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‘Crazy but awesome’ countess to make race-riding debut aged 69

A “crazy but awesome” countess is to make her race-riding debut this summer, months before her 70th birthday.

Grandmother of seven Lady Halifax is training for the Ernest Cooper “Ride of their Lives” on 15 June, an annual fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Support at York racecourse.

The countess, who has served as the charity’s president since 2002, decided last year she wanted to “go the extra mile” by taking part in the race.

The 69-year-old, who had not ridden a racehorse in training until last autumn, will line up with 11 other amateur riders in front of a crowd expected to be about 25,000 people strong.

“It’s all completely mad isn’t it – to wait until you are 69-and-a-half to ride in your first race,” said Lady Halifax, who has been riding out for trainer Richard Fahey.

“I have lots of moments wondering what on earth I’m doing!”

The countess, who has ridden since childhood, hunting for many years with the Buccleuch near her home in the Scottish borders, came up with the idea of taking part in the race last summer. She spoke to Richard, who agreed to help her, with some reservations.

“I was very worried, I won’t lie,” he said. “When she said she was going to ride in the race, I thought she was bonkers.”

Richard agreed to find her a horse for the race, so Lady Halifax started her preparations last winter, also riding out for Jacqueline Coward, the granddaughter of trainer Mick Easterby.

“I saw I needed a lot of practice and the Cowards were amazing to me,” Lady Halifax said. “It’s such a friendly, happy place to go and because Jacqueline is an amazing horsewoman, the horses are really adorable to ride.

“I started riding out one horse and ended up riding three. The Cowards couldn’t have been kinder and more welcoming – it was brilliant.”

The riding helped build the countess’s strength and confidence, and since early March, she has been getting up at 5.15am four times a week to ride out for Richard, usually riding four lots each time.

“I might not be very good now but I have to have improved,” she said. “They’d tell you more than me, but I feel that I am more in control of the situation.”

Lady Halifax joked: “Who’d want Granny riding out in the string?” but added that she has had a warm welcome from Richard’s team.

““They’ve all been friendly,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed riding out. I enjoy chatting to all the lads and lasses. That’s been fun, getting to know them.”

Richard added: “I think it’s an incredible achievement if she gets there – which I think she will.

“It’s a huge effort by her and I’m really impressed by what she’s doing. She’s got her confidence now and knows the routine, knows what’s happening. She’s growing to be part of the yard.”

Lady Halifax will be cheered on at York by her three children, seven grandchildren and husband the earl of Halifax, life president of York racecourse, whom she had told she wanted to raise a significant amount for Macmillan, and that the choices were the race or a parachute jump.

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“He reluctantly agreed he thought the race was the better option,” Lady Halifax joked, adding that she has watched the race from the stands for the past seven years.

“I’ve always thought, ‘I couldn’t do that in a million years’ – and I still actually think that!”

Comments on Lady Halifax’s fundraising page, which already has a total of almost £24,000 raised, include one from an anonymous donor, who wrote: “You are crazy – but awesome!”

For the past two years, the race weekend has raised some £500,000, and Macmillan hopes to better than this year.

For all the latest news analysis, competition reports, interviews, features and much more, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, on sale every Thursday.

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