'It's been a brilliant year - it seems to have flown by'
Steve Dennis meets the reigning Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff employee of the year
Despite the rawness of a Middleham winter morning there's still a rosy glow that won't go away, an inner warmth better at keeping out the chill than four layers and a woolly hat. Gemma Hogg carries it with her wherever she goes.
Twelve months ago Hogg, assistant trainer at Micky Hammond's yard, was the star of the show at the annual Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards, coming out top in the 'leadership' category before being proclaimed employee of the year, the highest award racing confers upon its dedicated and diverse army of foot soldiers. It was a night to remember, and the memories are still fresh even though there's an empty space on the cupboard where the silver trophy once stood.
"It was a struggle to give it back, I didn't want to let it go but the BHA very politely insisted," says Hogg, 35, gazing fondly at the photo on her phone. "I didn't take it home, I kept it in the office so that everyone could enjoy it instead of just me, it was such a beautiful trophy.
"It's been a brilliant year, it seems to have flown by, everyone's still asking me about it, offering their congratulations. It was fantastic for me, I have such good memories of the day, and to win those two awards was a true privilege.
"I don't feel like I've done anything different from anyone else, but obviously someone saw something in what I've achieved. I'm very proud of myself and my team – the last two years here have been fabulous with the horses, we were down to 12 but we're back up to 70 now. It's a credit to everyone, and the recognition has been great for Middleham as a training centre too.
"The lads in the yard were well chuffed, possibly because of the money shared out between them . . . you could say I was popular. What did I do with my prize-money? I had a new kitchen and had the garden landscaped. I'm a hopeless gardener but I do love it, and now it's all set ready for summer. I'm also taking my sister Becky to New York later this year.
"I suppose I've got a bit more emotional about the award, the recognition, as time has gone on. To myself I think 'yes, it is a great thing', but you just carry on, don't you. You can't stop and dwell on it because the job still needs to be done every day."
That attitude is characteristic of Hogg, was surely part of the reason she was crowned in the first place, and it does her as much credit as any award she's received. But now, for the last time before someone else gets to know exactly how it feels, we'll allow Hogg to put the day job aside for a moment and revel in it again.
"It was a fab day. We went down the day before on the train, me, Becky and Lauren [Lucas], we were all up for awards. Micky came with us, organised an upgrade to first class – very exciting for we simple Yorkshire girls!
"Owen Weeks, one of our owners, organised the hotel for us, which was very kind. On the Sunday night we went out to see the musical Jersey Boys, which was another surprise – we didn't stay out too late though.
"Awards day went by so fast. While I was waiting for the judges it was amazing how reflective of my working life I became, thinking about what I'd done, what I might have done differently, what I'd learned, it all came flooding back to me, good memories and bad memories. It was weird, but it did help me with the final interview.
"I felt the interview went well, although I forgot to mention I rode a winner as an amateur [Charlotte Vale, at Hamilton in June 2007] but that probably wasn't what they were interested in anyway! We talked about how to bring young people into racing, retention of staff, that sort of thing.
"There are always ways to help people get better at what they do. If someone's not a very good rider their strengths will lie elsewhere –everyone has a strength, it's just about finding what it might be.
"I thought I had as good a chance as the other candidates in the leadership category, but it never even occurred to me that I might win the main award. I was sitting there thinking 'I've won my bit, great, I'm chuffed to bits'.
"The first time I went up I was all of a dither, wasn't talking clearly. Then when I went up again I managed to pull myself together a bit better. I was a bit emotional, but at least I remembered to thank everyone at Godolphin – I forgot the first time. I'm getting emotional just thinking about it. It was fabulous."
It must have felt like a long way from where Hogg started. Her family was into sport, not horses – "Mum was an accountant, Dad an electrician who coached rugby league, I competed for Yorkshire at cross-country, Becky played hockey for the north of England" – but at the age of ten the arrival of a pony set her on the course she still travels. She chuckles about her poor mother and father having to drive around the country at weekends trailing a horsebox, with the inevitable result that a few years further down the line one glimpse of the Northern Racing College on a taster day would be enough, a quick sale, a done deal.
After nine weeks she secured a placement with Hammond and has neither moved nor wanted to move since, spending half her life in Middleham and steadily building and refining the work ethic and brand of teamwork that convinced the judges that here was their champion.
She started at the bottom, fell off on the Low Moor on her first day as permanent staff – "I hadn't done the girth up tightly enough" – but got back on the horse, on the career curve, worked her way up past travelling head girl and nine years ago settled into the role of assistant.
"I'd love to train in my own right, but the financial issues are so great that I wonder whether I'd really want to put myself in that position – so I feel what I'm doing now is the best of both worlds.
"I get quite a lot of input in so many ways here, Micky likes to involve everyone, he encourages input, makes everyone feel part of the team. The buck stops with him, although it does hit me a few times on the way through! No, really, I've got everything I need here."
If Hogg didn't come from a racing family she has one now, with her sister Becky head girl at Hammond's and husband Tim assistant to trainer Jedd O'Keeffe. She reckons they leave the day job on the doorstep to prevent overdoing it unless Tim needs some advice about the female staff at O'Keeffe's, says it's nice to have someone who understands the demands of the industry too. If there is a spare moment in the day she devotes it to Deep Water and Memory Cloth, the two she's kept out of the half-dozen or so retirees she carefully rehomes each year, a personal passion and one from which she derives great pleasure.
Hogg's great ability is to maximise the potential of those around her, retired racers and stable staff alike. She says she's firm but fair, and then spoils the effect by dissolving into laughter.
"What are the secrets? It's important to be approachable, you don't want people to think you're their best friend, but you want them to feel that they can tell you anything in confidence. And you must never put people down for asking questions, because it's the only way to learn.
"Flexibility is key too – trying different things with horses and with people, working to find out what they're best at and how they can make the greatest contribution."
The trappings of celebrity haven't turned Hogg's head and aren't likely to – "This man came up to me in the Co-op in Leyburn, I was so embarrassed. He said 'Well done, Gemma, my wife says your dress was fabulous', which was good because Becky picked that dress for me" – but she counts it as an honour to be part of the judging committee for this year's awards, has enjoyed the process of selecting her successor. She'll be a hard act to follow, but after this year's applause has died away and Hogg is no longer in the spotlight, her down-to-earth, pragmatic approach to her role and to herself will always stand her in good stead.
"I've done some amazing things this year, it's been fabulous – but the work that's done in yards all round the country isn't all about winning awards, that's just a big bonus.
"Many people could get a lot more out of life by thinking each morning 'right, I'm going to do this job to the best of my ability' rather than thinking about the long hours or the pay. There's so much more to it than that.
"Racing's been a fabulous way of life for me and I think that so many people could get as much out of it as me. These awards are a good way to boost people but they're not the most important thing about being in racing."
It's the old saw of hard work being its own reward, an adage that could have been written for Hogg. Sometimes, though, it's nice to know there are other rewards available; Hogg takes another look at the photo of her trophy, and glows with pride.
A day in the life - in Hogg's own words
I'm up at 5.15, in the yard for 6.10. The first job is the feed, I do that alongside Becky, then muck out if needed to, and then around 6.45 I start organising the work list, a lot goes into that. I try to personalise it, it's important that horses and riders all get on with each other.
I'm also keeping an eye on the weather – if it's going to pour down in two days' time, we can get plenty of work into them today and tomorrow and then not worry about getting wet and cold on the Low Moor later in the week.
First lot pulls out at 7.30 and then the morning takes care of itself over four lots. At about half past nine I go through any declarations with Micky, contact the owners, and then about 11ish I'm talking to owners again as we make the advance entries.
When we have runners, I'll usually drive the box if Micky's not going – if he is we'll go in the car together and I'll get some admin done on the way, emailing owners, planning entries, making lists. If we don't have runners, lunch is around one o'clock and evening stables start at 3.30.
If I'm at the track it's a case of overseeing everything, talking to the owners, making sure everything runs smoothly. Sometimes in the summer it's very late when we get back home, but there wouldn't be many times I'm not in early as usual the next day.