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'My legs went to jelly and I didn't know what to say - it was a big shock'

Lewis Porteous catches up with the reigning GSSSA Employee of the Year

James Frank: "So many people in the industry put in so much hard work"
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Considering what has happened since, the moment he was revealed as Employee of the Year at the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards last February must feel like a lifetime ago for James Frank, but there can be no mistaking how much it meant to the man from Hascombe and Valiant Stud.

The image of Frank lifting the trophy at the glitzy ceremony on London's South Bank, in a time when hearty handshakes and congratulatory back slaps were the norm, will live long in the memory. His snazzy blue suit and beaming smile illuminated the Underglobe venue that night and just a passing mention of it is enough to put that broad grin back on his face.

"When I won the Stud Staff Award, I thought I'd done well but when they announced my name for Employee of the Year, I was shocked," says the 44-year-old. "My legs went to jelly and I didn't know what to say – it was a big shock.

"It was one of those things you dream of. It meant a lot and even now, every time I think about it, it still means so much. It wasn't just my success, you could see the happiness in my boss Mr Oppenheimer and everyone around the stud. It was their success too." 

Frank arrived in Newmarket from Zimbabwe in 2002 but his career in racing stretches beyond the past two decades. His father was a groom at a racing yard in his homeland and his brother Daniel made it as a professional jockey.

His own hopes of race-riding were dashed when a cap was put on the number of apprentice riders in Zimbabwe, so he followed his father's footsteps and in October 1994 became a groom for former champion trainer Murray Lindley. Tragically, their association ended prematurely when his boss died in a plane crash the following January.

After a short break away from racing, he then worked for his first great mentor in the sport, trainer Ronnie Sheehan, but in 2002 an advert for work in England was too intriguing to ignore and he was soon packing his suitcase and heading for the Swinburns' Genesis Green Stud in Flat racing's headquarters to embark on a new adventure.

"I had an aspiration to come to England but it wasn't something you really thought of because not many people from Zimbabwe would go to England to work on a stud farm or in racing itself," he says. "For me it just happened and the chance was too great to turn down."

Michael Swinburn soon took over Sheehan's role as Frank's confidant and, although he had never worked on a stud farm before, it did not take him long to realise he had found his calling.

"Everything was different to start with – I'd never seen trees with no leaves, for example, and it was all new. I'd never been next to a foal or a mare before either but once I started the stud work I just fell in love with it."

The winners at last year's Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards

His time in Newmarket almost ended prematurely when his student visa ran out after two years and he was forced to return to Zimbabwe, but Swinburn promised he would find a solution and four months later a new visa and work permit were secured and he was back in Newmarket for good.

"It took Michael about four months and three tries to get me a visa to return and that's how the story began," he says. "It was remarkable and the Swinburns always live in my heart. I was there for 12 years and we were like family."

In 2013 Frank transferred to Anthony Oppenheimer's Hascombe and Valiant Stud and not even Frankie Dettori could have timed the move better. Among the first youngsters he set eyes on at the stud was future Derby winner Golden Horn, who started a dream run of success for Hascombe. 

"When I started Golden Horn was a yearling," he says. "He was an outstanding, well-natured individual who was easy to work with. Everyone loved him, he was such a dude. I remember on Derby day we all stopped work and watched the race and it was remarkable. All the stories from his time at the stud came flooding back."

Golden Horn also taught Frank an important lesson.

"I try and look at every horse the same regardless of its breeding," he says. "I treat them the same and no-one gets special treatment. When they're young you don't know which one is going to be the Derby winner. Through all my experience you cannot tell at that age and they are not all superstars all the time.

"You look at Golden Horn. We took him to the sales and he did not make his reserve. We sold another horse for 525,000gns and Golden Horn was almost our second string and was selling at the end of the week. He was a Cape Cross and we didn't know he was a superstar."

He adds: "We've been lucky over the past seven years and had a lot of success. Hascombe is a household name now, which is remarkable, and Mr Oppenheimer is a very good man to work for."

The father of four has also had the pleasure to work alongside some very good colleagues and it is heartwarming to hear he has only ever been made to feel welcome by those in the industry since arriving in Britain almost 20 years ago.

"I've worked with many people from many different backgrounds," he says. "I've worked with people from India, Pakistan, Ukraine, Botswana, Argentina and Brazil and we all got on very well.

"I think there are opportunities if you want it but people have got to want to do it. I've met all the people you can think of at the sales and I've always felt just like everyone else in all the years I've been involved in racing."

Having grown up on a farm, Frank remembers being gripped by horses from a young age and would go racing every weekend in Zimbabwe when his brother was riding. He thinks engaging with the next generation as early as possible is key to attracting newcomers into the sport.

"If you want to promote racing, you probably need to start in schools – going in there and teaching them about racing," he says. "If you can introduce them to it early it will get them talking about it like they do football. Get youngsters to visit us at the stud farm. If they could see how much work goes on and how much care there is for the horses, it can change attitudes."    

Golden Horn: the 2015 Derby winner was a "dude" in his younger days

While 2020 was a challenging year for all involved in the bloodstock industry, Frank's year ended on a positive as he was promoted to one of the core stud grooms at Oppenheimer's stud, essentially sharing the major day-to-day responsibilities at Hascombe with one of his colleagues.   

During lockdown the show had to go on at studs across Britain and Ireland and everyone employed at Hascombe and Valiant was based on-site throughout to form a Covid-secure bubble. Frank and his colleagues were just relieved some normality could return during the sales season. 

He says: "Adjusting has been a challenge but you have to give credit to Tattersalls – they did remarkably. You felt safe in the environment and we were pleased the sales went ahead – it would have been a disaster if they hadn't."

Frank's Employee of the Year trophy has recently been returned as the time nears for a new champion to be crowned. Having this year taken his position on the judges' panel, he now has a say on who his successor might be. Nominated three times before his own success last year, he knows how much it will mean to those in contention this time around. 

"Being on the judging panel has been quite an experience," he says. "When you read through all the nominations you realise how hard it is as a judge. It sounds easy but so many people in the industry put in so much hard work and to choose one is tough.

"But I encourage every employer to make sure they nominate someone. It brings pride and shows you appreciate your staff and care for them. Being appreciated is something very big."

As well as the trophy, Frank also scooped £20,000 in prize-money, with the same amount being shared between his colleagues at Hascombe. With four boys aged 23, 17, ten and two, his share was certainly well received.

"I put a chunk of it into paying the mortgage, paid some debts and I got to treat the family," he reveals. "I love doing a bit of carpentry and even bought myself some tools to get me through lockdown!"

One of life's grafters and a fine ambassador for the industry, Frank certainly epitomises everything the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards stand for.

If you enjoyed this, you might like the following articles by Lewis Porteous:

'There was a lot of self-loathing. I went down a dark road'

'Change is coming - if you don't get on this wagon, you'll get left behind'

Christian Williams: the radical regime behind Welsh hero's breakthrough moment

Park Palace Ponies: Inside the inner-city riding school changing lives in Liverpool

'Half the stuff written about me is made up' - Michael Owen sets record straight

'Dad always said make work a pleasure - I haven't done a day's work in my life'

Kieran Shoemark: 'I didn't know right from wrong - I was completely twisted'

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Golden Horn coming out to be a Derby winner for the stud is a memory that will never go. All the stories from his time at the stud come flooding back
E.W. Terms