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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Christmas Day at the stables: normal duties all round but with bells on!

How racing yards and dedicated stable staff go about their business at Christmas

Hannah Ryan at Seven Barrows: the show goes on as the horses come first at Christmas
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In the latest instalment of our series, Steve Dennis asks whether racing yards get into the festive spirit

Do they know it's Christmas time at all? Horses don't go by the calendar – December 25 to them is no more notable than March 5 or August 16 – but their intuition probably tells them that something is afoot on this day of all days.

In racing yards, December 25 is not materially altered from March 5 and August 16, because the animals still need to be fed, mucked out, exercised, looked after. The horses always come first, and Christmas perforce fits in around the edges, but there is nevertheless a different feel to a day that has its own routine before the humans involved can get to grips with yet another Christmas jumper, the annual aridity of the turkey, cracker-hats and It's A Wonderful Life.

From the chilly Middleham moors to the damp Somerset lanes, via the frost-covered fields of Rutland, and all remaining points of racing's compass, the hard work begins almost before Rudolph's hoofprints have faded from the grass, but long after a nation's five-year-olds have excitedly informed mum and dad that Father Christmas has been.

"It's just an ordinary day for the horses, they don't know it's Christmas, so it has to be an ordinary day for us as well, although we do things a bit differently," says Paul Nicholls.

"There'll be around 40 staff in to ride out first lot at 7.30am – yes, some of them do wear Christmas jumpers. We concentrate on the ones who'll be running on Boxing Day and over new year – they'll do one canter just to keep them in the swing, because they'll have done plenty in the days running up to Christmas. Some of the others will go on the walker, some might just have the day off."

Paul Nicholls: organises lunch at the Manor Inn for any staff who can't get home

At Karl Burke's yard, the alarm clocks go off slightly later. "We'll have the horses out at about eight, they won't do much, just a canter," says Burke. "Half the staff will be in – those who are off get a nice break and will be working over new year, when the Christmas workers will be off. Everyone chooses when they want their holiday."

An identical seasonal division of labour is also in evidence at Mick Appleby's yard, half in and half off, where the boss insists he'll be lending a hand with a shovel and broom to hurry things along. They'll be half done by the time Burke's team pulls out, having broken the ice on the water bowls at 7am.

Christmas presents may be exchanged between the staff – Burke and Appleby's staff Christmas parties offered the opportunity for Secret Santas to spread goodwill and well-chosen presents to all men (and women) – but horses don't join in. Sorry, No Bombs, you're not having a Mars bar for Christmas. Not after last time. Decorations are reserved for the offices, not for the boxes; no trainer wants his horse to test positive for tinsel on Boxing Day.

'Christmas dinner is on the house'

The race is on to get the work done, get everything squared away, horses washed off, fed, rugged up, before the sun is too high in the sky. Nicholls reckons to be done by nine, as does Appleby, while Burke is aiming at 9.30am, with the possibility of a glass of champagne all round to help the time fly. Then the great dispersal of staff begins, all heading off to home and hearth or its equivalent. Not everyone has somewhere to go, mind, but no-one is left to fend for themselves on Christmas. There are no pre-ghost Scrooges among the training ranks, neglecting their hardworking Bob Cratchits.

"The ones who don't live locally have Christmas dinner on the house," says Appleby. "Last year there were 13 staff around the table, all the trimmings, traditional Christmas dinner. I carved, of course!"

Nicholls organises lunch at the fabled Manor Inn for any staff who can't get home – "maybe half a dozen" – and Burke likewise leaves no-one behind. These staff form the core of those who'll be back in the yard for an hour of evening stables at four or five, and those who'll be in early on Boxing Day.

Karl Burke (right): possibility of a glass of champagne for his workers to help the time fly

"The phone never rings, there's no-one trying to get hold of me," grins Burke about the rare relaxation afforded by Christmas Day. Appleby will put his feet up after his serving duties, while Nicholls will take the opportunity where it presents itself.

"A few years back when Kauto Star was running in the King George I used to be stressed out for most of the day, but I won't have a runner in the race this year. I'll be able to enjoy Christmas a bit more."

The following day, of course, everything is back to normal, although there may be a work-rider or two putting up a couple of pounds of Christmas pudding overweight. Eight meetings await, with three more in Ireland, racing immediately back at full steam after a quiet 24 hours.

"It never stops, really, because it can't just stop for Christmas," says Nicholls, his sentiments echoed by Burke and by Appleby. It pauses, though, to enable everyone to celebrate as they wish. Merry Christmas, everyone.

If you liked this you should read others in our Racing Revealed series:

So, how much does a jockey really earn?

Horses with altitude: how do racehorses travel around the globe?

They've all lost out by a whisker but why do so few jockeys have beards?

How true is the famous saying 'you never meet a poor bookmaker'?

The art, rules and rudeness of naming racehorses

They're not going to overthrow humans – but just how clever are racehorses?

Members can read the latest exclusive interviews, news analysis and comment available from 6pm daily on


Half the staff will be in – those who are off get a nice break and will be working over new year, when the Christmas workers will be off
E.W. Terms
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