Clarissa Daly on spotting future champions and making racing more accessible
There are three levels of pony racing; Pony Club, point-to-point – which takes place at 70 fixtures from January to June – and the Racecourse Series, which is 25 or so fixtures from April to October.
This year is obviously different, but we are still hoping to run at least 20 Racecourse Series fixtures from July to November. There are between two and three pony races run before or after the main programme, for children aged from nine to 16.
They need to qualify each year with their pony so we, or a Pony Club instructor, need to have seen them race. They’re all Flat races, from six furlongs to 1m3f and divided by pony height – 128cm, 138cm, and 148cm and under.
Pony racing is a great grounding to be a jockey and trainers like Andrew Balding and Richard Hughes will stay on or come early to a raceday to see who’s coming through.
You could see very early on that Tom Marquand was especially eye-catching. He was clever in a race. He didn’t win that many; in pony racing, it’s not about the winning because it’s so dependent on the pony. You’re always looking for the child who listens.
After the Racecourse Series, we have a debrief with jockeys and coaches. We know the ones who are improving, and heeding the advice will show the dedication to take it to the next stage.
Hollie Doyle was always a grafter, she put her head down and worked, and she was bright enough to say, “I need to get stronger.” That’s what she’s done and look at the result.
The majority have their own ponies, but we’re a close community. Children, and therefore their parents, become mates – if a child doesn’t have access to a pony, has an injured pony or has outgrown their own and needs a 14.2hh, there are a lot of loan ponies around.
My son Jimmy won a pony race at the Ledbury point-to-point a long time ago. I ran down the hill, jumping and screaming. Everything a ghastly embarrassing mother does – that was me!
We’ve been awarded a grant for £900,000 over five years from the Racing Foundation. The aim is to create “formal pathways” into racing and to take pony racing to areas it wouldn’t normally go to make it more accessible.
We already deliver training days, taster sessions and rallies to schools, riding centres and Pony Club branches. We can now roll this out further, to reach diverse audiences and those who have no way of accessing the sport.
Since 2013, we’ve been running schemes with inner-city riding schools and youth groups for children who don’t own ponies. We’ve had more than 100 children through and 35 of them are now working in racing.
One boy is now working for trainer Eve Johnson Houghton and is going to the British Racing School to get his apprentice licence, and one of the girls is now second travelling head person to Sir Mark Prescott.
Another success is St James City Farm, an inner-city riding school in Gloucester. Cheltenham Racecourse has sponsored a racing pony and another was donated by a charity, and those children now have the opportunity to go pony racing.
The best part of this job is the letters I receive; I had one from a parent which ends, “Who knows what the future holds, but I do know that without all the knowledge, support and kindness shown by yourself and Julie [an instructor] over the past five years, our daughter would not be where she is now, and for that we will always be grateful.”
Tyler Heard left us last year and is already having his first year as an apprentice. He’s got the same attributes as Tom Marquand – he’s a thinker, quietly determined, a grafter and a natural horseman. He’s one to watch.
● As told to Kate Johnson
This feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 3 June 2021
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