Heather Fell: A day at the races

PUBLISHED: 10:29 07 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:30 07 January 2014

Haldon Gold Cup

Haldon Gold Cup


HEATHER FELL meets Devon trainer Victor Dartnall. Photos by Steven Haywood

Living in Devon you will never be many miles from a horse, so it is no surprise that horse racing is a popular sport in our county.

I was brought up riding and in theory should have the correct breeding for racing myself. My parents were both amateur jump jockeys, meeting as a result of my grandmother, who trained several successful Point to Point horses herself. Since then my cousin has ridden in Point to Points and my aunt is a professional trainer. Although riding in a race still remains a dream for me, I recently discovered it is not the only way to become involved in horse racing.

Jump racing is split into two disciplines: amateur Point to Points, which are organised by local Hunts with the intention of raising money for the Hunt and its farming community, and professional National Hunt racing, which holds events at fixed racecourses throughout the country.

Professional horse racing is often viewed as a glamorous pastime. This isn’t entirely untrue. During the summer flat season, the front pages of newspapers are awash with pictures of wealthy celebrities at Royal Ascot sporting designer clothes and records were recently broken at Newmarket when a one-year-old filly changed hands for an incomprehensible £5.25m.

Summer is now a distant memory and winter is upon us so race goers have swapped their tailored dresses and exotic headpieces for the more practical tweed and waterproofs, as another exciting jump season begins. From a spectators’ perspective it might seem that the season has just begun however, for all involved behind the scenes thousands of gruelling hours of hard physical work will have already been invested.

To find out what happens away from race day, I headed up to Brayford in North Devon to meet the successful local trainer Victor Dartnall. Anyone involved with animals will understand that it really is a way of life as much as a full time job. Horses are no exception and will expect their morning feed at 5.30am irrespective of the day of the week. I arrived on a Sunday morning after Victor had already been up for hours finishing the necessary morning jobs. Keeping a yard of 30 racehorses running smoothly requires planning, a strong team and a huge amount of dedication.

Although Victor no longer exercises the horses himself he is certainly still in charge of the proceedings. We jumped in his Landrover and headed up to the all weather gallop to watch six horses put through their paces before they were due to race later that week. As he talks me through each of the horses and their statistics it is obvious he has the wealth of knowledge needed to be a winning National Hunt trainer but it is the passion that really shines though.

Horse racing is an enormous industry in our country and trainers make up a very small percentage of that. Victor’s yard is a family run business, with his brother, his daughter and her boyfriend all heavily involved alongside eight full time stable staff who work a 47-hour week. It is not only the hard work back at the yard or a good jockey that is needed to win races; the owner is also key to success.

Anything involving horses requires money and this is where the owners play such a significant part - without them professional racing could not exist. With 30 horses in training a large part of the job is keeping owners happy and Victor seems to manage this well. One of his clients recently vowed only to leave the setup in a coffin or penniless.

The sport does have a stigma attached to it and to a certain extent yes it is a rich man’s game however, thanks to syndicates, opportunities to become an owner are becoming more attainable. You might have heard of the phrase owning a “leg” of a horse, this is in theory possible and some syndicates will have up to ten members resulting in the costs being affordable. Finding only ten percent of the training fees, vets bills, and entries does not dampen your experience so you can still have one hundred percent of the joy when watching your horse run at meetings.

If dedicating your life to becoming a trainer or jockey is not for you or costs of becoming an owner unrealistic then fear not - the race day experience is where the majority of the population find their pleasure. The horse racing industry as a whole relies on the television ratings and the footfall at race meetings to sustain it.

In Devon we are fortunate to have a top class race track at Haldon just outside Exeter. Due to the hard work that Manager Tim Darby and his team put in to ensure the ground is well maintained, the track has secured large sponsors and the prize money is substantial. If you have not yet experienced horse racing then Exeter Racecourse could be the perfect place to start.

The New Year’s Day meeting is always sure to blow out the cobwebs and one thing you are guaranteed at Haldon is some fresh air and good quality racing.


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