4.30am starts, 40,000 steps a day and the ‘best time of my life’:  Henry de Bromhead’s travelling head lass reflects on a ‘crazy’ few weeks

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  • After a whirlwind few weeks punctuated by Cheltenham Festival triumphs and a sensational Grand National victory, we caught up with Irish racehorse trainer Henry de Bromhead’s travelling head lass Zoe Smalley to find out about life on the road with some of racing’s biggest superstars.

    Zoe, 31, joined Henry de Bromhead’s Co. Waterford stables last year after stints with Willie Mullins and Gavin Cromwell, but she is Yorkshire born and bred.

    “I came over for the Galway races and never went home!” she tells H&H. “I got bitten by the racing bug and just fell in love with it.”

    This year’s Cheltenham Festival, in which Henry trained six winners including a one-two in the Gold Cup, was undoubtedly a career highlight for Zoe and the skeleton crew who were allowed to travel over for the four-day meeting.

    “You couldn’t not enjoy it as part of the Henry de Bromhead camp!” she says. “It was really hard work – the Covid restrictions meant we were in an Irish bubble with restricted numbers of staff, so a lot fewer people there than we would normally have – there were only seven of us for the 23 horses we brought over. Henry had to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty at Cheltenham! But he has no qualms about that and was happy to muck in.

    “The whole Irish bubble worked as a team and I actually saddled Paul Nolan’s winner Mrs Milner for them. We were all helping out, it was such a good atmosphere. Paul Hennessy’s winning mare Heaven Help Us was given a round of applause by the Irish bubble when she was loaded in the lorry to go home.”

    “Stay 2m apart! Stay 2m apart!”

    Zoe’s day started at 4.30am ready to feed the horses and part of the team’s routine at Cheltenham was to walk the horses round the track and give them a pick of grass and a roll.

    “So we had two or three lots walking round every night and Henry was leading them out with us,” explains Zoe. “He’s the same on the yard though – really hands on and on top of everything. He looks over every single horse the morning after its run, whereas in other yards it might be the assistant trainer or head lad’s job. He’s there first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening.”

    This year’s Cheltenham Festival, held behind closed doors owing to the ongoing pandemic, was anything but normal.

    “But I didn’t even notice the racecourse was empty – we’re very used to it at this stage,” says Zoe. “These crazy, amazing results kept happening and the only people I knew were in Cheltenham were Team de Bromhead, Rachael Blackmore, Aidan Coleman, Jack Kennedy and Henry. After that, I’ve no idea!

    “When Honeysuckle came up the hill [to win the champion hurdle] we all ran up the chute towards her and Jennifer Walsh and Jennifer Pugh were running after us saying ‘Stay 2m apart! Stay 2m apart!’

    “Then in the Gold Cup, I didn’t know who to shout for [Minella Indo won, chased home by stable-mate A Plus Tard] and I absolutely bawled afterwards, I was a mess,” she says.

    Shortly after the monumental achievements at the Cheltenham Festival, Henry de Bromhead then trained the first two home in the Grand National at Aintree, with winning jockey Rachael Blackmore continuing to rewrite the history books.

    “I wasn’t at Aintree and the TV stopped working just before the Grand National so I had to resort to watching it on my phone — which is impossible in a 40-horse race!” says Zoe. “So I was basically observing and listening for any sign of Rachael on Minella Times, Aidan Coleman on Balko Des Flos or Darragh O’Keeffe on Chris’s Dream. I saw the three of them jumping in a line near the end but Darragh unfortunately got unseated, then Minella Times and Balko Des Flos just took off and for a minute I thought ‘Who is that horse?’ because Balko was wearing new colours. But when I realised it was him I didn’t know who to cheer for — it was like the Gold Cup all over again. I really thought Balko would catch Minella.

    “But it’s been such a crazy time since Cheltenham.”

    “They’re horses people dream of standing next to for a selfie”

    While the team are sending out many leading contenders at this week’s Punchestown Festival, Zoe is isolating after travelling to Sandown at the weekend but she’s kept equally busy between races. 

    “There are two of us who do the travelling and I do the English races, anything abroad,” she says. “Henry is great at taking horses for away days — he puts so much variety into what those horses do. You’ll see the horses on the beach one morning, cross-country schooling the next and galloping on the Curragh the day after — which is great, but it makes me very busy!

    “I love going to England with the horses — there’s nothing on the lorry that doesn’t deserve its place there. To be in charge of those 23 horses at Cheltenham — Honeysuckle, Bob Ollinger, Minella Indo, A Plus Tard and so on — they’re horses people dream of standing next to for a selfie.

    “But it’s crazy the amount of stuff you have to pack to take with you. Most of it I know I won’t need, but I have to have it just in case. I went to Cheltenham with three massive suitcases and three overnight bags — bearing in mind that I was locked in for a week so I wasn’t going out anywhere — but you need your wet gear, wellies, different shoes because you’re doing so much walking… We did 40,000 steps a day, seven days in a row! So we had fairly sore feet by the end of it.”

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    So what does she love best about the job?

    “It’s amazing when you have a few days like Cheltenham, but I love getting them home safe and tucked up in their rugs for a rest,” she says. “We had this absolutely magical week — the best week of your life — then we had to be locked away to self-isolate while the rest of the yard were enjoying cake and balloons and all sorts of celebrations. 

    “But the whole thing has been magical and we were all just very lucky to be there.”

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