The lure of the thoroughbred
PUBLISHED: 09:51 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013
Caroline Walker is building a formidable reputation among Herefordshire's point-to-point trainers. Tessa Jenkins went along to her yard near Pembridge to discover the secrets of her success. Photography by Phil Britt.
"I suppose it's like cars: if you learned to drive in a Ferrari then you probably wouldn't be satisfied with a Mini!" laughs Caroline Walker as she explains how a random choice of holiday job at the age of 11 sowed the seeds of her future career.
She is showing me round her Brickhouse racing yard, nestled in glorious countryside near Pembridge, where she is building a considerable reputation for training point-to-point winners.
"My mother offered me three options: working for the show-jumper Douglas Bunn, or at a local livery yard, or for Gerry Enright, who ran a recuperation yard for the racehorse trainer Josh Gifford. I just happened to choose the racehorses."
The job was Caroline's first introduction to the power and majesty of the thoroughbred, and she was quickly hooked. "I just fell in love with them: they're very sensitive, very clever and very athletic."
Her interest in racing came much later and was far from inevitable. Unusually for someone who is making her mark in the world of the turf, she had no family connection with the sport. She was born and brought up in West Sussex. "My parents were academics, and although my mother had horses she was very much a "happy hacker". My sisters Helen, Elizabeth and I had ponies too when we were young, but there was nothing competitive about it."
At the age of 16, after taking her 'O' levels, Caroline went to Wellington Riding in Hampshire for a three-month course leading to the British Horse Society's Assistant Instructor qualification. "My father told me that if I was determined to make a career in horses then that was OK, provided I got a qualification first," she recalls.
The lure of the thoroughbred proved greater than that of teaching people to ride, and she soon took a "fantastic first job" with flat trainer Lady Herries in West Sussex. Here Caroline gained experience both of preparing horses for racing and of riding them on the track. It taught her a lot, very quickly. "Working horses on the gallops does nothing to prepare you for the speed and proximity of the other horses in a race."
"The video of my first race ride looks as if I'd been riding for about a week! The tack and kit were so foreign - slippery breeches, small saddle - I almost fell off the other side when I was legged up in the parade ring. Then the horse cantered to the start beautifully, but pulled up a bit abruptly so I nearly fell off over its head. All the lads told me not to even try and ride the horse out in the finish or I'd fall off!"
After this Caroline worked with National Hunt trainer Richard Lee on the Herefordshire/Shropshire borders for a while, before travelling to Australia to work with the renowned trainer Lee Freedman, at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne.
"That was very different from what I was used to. We were up at 2 am each morning to beat the heat, and I didn't sit on a horse that was worth less than 500,000 Australian dollars. All their work was done at 'even time', with the horse maintaining a steady pace of 15 seconds per furlong. When I tried too hard I'd get it wrong, so I just had to learn to let it happen."
Twelve months later and back in Herefordshire, Caroline began to build up a sound reputation as a freelancer breaking in and pre-training horses destined to join licensed trainers. Her first four stables were built and Brickhouse Stables began to take shape.
Her first pointer, Royal George, arrived in 2000. 2001 was a "lost" year with point-to-points cancelled because of the Foot and Mouth outbreak, but in 2002 the yard got its first two winners when Belle Moss came first in the maiden race at Brampton Bryan and Commanche Fox followed suit at Llanfrynach.
Now retired, Commanche Fox remains at the yard and keeps a watchful eye over his field companion, Intoxicate, who is a two- year-old son of Belle Moss.
Over the last five years Caroline's reputation both on the track and in the sales ring has continued to grow. At this year's North Herefordshire's Whitwick Manor meeting her winning tally hit 21 as King Shaadi, ridden by Nick Oliver, romped home the 10-length winner in the maiden race.
"I was so thrilled because it meant I'd broken my run of bad luck at Whitwick dating back to 2005 when we went there with a lorry full of good chances, none of which worked out as expected," recalls Caroline. "Art Virginia ditched Julian Pritchard at the first fence, then Gunsmoke parted company with Nick Oliver somewhere between the 4th and 3rd last in the fog. By the time we got to the last race the fog was so bad that the race was abandoned, so Brown Flyer never got beyond the parade ring."
In April Lord Alfred's impressive performance under jockey Jeremy Mahot at Brampton Bryan added another maiden victory to the yard's record.
The yard has expanded now to include 15 stables, a horse walker, an outdoor school, all-weather schooling lane and schooling fences. Caroline is very aware of the need for a varied routine to keep the horses relaxed and interested in life. Post and rail paddocks provide space for them to "kick up their heels"; and they are ridden out on the local lanes and farmland. They use several local gallops including those on the beautiful setting of Newchurch Hill.
The horses get regular visits from Mark Evans, the farrier. "Any foot problems, he's like a water diviner and straight on them," says Caroline. Treatment by an equine osteopath, Emma Padfield, and daily individual attention from Caroline and her assistant trainer Esther Lawley, are equally important in ensuring each horse's physical well being.
There's a strong team ethos at Brickhouse and Caroline is quick to share credit with her team. "Esther has been with me for the past five years and I hope she'll stay for plenty more. She's a really valuable person to have around. I try to do a lot of work in the school, in the summer months working on jumping but also on flatwork and balance. I firmly believe that really helps the horses. Esther has a very good eye for what is going on, so it's great to be able to discuss each horse with her."
Others on the team include former jockey Bruce Dowling, who rode 150 winners under rules, and point-to-point rider Lorna Brooke, both of whom ride out regularly for the yard. Stable jockey is Nick Oliver, who has ridden 18 of the yard's winners and also rides work and schools the horses at home.
Owners are highly valued too and warmly welcomed onto the yard, where there's a strong feeling of friendly professionalism. "Over time in this job you come to realise how important good owners are, and I'm really lucky. There's a great camaraderie, and they're all really supportive of each other and of me. Each of them knows just how hard it is to win, but win or lose there's always a drink on offer from the back of the lorry at the races," says Caroline.
"I'm planning a yard syndicate for next season that will give existing owners a chance of some additional interest, and also provide new owners with the chance to dip their toes in the water and see what good fun it all can be!"