drives his own horse box to the races.
The phone’s constant ringing explains why his favourite time of day is dawn when he is able to feed his horses, and check on their well-being, before everyone else is awake.
However, the most important is probably the time spent at the wheel of his tractor ensuring that the gallop feels like a carpet for his horses.
“Keeping the gallop right is key,” he says as he explains the importance of fitness.
“You’ve got to be hard enough because the big yards don’t miss a trick.
“You can’t go half fit. You have to be 100 per cent fit to compete with the big yards. But you have to push at the right time.”
It is why each horse has just two canters on a Monday rather than three, all part of a routine that is yielding results as Kirby’s team become accustomed to their surroundings.
It speaks volumes that he still employs some of the staff who were with him when he first took out a training licence just over a decade ago at Castleton.
Their bond is epitomised by the laughter, and banter, as the effervescent Jennie Durrans poses for pictures with Lady Buttons.
An accomplished horsewoman who has recently returned to her North Yorkshire roots, she rides out the eight-year-old mare every morning.
“She’s an absolute pleasure,” says Durrans, who likens working in a racing stables to being part of a wider team and family. “She’s just push button. I shouldn’t be paid to ride her, she’s that nice. If I was a jockey she’s the one I would have the bottle to ride.”
Not that she will get her chance. Her boyfriend is Adam Nicol, the lucky jockey whose career – just like Kirby’s – has reached new heights in the past two years thanks to the emergence of Lady Buttons.
“It’s a very hard-working yard,” he says.
“Everyone starts at 7am and literally don’t stop until 1pm. You wouldn’t get away with being lazy – that’s for sure.
“It’s a brilliant set-up and Phil is a massive up-and-coming trainer.
“The fact we are so close to the A1M has been a massive plus – great for getting the horses to the racing and people visiting.”
His face lights up when mention is made of Lady Buttons, who clearly rivals the aforementioned Durrans in his affections.
“Counting down the days,” says Nicol as he looks forward to the Castleford Chase.
“She’s now won Listed races over hurdles and fences, but her last run at Newbury was special.
“The fact we went down there and won so well. Northern trainer, northern jockey, northern horse.”
It was the manner of the victory that was especially pleasing – one extravagant jump at the fifth last taking Nicol to the front far earlier than he had envisaged before this special horse galloped all the way to the line on one of the biggest racedays of the year.
However, Christmas is not a time for reflection. As Phil Kirby says, there are horses to train, races to win and gallops to harrow. Plus new targets on the horizon as he looks to improve the quality of his horses.
As he looks up the gallops towards his stables, and home, what goes through his mind as he considers the scale of the transformation that has taken place at this 110-acre farm?
“We’ve done the hard thing getting it right,” he says.
“We’ve got to keep having winners. And better winners.”
Busy time of year as the pace quickens
THERE WILL be no let up in the pace at Phil Kirby’s stables over the festive period.
“Half the staff work Christmas and half do New Year,” says Kirby, who has an 18-strong team.
“Christmas is a busy time because of all your Boxing Day runners. Horses can’t have an easy day – we’ll get in and crack on.”
As well as Lady Buttons running at Wetherby next Thursday, stablemate Nautical Nitwit could compete at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Victorious in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase day, the hope is that the horse is good enough to qualify for the National Hunt Festival next March after recovering from a nasty cut.
“We’ve had to hang fire a little but he’ll probably go to Cheltenham on New Year’s Day before we look to get him qualified for the Pertemps,” said Kirby.