Rider marks 70th birthday by winning scurry race bitless

  • A former international event rider celebrated his 70th birthday in unique style — by winning the Ashey Scurry at the Isle of Wight Grand National meeting, bitless.

    Veteran bitless campaigner Mark Smith rode Fiona Dowding’s Buddy to victory dressed in his signature pink, raising hundreds of pounds for Breast Cancer Care, on 10 October.

    Mark told H&H the race usually runs in spring but this year was delayed owing to Covid.

    “They contacted me in the spring to see if I thought it would work in autumn and I said ‘Give it a whirl’,” he said. “And the date they came up with rang a bell in my mind.

    “They said early October and I thought ‘I know a date about then’, but it got me out of a big party.”

    Mark added that he had had the big bash for his 60th.

    “I took along my old boots, which were falling to bits, because they’d all told me I needed to hang up my boots and I was going to make a big thing of it,” he said. “Little did I know they’d all clubbed together and bought me a new pair, so I couldn’t retire at 60, and I’m glad!”

    Mark said the organisers of the race day usually give him a call once they know what entries are in, then he makes his own entries to help ensure an even racecard.

    “Dawn Graham, who rides regularly with me, has been eventing Buddy but she’s Henrietta Knight’s secretary and Henrietta was judging at Horse of the Year Show,” Mark said. “Dawn’s her right-hand man so she went with her; she’d have ridden Buddy at the Isle of Wight but as she was spoken for, the old man was pressured into action. And if you’d seen the way the horse was cavorting in the paddock, you’d have said ‘That’s really not suitable for a man of your age’! He does like to wave his legs around a bit; he’s a super old boy.”

    Mark said there were some early issues in the race, and by the second fence, there were two loose horses “creating a bit of a problem”.

    “Going to the first ditch, I had thought I’d sit quietly behind but the field was a bit decimated and I thought the old man had better go at the front. That’s the horse, not me! And the old man said that was fine.”

    Mark said it was a fun day all round — Del Laverty from his camp won the feature race, on Hamish, having come second to Haydn Frost three times, and there were two Shetland pony races on the card this year for the first time.

    “I was at an event the other day, wearing my pink pigtail — I do like a pink pigtail — and I plaited it into the horse’s mane for the trot-up,” he said. “Someone said to me ‘You don’t take this terribly seriously, do you?’ and I said horses are meant to be fun. You can get terribly bent out of shape but if the horse is enjoying it, it’s far more likely the pilot will too.

    “You’ve got to enjoy it and I’m incredibly lucky my body still allows me to.”

    All Mark’s horses were in a variation of the Dr Cook bridle, adapted to allow horses to turn one way and then immediately the other.

    “It seems to steer very well and you still seem to be able to stop,” he said, adding that he is still hopeful of bitless bridles’ being allowed in more competitions in future.

    “I think that will come,” he said. “Whether I’ll still be around to see it is another matter!”

    You might also be interested in:

    Horse & Hound magazine, out every Thursday, is packed with all the latest news and reports, as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find how you can enjoy the magazine delivered to your door every week, plus options to upgrade your subscription to access our online service that brings you breaking news and reports as well as other benefits.

    You may like...