From little ponies do future jockeys grow at racing HQ
Alastair Down spends a day at the British Racing School
Newmarket, early on a fine June morning with a smattering of skylarks and the Heath awash with thoroughbreds ranging from the unbeatable to the unspeakable – not to forget the many who are simply unpronounceable.
In high summer the seemingly endless acres are, for Flat devotees, a sporting corner of the Elysian Fields.
But mid-February up the Snailwell Road, with an insistently sneaky and chill wind scything through the British Racing School, draws few tourists – but plenty with work to do.
Five youngsters between nine and 15, all good riders and a couple of whom came out of the womb wearing hard hats, are attending one of the advanced pony-racing courses.
Nor are they here for a cosy day but to work. Mummies, yummy or once so, are on hand having driven boxes, ponies and offspring for the day plus a few all-knowing older sisters who have been there and have the T-shirt. The families are steeped in horses and hunting and among the parents are wine merchants, owners of car dealerships, horsebox manufacturers, a licensed trainer and a former Flat jockey. All the kids have their own ponies – who need to qualify to race – and more at home.
But it is important to stress the BRS courses are not the sole faces of learning to race ponies. The Pony Racing Authority is mad keen to run courses for children with no access to their own ponies, either because they can't be afforded or have nowhere to be kept.
They run courses in Brixton, Teddington, Gloucester (forget rolling Cotswold hills, think hard town grit), Banbury and Croxteth in Liverpool. Fifteen riders went through their 12-week schemes last year and 18 are doing so now.
The five shed any shyness as soon as they hit the simulators which are wound up high and intended to put the pupils through their paces with particular attention to maintaining exactly the right position above the saddle.
Where British Racing School, Newmarket
When Wednesday, February 15
Chief instructor Jackie Gill tells them: "If your legs are hurting then you're doing it right," before adding out of their earshot "as long as they keep going and are still breathing then they're doing fine."
Our famous five are headed by William Humphrey, whose mum Sarah is both trainer and farmer, with dad a retired lawyer. Humphrey is 15 and when asked how much he weighs says "7st" – to which the only suitable reply is "fat so-and-so, aren't you!"
On the simulator his lower body is all strength, grip and solidity. Those legs would not flap around if you put him under torture.
And his face has an almost frightening air of fanatical concentration that would make AP look like The Laughing Policeman.
Humphrey has won plenty of pony races and an elite award that earned him a week with Paul Nicholls. His new pony, who he will be on in the afternoon, is Verona – a four-legged friend who also taught Sean and James Bowen plenty of what they know.
Violet Barton, long in arm and leg, exudes an air of horsewomanship that befits a 15-year-old who has hunted with the Quorn since the age of six.
Belting away on the simulator, William Flinton looks a pound or so less fit than his peers but by the end of the day, riding a gassy pony who turns up being led by two handlers, he is the young man who has travelled from patent apprehension to a satisfied but entirely non-smug confidence.
The youngest boy, nine-year-old Francis Topham, is too young to be frightened of anything and is something of a poser on the quiet. He is riding his pony George for the first day and the combination of George's "look son I know all this crap backwards" and his insouciant pilot on top make a great team.
Finally we have Mia Biggs, daughter of jockey Darren. She has bought along Bill – who is not a racing pony but a fabulous coloured show pony, a field in which he excels. His streaming mane is longer than a mermaid's and his feet make a shire look like a skinhead.
Biggs is determined to race him rather than merely pose him at Hickstead and my hat is off to her. At a walk he pulls like a train while as soon as he canters he has all the pent-up power of Concorde going down the runway.
Biggs's arms must grow four inches every time she gets on Bill and in years to come she will be able to do a magnificent impersonation of an orang-utan.
Somehow she keeps this powerful ball of explosive energy under control (just) until Jackie mercifully intervenes with "let's not waste any more of his energy - or yours".
But you would not get to the bottom of Bill's energy of you sunk a mineshaft. When it comes to the final six-furlong gallop of the afternoon down the all-weather Bill shows his true colours and shoots off like the pro he is – soon 80 yards ahead of young Topham-Smith, in the midst of a 'discussion' with old-hand George who is saying "sorry son, I've done enough of this galloping nonsense down the years."
But Topham-Smith gets a tune out of him and while Bill staggers home first, Topham-Smith and George come with a late rattle that would remind Dancing Brave fans of what might have been.
What is so impressive is you can see all five of the girls and boys improving before your eyes. On both the round canter and the trips up and down the all-weathers from canter to gallop they are all wired up to the voice of Gill driving upsides, transmitting her instructions to their earpieces. What's more everything is being recorded on film - this not a shout, hope and point operation.
Gill's voice never changes in tone – it downloads sound advice, little corrections and endless reassurance in a manner that is as soothng to listen to as it is informative and confidence-boosting to the riders.
Yes, it is about the youngsters who are learning, but Gill is the star of the show. A Bingley lass, she spent six months at Mick Easterby's, nine years with Maurice Camacho and 12 with Nigel Tinkler, which suggests she did something terrible in a former life.
But she is genuinely brilliant at her job and has gone straight into my top ten of people in racing with a sixth sense for what she does.
As someone high in the Pony Racing Authority says: "Jackie Gill is superb because she can get the kids to do things they thought were beyond them without them even noticing. Hers is an exceptional talent."
I can think of so many trainers who would benefit from a day under Gill's wing – the ones who think authority is something to do with shouting.
She never raises her voice and the kids admire and respect her
because they can feel her knowledge flowing into their bright young minds, brains soaking up every piece of advice like a sponge. She can work minor miracles in hours. Flinton on his nightmarish-looking mare, all apprehension and worried face early doors, made massive strides, not least because Gill was constantly stressing reassurance for the mare, which in turn passed back up the reins to the rider.
I hate the expression win-win, but here it was in action a veritable triumph of teaching. At the video debrief that closes the afternoon all five have constructive things to take from the day and can identify what they need to work on.
They were like folk who had been through an operation without anaesthetic and been made better while feeling no pain.
Gill says to a now beaming Flinton: "Now that turned out much better than you thought it would two hours ago." And it has - pony and rider heaved up a level by pure, experienced knowledge and non-soppy kindness.
The likes of Tom Marquand, Hector Crouch and Charlie Deutsch have passed through her hands and though Gill knows the old adage about never working with children and animals she thrives on that challenging and complex mix.
As Humphrey, the youngster closest to being a jockey, says: "She is fantastic. Somehow she has so much time and the sheer enjoyment she brings is the key. All of us learning are as keen as mustard and she takes that enthusiasm, thrives off it and puts her own spin on it."
Twenty years ago pony racing was all but unknown in Britain and certainly not organised. It was something mad kids had done in Ireland for generations and graduation from that very hard school accorded the Irish a well-earned, if occasionally painful, advantage.
From Brixton to the British Racing School that gap is gradually closing.