Racehorses who hunt The current stars in training who relish a day out hunting
It’s not just exracers that enjoy the hunting field, dozens of current stars relish a ‘day off ’ following hounds, says Catherine Austen
LOOK around any hunting field in the British Isles — and the USA — and you will find an ex-racehorse enjoying a second career. They will range from Cheltenham Gold Cup and Group One winners to horses that never made it anywhere near the winner’s enclosure. This autumn, a picture of champion National Hunt jockey Richard Johnson hunting the recently retired Menorah, a winner at both the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals, with his young son Caspar on the lead rein, went down a storm on social media.
But what about racehorses in training? Do modern trainers still use hunting as an educational tool — or a “sweetener” — in the way their predecessors did, or are their elegant charges just too valuable to risk?
“We send quite a few of our horses, particularly the older ones, hunting,” says 10-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls. “People say it sweetens them up, but I also find it is good for fitness — it does them the world of good.”
Paul’s Ditcheat stables is in the heart of the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale country,
and horses from his yard hunt when hounds meet locally.
“Last season Silviniaco Conti stayed out until 3pm five days before he ran in the King George VI Chase at Kempton — he loved it. And Rocky Creek’s only good run of last winter, when he won at Sandown, was five days after he’d been hunting,” says Paul. “Pacha Du Polder [who won the Foxhunter at the Cheltenham Festival in March] went out quite a lot. Just A Par [who ran in the Grand National] went as well, as did Wonderful Charm.
“You’ve got to be sensible with them, and you want to take the ones with the right temperament, but ours jump out hunting and do proper days. It’s great fun for them, and it is nice for people to see them, as well.”
Paul’s Flat jockey daughter Megan usually rides one of the group that go, and young jockeys Harry Cobden, Jack Sherwood and Bryony Frost are keen to hunt as well. Even Paul makes an appearance when he can — he is planning to take novice chaser Emerging Talent out himself soon.
LIL ROCKERFELLER so nearly gave his trainer Neil King a first Cheltenham Festival winner when runner-up by three-quarters of a length in the Stayers’ Hurdle in March. A week before the race, he was hunting with the VWH.
“Countess Goess-Saurau, who is a VWH joint-master, said that if he was second after having one day, he would have won if he’d had two days that week!” says Neil. “I’m a great believer in the good hunting does horses. Young horses learn so much from it and it gives older horses a great change of routine.”
Lil Rockerfeller, who is owned by some keen hunting people from Exmoor, is “a lazy, stuffy sort of horse” at home Neil says.
“Getting his blood up and his adrenalin running does him a power of good, and he loves it — he loves being up with hounds,” says Neil, whose wife Clare has hunted the horse several times with the VWH and with the
Vine and Craven. “He’s already had a few days’ autumn hunting this season and was actually quite a handful.”
Recently, Neil and Clare had “six or seven” horses out when hounds met locally.
“They love seeing hounds. The staff enjoy it too, and it is good for their riding,” he says.
THE obstacles might be different in Ireland, but the object is the same. Emily MacMahon, who runs a pre-training and schooling yard at Lambertstown, Co. Meath, hunted two real stars for trainer Gordon Elliott last winter — Labaik and Don Poli.
“Labaik was well known as a complete rogue who wouldn’t do anything he was asked,” explains Emily. “I was at Gordon’s one day and suggested that I took him autumn hunting when the Meath hounds were meeting at home a few days later. He was brilliant — so he stayed with me for a few weeks. I took him autumn hunting and then ‘proper’ hunting, and then he went back to Gordon’s a couple of weeks before he was due to race. He had seven days’ hunting — and won first time out.
“It was about giving him something new to think about all the time. I took him showjumping as well, so that he didn’t think, every time he went in a lorry, that he was going racing.”
His “quirks” still appeared from time to time, but Labaik went on to win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival this year.
“I told [former jockey] Norman Williamson, who is a master of the Meath, that he’d win at 50-1 before Christmas,” says Emily. “I think the hunt staff backed him [he started at 25-1], so we were all celebrating.”
Don Poli, winner of three Grade Ones including the RSA Chase, was quite different.
“He just needed to love life again,” says Emily. “We have a Hickstead-style Derby arena at home and so I jumped both horses over banks and schooled them over ditches and walls before taking them hunting so they knew where to put their feet.
“Don Poli did six days with the Tara
Harriers and the Meath. For a big horse, he was like a cat over ditches and loved jumping them, whereas Labaik preferred ‘fly’ fences. Don just blossomed — you could feel him smile,” says Emily. “He became a bit of a celebrity on the hunting field, and people then went racing to watch him.
“There is an element of risk, but there is with any horse. They don’t know how much they are worth, after all. And Don Poli is owned by Michael and Eddie O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud — Eddie’s wife Wendy is a master of the Westmeath, so they understand about hunting. I was very lucky to be trusted with them both.”
There are lots of other examples — eventer Phoebe Buckley took Annacotty, one of
Martin Keighley’s stable stalwarts, hunting several times with packs such as the Heythrop and the Old Berks. So keep your eyes peeled: that elegant thoroughbred on the hunting field with his ears pricked might just be one of the racing world’s heroes.
‘Getting his blood up and his adrenalin running does him a power of good, and he loves it — he loves being up with hounds’ neil king on the benefits of hunting lil rockerfeller
Cheltenham Foxhunter winner Pacha Du
Polder also enjoys a day’s hunting with
Paul Nicholl’s daughter Megan, who hunts him with the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale (see picture below)
‘You can feel him smile’: Don Poli, winner of three Grade Ones, enjoying a day’s hunting in Ireland under Emily MacMahon
L-R: Clare King and Lil Rockerfeller, Frankie Barrett on Herdswick Holloa and Rosie Bird and Little Windmill out with the VWH