Check out this impressive 125-year-old racing yard (complete with its own private cemetery)

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  • Bonita Racing Stables is the now the base of National Hunt trainer Emma Lavelle and her husband, former jump jockey Barry Fenton, who have an exciting stayers’ hurdle prospect in Paisley Park heading to the Cheltenham Festival next week (12-15 March).

    The yard is located in an area of outstanding natural beauty on the Wessex Downs, just outside Marlborough in Wiltshire — with original parts of the historic stables dating back to the late 1890s. H&H takes a sneak peek around the stunning set up...

    A historic stable yard

    National Hunt trainer Emma Lavelle poses with her Festival prospect, Paisley Park, in the original L-shaped yard, which was built in the late 1890s and provides 24 stables.

    Well-renowned racing names, such as former record-breaking jockey Sir Gordon Richards, champion jump trainer Bob Turnell and Peter Makin — from whom the couple purchased the estate — have all trained from the remarkable yard.

    ‘The best grass gallops’

    The great jockey Lester Piggott once declared the grass gallops at Bonita Racing Stables “the best he had ever ridden on” and on visiting, you can see why.

    They cover an impressive 154 acres on well-draining turf and provide a variey of different gallops ranging from five to ten furlongs, including the Bungalow Mile (rises gently across open downland), the Starting Gate Canter (five furlongs), Four-Mile Clump (10 furlongs with an uphill finish) and the Five Furlongs (a stiff, five-furlong uphill gallop used for fast work).

    Overlooking the grass gallops, perched high up on the downs is a now run-down shack. The remote hilltop building was, in fact, where Sir Gordon Richards — the 26-time champion jockey — secretly spent six months living, while he recovered from the tuberculosis that nearly killed him.

    The private cemetery

    Emma and Barry are only the third owners of Bonita Racing Stables since it was built in the late 1890s and, intriguingly, there is a remote cemetery on the estate where Norah Laye is buried along with her three husbands and her son.

    Norah was the first racehorse trainer to be based at the Wiltshire yard. When her first husband, Paddy Hartigan, died she married his brother, Martin — to whom Sir Gordon was apprentice jockey. She then married Rupert Laye, after Martin died during World War II.

    According to Emma, any one-time owner of the estate can reserve a space in the secluded cemetery…

    The all-weather gallop

    Since buying the estate just under four years ago, Emma and Barry have invested in new facilities including a four-and-half furlong all-weather gallop, which meanders through the valley before rolling into a steep uphill climb.

    The schooling ground

    Another vital addition for any National Hunt trainer — the schooling ground. The new jumps include lines of both hurdles and chase fences.

    The sand school

    An area of stunning woodland is interspersed with horse walks and the former tennis court is now the sand school, where all the racehorses start their morning work (Paisley Park, pictured centre).

    With a background in dressage, Emma likes all the horses to go in an outline, which is good for developing their muscles and top-lines, plus, she adds, it is beneficial for racehorses should they enjoy post-racing careers, such as dressage or showing.

    The round sand gallop

    Another useful addition by Emma and Barry, the round sand canter ring is used for hack canters in order to warm the racehorses up, before they head out onto the gallops (Paisley Park, pictured in front).

    Since moving to Bonita in the summer of 2016, the couple have made some big changes to the yard while maintaining and preserving its heritage.

    This includes a refurbishment of the original stables — as well as building an additional stable block, an American-style barn and undercover horsewalker.

    Don’t miss our Cheltenham Festival preview in this week’s issue of Horse & Hound (7 March), including our full interview with Emma Lavelle — on sale now.

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