‘I hate it! Until it’s over’: real life for grooms of superstar horses

  • It’s a privilege with huge responsibility to be in charge of a top-class horse. Kate Johnson finds out what it’s like tending to a superstar

    Bob Grace, groom to champion sprinter Battaash, for Charlie Hills

    “I hate it! Until it’s over, I really hate it!” says Bob Grace, when asked if he enjoys watching Battaash race. At least it’s quick; Battaash has been rated as the fastest horse in the world (he’s clocked 48.63mph).

    The pressure is intense. So Bob is happy(ish) when he’s “reached the end of the walkway and the jockey’s gone to the start” and he’s much happier when Battaash is safely back and has hopefully won. But he’s happiest of all returning home and having a beer in the bath.

    Bob doesn’t ride and has worked for Charlie Hills, and his father before that, for more than 30 years, and has looked after Battaash since he arrived as a headstrong two-year-old.

    He says: “Before he was gelded, he wasn’t the nicest thing on God’s earth sadly. He’d literally climb the walls to try to get into the next-door box. When he ran at Royal Ascot, he nearly went through the stalls and that was the final straw.

    He was channelling his energies in the wrong direction.

    “Now he’s a lovely horse, he’s like the stable pet, bless him.”

    Battaash likes carrots, he courteously matches Bob’s slower pace in the parade ring, and Charlie’s kids bring school friends who pamper him.

    “He thinks it’s great, he loves attention,” says Bob, who is planning to get a tattoo of his charge. “When I took him off the box at Newmarket where he goes for the winter – he has his own paddock of course – there was a sign saying, ‘Welcome home champ!’ They love him more than I do.”

    The horse has a small team and his own routine.

    “Whether he’s made us do it or we’ve made the routine for him is a matter of debate,” smiles Bob.

    At the races he’s saddled at the stables, at home he’s out first lot and ridden by people who know him. Even his jockey, Jim Crowley, is allowed on him rarely – three races and once at home throughout 2020.

    Alan Davies, head groom to Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin

    PKTC3F Tryon, USA. 14th September 2018. Bronze medal. Charlotte Dujardin riding Mount St John Freestyle. GBR. Groom. Alan Davies. FEI Individual Championship. Grand Prix Special. Dressage. Day 4. World Equestrian Games. WEG 2018 Tryon. North Carolina. USA. 14/09/2018. Credit: Sport In Pictures/Alamy Live News

    “She’s quite a princess!” says Alan Davies of Charlotte’s current top horse, Mount St John Freestyle. “She’s nosey, keen to work and please – and loves parties.”

    Alan keeps her calm and interested at shows with “lots of one-on-one attention, hand walking and seeing the sights”.

    Freestyle had never flown before Alan took her to the World Equestrian Games in 2018 and was understandably fractious when she noticed that she was somehow becoming airborne. But Alan recalls: “Bringing her home after she’d won two medals, she coped so well, trusting me implicitly to put her on different trucks and crates, and following me on to planes.”

    It’s an intimate relationship.

    “Getting to know the horses’ characters when you go to big shows, you build such a rapport,” Alan says. “We worked out I’d travelled 75,000 miles with Blueberry [Valegro]; that’s three times around the world.

    “The joy of seeing these horses try their heart out on the world stage is so emotional. That’s why I wear sunglasses at big championships, I’ve usually got tears rolling down my cheeks!”

    Shades were definitely needed for the World Cup qualifiers in Amsterdam last January, where Freestyle “grew in stature and confidence”, he says.

    “This horse, whom I’d seen do medium and advanced medium at the national championships, was out there holding her own against other superstars – I was so proud of her, she blossomed,” he says.

    And she bloomed, too, with a 90.2% score with Charlotte at the LeMieux National Grand Prix Championships in December, becoming national champions of 2020.

    Alan handles the pressure because, “it’s my job, it’s what I’ve done all my life, it’s the name of the game – it’s why you do it”.

    “People often ask about the highlights with Blueberry,” he says. “I don’t really remember London 2012 – there was so much pressure – but the biggest thing was a feeling of relief leaving Greenwich Park. We’d done what everyone wanted us to do, and the horses were coming home happy, safe and sound.”

    Talking of which, how is Valegro?

    “Fabulous. I went for a hack today and showed him his recent Horse & Hound cover. He’s still got it and I still love him to bits.”

    Amy Phillips, Piggy March’s travelling groom

    “I’m OK with the pressure most of the time,” says Amy Phillips. “At Pig’s level, everyone expects you to do well and she bears the brunt of that. I try not to overthink expectations and responsibilities; if you wrap horses in cotton wool, that’s when things go wrong.”

    Amy’s career began with riding schools, summer camps in America, a racing stable, then Oliver Townend – “I was chucked in at the deep end; my first event was Burnham Market where we had 14 horses running over the weekend” – and now Piggy.

    Amy “sort of” controls her competition nerves, which peak at the showjumping phase of a three-day event, by being organised.

    “I love writing lists,” she says. “You know what your riders like and you try to keep the routine the same. I take a backpack and try to be one step ahead. For cross-country, I take spare reins, stirrup leathers and always black tape.”

    She’s superstitious, too. At home she turns new saddle pads inside out and stamps on them – in common with many riders who don’t like wearing new kit at competition. And she forces herself to watch the horses live, against her will, because it’s brought the team luck.

    “I’m quite twitchy, but when I haven’t watched live is when we haven’t done as well, so I grin and bear it,” she says.

    There’s plenty to beam about watching Brookfield Inocent. Crowned British Eventing’s (BE) top horse of 2020, with Piggy as BE’s top rider, he’s “definitely grown up”. But he’s still suspicious (articulated lorries OK, white lines on the road not OK) and very cuddly at home – “he really likes people”.

    “When we went to Somerford in 2018, we realised he was something special,” Amy says. “Pig finished 20 seconds inside the time and said, ‘I didn’t even kick; the faster I go, the less spooky he is.’ And coming second at Pau in 2020 was a highlight; he was always well within himself. At that level, you don’t want them to have to graft, and he was brilliant in every phase. It makes you really proud.”

    Rodrigo Zanchi, groom to Cyrname for Paul Nicholls

    “You have to pay attention to everything you do; you have a Ferrari in your hands,” says Rodrigo Zanchi, who looks after A-listers including Politologue and Topofthegame for National Hunt trainer Paul Nicholls. However, it’s Cyrname, who overcame unbeaten Altior at Ascot in November 2019, who has his heart. But at Ascot in February 2020, for the Betfair Chase, Cyrname fell at the last and spent 18 long minutes behind the dreaded green screens.

    “It was the saddest day of my life,” Rodrigo remembers. “I was thinking, ‘He’s never going home with me.’ It was painful to see one of the greatest horses racing in the UK lying down waiting for help.”

    Thanks to the vets, Cyrname finally rose to his feet and a tearful Rodrigo – now the “happiest man in the entire universe” – walked him back with Paul Nicholls.

    “Paul said, ‘Look at the crowd, here for you and Cyrname. It’s going to be all right, you love him and I know he loves you.’”

    Rodrigo doesn’t ride, following an accident, and has worked for Paul for five years (“it’s the best yard in the country”), having cut his teeth with Jonjo O’Neill, stints in Australia and the United States, and with his grandfather in Brazil.

    Cyrname was initially a hard horse to train: “He was very keen, sweating all the time, nervous and he didn’t like traffic. But he was special from the moment he came off the lorry,” says Rodrigo. “I said, ‘Oh what a beautiful horse,’ and I fell in love.”

    The secret to settling Cyrname was patience. Now he’s “the sweetest horse, he’s so kind to me. He’s changed my life, made me happy and he knows I love him.”

    As for landing a job like Rodrigo’s?

    “You need to love it,” he says. “If you don’t, you’ll never do it – it’s a very hard job, seven days a week. You need to love racing, travelling and your horses.”

    Jo Powell, travelling groom to Twinshock Warrior for Jayne Ross

    “He likes his sleep!” says Jo Powell of champion heavyweight Twinshock Warrior. “He does a lot of sleeping and a lot of snoring. He’ll come in from the field and lie down and go to sleep, sometimes before you can get his rugs off.”

    Clearly any pressure that Jo feels is lost on Twinshock Warrior. He’s an easy, relaxed horse, and that’s important for a 17.2hh heavyweight.

    “He has to be amenable,” Jo says. “Jayne is 5ft 5in and 8½ stone. He has to be able to be ridden by anybody.”

    Jo’s key to handling pressure is planning. With a team of 22 horses, five full-time staff and some part-time, it’s not just organising the show schedules, but the day itself – when and how the horses are going to be worked in. If Jayne is in consecutive classes, the horses have to be ready for her to leave the ring and get straight on to the next one.

    “At Windsor, it takes 20 minutes to get to the rings from the horsebox park. If Jayne is in the ring and can’t see the next horse in the collecting ring, she’s going to sweat,” says Jo.

    All that planning paid off in 2019 when Bernard was just seven.

    Jo says: “Because he’s a heavyweight, we weren’t quite sure that he’d be ready; they take longer to come to than a lightweight horse.”

    Twinshock Warrior had other ideas and was most definitely ready. Unusually nimble and light on his feet, he was crowned hunter champion at the Royal International and supreme at Horse of the Year Show – a dream that Jo “never dared hope for”.

    “Every win means as much as the first one,” she says. “The whole team was in floods of tears.”

    Apart from Twinshock Warrior himself, who was probably napping.

    Ref: 28 January 2021

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