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Holdenby trainer Gerald Bailey and his wife Caroline have long been one of the most successful training combinations in the country, but Gerald cheerfully confesses to being a dairy farmer first and a point-to-point trainer second! "I only learnt to ride when Caroline and I got married," he admits. "I didn't go charging around hunting as a boy – I had to work! I started at 16 as a motor mechanic, then when I was 20, Dad and I bought 80 acres of land. Our dairy wasn't a family farm. I had to milk 30-40 cows a day." And from small beginnings, Gerald now farms 400 acres at nearby Hardwick, where he has 140 head of dairy cattle and 400 Aberdeen Angus. He's diversifying into cheese production and – as this clip shows – is an eloquent spokesman for Northamptonshire dairy farmers!
His string of racehorses is considerably smaller at 12, but he is no less successful in his second career, with horses like the prolific winner Gunmoney, the talented Empire Builder and promising types Fearthedark and Thetalkinghorse. Gerald has been looking after the point-to-point side of the operation since 2007 and his yard is well known for its encouragement of owner-riders, including George Greenock, John Russell and Alex Vaughan-Jones.
The current crop follow in the footsteps of notable names such as champion amateur Johnny Greenall, Richard Hunnisett (who had 38-race winner Copper Thistle) and John's father – and pointing stalwart – Richard Russell, of Teaplanter fame. "I love having these lads in," confessed Caroline. "It's a tough sport but if one of them has a bad day, there's always someone to help."
Gerald's first winner as a trainer was before he married Caroline, Songella in 1993. "I got into trouble," he admitted. "She'd pulled up at Market Rasen when she was evens favourite, then we took her to Thorpe Lodge, where she won at 4/1 under John Sharp. They had us in for improvement. Then next time out at Dingley, John rode again and we were fancied, but my ex-wife had a runner, Gillanbone, trained by John. They won at 12/1." Try explaining that one to a cynical steward!
The couple married 19 years ago and have twin teenage sons – Michael and Robert – plus jockey Johnny and Rebecca from Gerald's first marriage. Johnny rides mostly for Stuart Morris and Laura Thomas, "Because with our owners, we don't have many for him to ride!" laughed his father. Gerald and the twins are Leicester City season ticket holders, so have got something to cheer about this season as well as the horses.
Before she took out a professional licence, Caroline was responsible for the pointers and trained top class horses such as the prolific Teaplanter, a winner of 27 races – "He only cost £1,000 as a yearling, we ran him for ten years until he was 14 and he won every year" – Aintree Foxhunters winner Gunner Welburn and Secret Bay, twice runner-up in the same race. Most memorably, she saddled Castle Mane to win the Cheltenham Foxhunters in 1999. "(Owner) Charles Dixey bought him as a four-year-old so I had him from day one. We weren't sure about Cheltenham as it was only his second season but Dad always said 'Go while they're right' so after (an impressive win at) Tweseldown, we decided to go for it."
"Dad" is Dick Saunders, who famously won the Grand National on Grittar as a 48-year-old amateur in 1982 and promptly retired from the saddle and I asked Caroline how the two emotions – training a Foxhunters winner and watching your Dad win the National – compared. "At Cheltenham, I'd never been so excited in my life, particularly as we'd had him from the beginning. But I was riding at the Oakley point-to-point on National day, so I didn't see it in person!"
One of the most interesting aspects of visiting the trainers is when we sit down over a coffee and discuss the ins and outs of the sport of pointing, and this time proved no exception, with Gerald in particular holding strong views. Take sponsorship for example, with the recent news that AGA is withdrawing at the end of the year. "In the last few years, Landrover, Massey Ferguson and Volkswagen have all gone," the trainer reminded me. "What better sport for companies like that to sponsor than point-to-pointing? They're obviously not getting value for money and not being looked after well enough."
So how would Gerald make sponsors feel welcome? "At the Pytchley (where he is Chairman), we call it horse racing, not pointing. It's a fundraiser and a day out. We have 30-40 trade stands, a silent auction, a raffle and it brings in more money than if it was just a point-to-point. All our sponsors get a hot lunch, we take winning connections into the sponsors tent and ask them to write a thank you. We make them feel a part of it."
On the subject of publicity for the sport, talk turned to Victoria Pendleton and her aim to ride in the Foxhunters. Gerald was guarded. "I've met her and she's charming. And she's certainly bringing more people to the early meetings. But I think she's doing it a year too soon. I don't understand how a licence to ride on the flat allows someone to ride three and a quarter miles over fences at Cheltenham. I don't think it's right for her or the other people in the race."
John Russell – as a jockey – was keener on her challenge. "I don't have a problem. I think it's great for the sport to have front pages in the Racing Post. But I'd be disappointed if she just stops after the Foxhunters and all the publicity for pointing stops." It's clear that John admires Victoria's bravery. "Fair play to her," he continues. "I'd ridden for years before I rode Persian Hero in a Hunter Chase and I thought 'Jesus Christ, they're going a bit fast!" It'll take a lot of savvy."
As Caroline comes into the kitchen, Gerald puts his positive hat on! Asked what he loves about the sport, he was unequivocal. "The people. There are no enclosures – everyone pays a tenner a head, the Prime Minister could be in the next car and you'd be borrowing his corkscrew!"
Caroline agrees. "Everywhere you go, you meet like-minded people. It's still an amateur sport – so the likes of John who work in London and ride at the weekend can compete at Open level. It doesn't want to become too professional. I don't think there's a lot wrong with it. At every meeting this season I've had a great time!" And if one of the legends of the sport thinks so, who would disagree?
As well as talking to Gerald and Caroline and watching their horses work, I met some of the jockeys who ride the Holdenby horses. Here's what they had to say.
This year, John has Gunmoney – already a winner twice so far at Sheriff Hutton and Horseheath – and recent Irish purchase Easythingsarebest, who is qualified for Restricteds. "He won a Maiden second time out and seems well-taught and straightforward," confirmed his owner-rider. The association between the Russells and the Baileys goes back a long way. "Dad's had horse with them for over 30 years," John said. "When Gunmoney won his Restricted, it was the 100th winner they've trained for him." Here's looking to the 200th.
Also like John, Alex's first season didn't go according to plan. "I had my second ride on Sydney Hobart in 2003. He'd won his Maiden so I rode him in a Restricted. I thought I was going to win at Garthorpe… until he unseated me at the last!" Luckily, Nokimover proved a more willing and able partner, but "He was quite a character," admitted the jockey. "I had to get on him on the course and he wouldn't go down the gallop. But he was tough – you could run him every week."
Alex currently has three horses with Gerald. Fearthedark is a three-time runner-up this season, the experienced Sandpipers – "He'll go over longer trips and won't run in the new Mixed Opens as I'm six foot three and can't do eleven stone seven!" – and new recruit, the ex-Irish maiden Ignite A Light.
His first race ride was on Hedchester at Eyton-on-Severn in 2011. "He was a nutter and sometimes refused to start," recalled Tom unkindly. "But when I was that age, nothing really fazed me!" His first winner was Arnold Layne for Gerald at Brocklesby a year later although he (rather disloyally!) cites his favourite horse as the Chris Henn-trained Legal Legend. "I love him," Tom admitted. "I won three on him last year, including my first Hunter Chase at Towcester and we were fourth at Cheltenham, where George Greenock (who was third) got his own back." (Note to readers: Tom on Legal Legend beat George on Mr Madeit into second by a short head at Thorpe Lodge. Many present thought the result was the wrong way round!)
And what of the ambitions for this engaging 24-year-old? "I'd love to be in contention for the Midlands Area title. We've got some nice horses, so it would be good to be knocking on the door this year," confessed Tom.
Missing when I visited was George Greenock, rider of Empire Builder and Mr Madeit. "George is a chicken farmer," joked Gerald when I asked about him. "He's got 16,000 of them and they laid over three million eggs last year!" (Note: George works for insurers Lycetts www.lycetts.co.uk and keeps chickens as a hobby). Both his rides are owned by his mother, Countess Cathcart and Tin Tack is owned by his grandfather, Dessie Skinner. Empire Builder "Will probably go for the four-miler at Cheltenham," according to his trainer, while hopes are high for Mr Madeit, who won two out of three last year then again on his recent reappearance at Brocklesby Park.
Of the dozen horses in Gerald's yard, that only leaves Just Harry, another family horse owned by John Docker and on whom the rides will be shared between sons Joe and Nick. "He won first time out on the bridle in 2011, ran twice in 2012, missed 2013, ran twice in 2014 then missed 2015" recounted his patient owner. "I've always thought a lot of him, so now I've sent him to a proper trainer!" John, of course, used to own the remarkable Raise An Argument – who won three Opens at 17 – as well as 1982 Aintree Foxhunters victor Lone Soldier… the same year that Caroline's father Dick Saunders won the Grand National on Grittar.
What strikes me as I drive off for lunch at the nearby Red Lion at Thornby is how many of these stories are interlinked. The Saunders, Docker, Russell, Vaughan-Jones, Greenock and Bailey families have all been involved in the sport across the generations, rivals on the track but friends off it, celebrating and commiserating together. And that's what, to me, makes the sport of point-to-pointing so wonderful.
Jumping For Fun
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