H&H interview: Point-to-point trainer Rose Loxton *H&H Plus*

  • The point-to-point trainer tells Hannah Lemieux about her battle with cancer, a fruitful arrangement with Paul Nicholls and the joy of training quality horses

    Just a few yards from Rose and Sam Loxton’s cottage are eight modest stables housing a handful of former top-class chasers, now turning a dab hand to the point-to-pointing and hunter chase game.

    The majority are ex-Paul Nicholls horses, now reaping the benefit of a “freshen-up” courtesy of the couple’s more rustic set-up, situated on their dairy farm in the scenic Somerset countryside.

    Rose gets her horses extremely fit for racing and when I see first-hand the rolling hills they have access to, I understand how. A short hack down the lane takes them to a field, which drops down into a steep valley. Three times up the valley is the usual routine for these horses and although Rose quips it is “no Nicholls’ Ditcheat hill”, it is impressive.

    In a separate field, there is a line of well-built homemade chase fences (“Sam cut down a tree”), used to hone the jockeys and horses before raceday.

    As the horses were formerly trained by Paul, Rose finds the common misconception is that they are trained at his Ditcheat yard.

    “Naturally, people assume that we use Paul’s facilities,” says Rose. “But actually, working them on the grass like this does wonders to freshen them up having been in training at a top National Hunt yard. They get excited when they see the gallops now.”

    The husband-wife duo don’t employ any staff, opting to ride and muck out the horses themselves. On a usual morning, they both ride out two lots each, before a “gang” of amateur jockeys from Paul’s yard make the six-mile trip to ride out for the Loxtons on their lunch breaks.

    During the morning H&H visits, this includes Natalie Parker, who has paired up successfully with Virak, and Angus Cheleda, who won Larkhill’s Coronation Cup aboard Chameron. Angus has also struck a chord with the David Maxwell-owned pair, Monsieur Gibraltar and Shantou Flyer.

    A bombshell

    In November 2018, Rose’s life was hit by a bombshell. In a bizarre twist, a freak fall off one of her horses, Earth Leader, ultimately saved her life. The accident resulted in Rose breaking her tibia and fibia in her leg, plus a collarbone and some ribs. The break was bad enough that she required muscle from her thigh to be grafted onto her lower leg. However, it was a revelation from the CT scan at hospital that would prove life-changing. It showed up a cancerous cyst on her ovaries.

    “I had no obvious symptoms really; I put being tired down to working and being middle-aged, and didn’t think anything of my sometimes bloated tummy,” reflects Rose, who had to wait for her bones to heal before beginning chemotherapy in February last year.

    “I had six weeks of chemotherapy before a major operation, where they removed as much as they could. By then, the cancer had spread and was stage four, but fortunately the tumours hadn’t attached to my spleen or small intestine,” says Rose. “This was followed by another long course of chemotherapy. Sam was amazing and kept the show on the road throughout, taking the horses to the races.”

    Rose, who turns 60 this year, may be small in stature but is clearly made of strong stuff.

    “I was confined to a wheelchair for a month. I actually rode Caid Du Berlais a few times while I still had my leg in plaster, just around the roads. Sam used to have to lift me off and my children were fuming,” she smiles. “The horses helped me so much during my recovery, they were a great focus and kept my mind off the treatment. There were dark days when I felt so tired but fortunately the chemotherapy didn’t make me physically sick.

    “I’m on a clinical trial at the moment and have four more sessions left. It is not a curable cancer, so it’s about keeping it under control and stopping it from spreading further.”

    At the time of the accident, Rose was working full-time for champion trainer Paul. “I was back riding at Paul’s in August last summer, but before Christmas I got a really bad cold, I was just doing too much – the cancer treatment means you’re easily open to infection. So I stopped working there and focused solely on the pointers at home.

    “I really miss it, particularly hearing the gossip,” she laughs. “The team were really understanding. Not rushing around so much has made it much easier for Sam and me.”

    Her first treble

    The 2018/19 point-to-point season was Rose’s most successful to date as a trainer, culminating in 19 winners. This year, she enjoyed her first treble at Larkhill in January.

    However, Irish-born Rose never set out to be a trainer. Having met in Ireland in their early 20s, Rose and Sam settled in the UK and focused on farming cattle. Rose took a 10-year hiatus from the saddle while raising their three children, but when they reached teenage years she decided, in her late 30s, to get back riding and found herself at Paul Nicholls’ yard.

    From just riding out in the mornings, she was soon a full-time member of staff and graduated up the ranks to become head lad Clifford Baker’s sidekick. Rose stayed at Paul’s for 15 years before her accident and cancer treatment forced her to stop at the Ditcheat yard. “I would probably still be there if I hadn’t broken my leg,” she muses.

    However, she was fortunate to work with some top-class horses, including Denman, Big Buck’s, Kauto Star, Master Minded and Neptune Collonges. And of course, Rose absorbed a wealth of knowledge from the champion National Hunt trainer.

    “Paul was amazing to work for,” she says. “He has this knack of getting horses fit and keeping them fit. He’s been very supportive with the pointers and is always on hand to help me. Paul has always loved pointing and has a genuine interest in the sport.”

    Rose got the bug for training pointers after taking on a horse called Napolitain when he got injured. “I had him for two years before bringing him back into training for pointing and he won for us at Ston Easton in 2010. He definitely resparked our love for the sport,” adds Rose.

    When Paul’s daughter, Megan, decided she wanted to have a stab at pointing, Rose was Paul’s first choice of trainer, and it was the ultimate compliment for Rose.

    “The first horse we trained for Megan was Gwanako, and they enjoyed seven wins together,” reflects Rose. “Then Paul said we could have more and sent us Current Event, with whom we had a great time. He was actually sold the Monday before Cheltenham to Sheikh Fahed, who planned to ride the horse himself in Flat races. But sadly Current Event ruptured a tendon while racing and had to be put down. Going home with an empty trailer was awful – it’s the lows that come with the highs of the sport.”

    When Megan decided to concentrate on Flat racing, Paul and Rose came to an agreement that Rose would continue to train his ex-chasers, and the young amateur jockeys working in the yard would help Rose and Sam with the riding out. And it appears to be an agreement that has worked wonders.

    “It gives them a good incentive to come and ride, because they get rides pointing in return, and it is good experience for them,” says Rose.

    “We’re giving both the horses and jockeys opportunities, so we’re very happy to keep doing it like that. The jockeys are great and make it down at lunch regardless of the weather. We’ve had the likes of Bryony Frost, Bryan Carver, Lorcan Williams and Stan Shepherd at the yard, before they turned professional.”

    This season produced 11 winners for the Loxton yard, and the trainer names Caid Du Berlais as her current stable star. He’s won five times, although Virak and Earth Leader are hot on his heels.

    “They are all quality, consistent horses,” says Rose, who took Shantou Flyer and Caid Du Berlais to Cheltenham for the Foxhunter Chase, with the former finishing third. Before the season was curtailed, Monsieur Gibraltar had been due at Aintree for its version of the amateur highlight – over the National fences.

    ‘Hard to say no’

    Rose and Sam agree that eight horses is the maximum number they would like to keep at Whaddon Farm, although they have an empty cattle barn which they are considering converting into a further six stables. The couple admit, with a grin, that it is “hard to say no” to Paul, when he offers them another nice horse.

    With such quality, smart and well-known ex-chasers in their care, Rose and Sam have faced some criticism for contesting “not true pointers” but, as they highlight, it is all within the rules of the sport. “People do moan but why shouldn’t we point them? The horses still want to do it, they don’t want to retire – as soon as you’re winning you are in the spotlight to be criticised, I guess,” she adds.

    She might be turning 60 this year, but Rose plans to remain as hands-on with the horses as ever. “Once I no longer enjoy it or feel confident, I will stop riding,” she says. “Since my accident and treatment, I have probably become more picky over what horses I ride out, but riding the racehorses is my lifestyle.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 2 April 2020