I couldn’t sit in an office, training horses is a way of life
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Racehorses are unquestionably beautiful, but can play havoc with your emotions. So why would anyone want to work with them? Steven Russell went to the only National Hunt training yard in Norfolk to find out.
Autumn. A time of optimism. Time – with the racing season yet to hit its stride – to dream of great days and glory. As if on cue, a horse walks into view and nibbles the grass. The Blue Bomber is one of Browick Hall Stables' main hopes for the months ahead. Trainer Caroline Fryer bought the five-year-old at the Ascot summer sales for £18,000 plus VAT.
The gelding will probably have his first post-holiday race towards the end of the month. It might have been earlier, but a foot abscess has put things back. 'You can't plan too much, as things always happen that you don't expect,' says Caroline, too experienced to count her chickens. Mind you, no-one in the racing game can exist without hope. 'This time of year's great, because they're all going to be winners!' she smiles.
So who would relish such a roller-coaster of an industry?
Caroline for one. 'Winning is addictive,' she admits. 'No-one remembers seconds, do they? I'd rather be third than second. And I hate being beaten by only that much.' She holds thumb and finger a few inches apart.
You may also want to watch:
The mother of a young daughter, she's been a trainer since 2011, after part of the old dairy at the family farm near Wymondham was turned into stables. Initially, the focus was on point-to-pointers; nowadays it's virtually exclusively National Hunt horses.
'The first season was fantastic. Ten winners,' she half-whispers. 'Everything just went right. We had winner after winner, which was amazing.' Then came a couple of quieter years, 'though we've never had a season without winners'. The year 2014 was stellar: 22 triumphs in all. 'That journey home, wherever you've been, if you're coming home with a winner, it's just the best.'
- 1 'Vindicated at last' - Pension compensation on the horizon for WASPI women
- 2 Police child safety team raid house to arrest man
- 3 Banham Poultry evacuated in suspected chemical incident
- 4 Latitude labelled 'Covid fest' by health boss as staff forced to isolate
- 5 Holiday park bosses pay tribute to 'popular' worker murdered in Norfolk village
- 6 'Destination' fish and chip restaurant for sale
- 7 New virus named after Norfolk village
- 8 Eleven people taken to hospital after Banham Poultry chemical spill
- 9 The 5 most viewed homes on the market in Norfolk last month
- 10 Lord mayor criticises campaigner in email - and mistakenly copies them in
But in a sport with so many variables, how do you cope when success tails off for no discernible reason? Caroline reckons one must keep the faith. 'They're individuals, not machines,' she says of horses. 'They go lame; they have wind problems – one thing after another.'
She thinks she had a winner on only her second run as a trainer: a horse she'd liked and managed to buy. 'You start thinking 'Ooh, this is easy.' He won four that season, probably. And then it all falls apart! But when it falls apart, you've just got to be so careful not to worry about it too much. That's the hard thing. You could 'go drastic' and change everything, but you've just got to plug away and eventually it'll come right again.'
You only have to look at multiple winner Riddlestown (aka Mikey) to see just how testing life on the turf can be.
The John Ward-owned bay gelding is the 'stable star' – he won four races in a row between the end of March and middle of May, for instance – yet knows his own mind.
'We can only take him to Southwell or Towcester. Take him anywhere else, he'll run diabolically!' laughs Caroline. 'They're completely different courses. Southwell is left-handed, flat; Towcester is right-handed, undulating. Completely different, but he loves them both.'
Caroline's motto is that, basically, happy, healthy horses win races. They've got individual needs and idiosyncrasies, so she aims to tailor their training to suit each one. Some are introverts; others naughty little boys at heart. It's the trainer's job to find out what makes them click.
She admits it's too tempting to look in the mirror if performances go through one of those 'underwhelming' periods. 'It's easy to blame yourself. I do. I think 'It's not fit enough', or 'I shouldn't have run it', or 'Wrong course'.' Caroline believes in 'turning out' the horses as much as possible – time outside, in the paddocks, rather than being confined to stables – and variety. This morning they've gone round stubble fields, for instance. Also keeping the horses fit and mentally stimulated are visits to the beach and forests, and cross-country schooling sessions.
Does she ever think about an existence less unpredictable?
'Yes! Probably not seriously. There's nothing else I could do! I couldn't sit in an office. This is my way of life. I do sometimes get up at half-past five and it's raining, dark, and the horses are running badly, and I think 'Why?' But not really seriously.
'We all have times in our job when we don't enjoy it. But then things go well and you think 'Oh, this is great!' I've still got all my winners on Sky+. If I'm feeling a bit down, I just watch a few winners and I'm all right again!'