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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

No cure for homesickness needed as grooms get used to life down under

David Jennings catches up with those looking after the international challengers

Godolphin groom Carey Williamson (second right) with connections after Qewy's win at Sandown in Melbourne last year
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"It's about time you got a strike," says Tom Pirie, travelling head lad for Hughie Morrison. Don't worry, he does not want to deck me, having had enough of my Marmelo interrogation. He's simply teasing me about my ten-pin bowling skills.

We're in the Crown entertainment complex in the middle of Melbourne for some down time. Thursday night is treat night for the international grooms and, this particular Thursday, Racing Victoria has arranged bowling, booze and bites. There's buckets of banter too.

"I love it over here," perks up Pirie. "The horse [Marmelo] is happy, I'm happy and the weather is a lot better than we're getting at home right now. What's not to like? There is no downside to it."

Carey Williamson, one of the Godolphin grooms on duty, might disagree. She has recently moved in with her long-term boyfriend in the Suffolk town of Haverhill, but has not seen him since the second-last week of September. Surely that puts a strain on any relationship?

"We only moved in together the week before I left so it's all been a bit strange," she says. "I'm lucky my boyfriend is quite understanding and has always been keen for me to do whatever I had to do when it comes to work. It must be love!"

Her colleague Charlotte Wyatt can't stop giggling. You sense she's the type of person who would stay smiling for an entire episode of Panorama, no matter how depressing it was. Her Australian adventure is living up to expectations so far.

"I am only 20 and this is my first trip away from home but I'm loving every minute of it," says Wyatt. "It was a brilliant opportunity for me. It was tough at the start to get used to the time difference and I was constantly wanting to talk to everybody at home, but I'm fine now.

"My family told me that I simply had to take the opportunity. They felt I was young and it was too good of an opportunity to say no to. I'm so happy I did now, I absolutely love it here."

Hughie Morrison's Marmelo is equally happy with his new surroundings according to groom Tom Pirie.

So what does Wyatt's day involve down under?

"My alarm clock goes off at 5.30am. I'm straight up when that goes, get myself a coffee and then head into the horses in Werribee. I get the horses mucked out, get them out, get them exercised, give them their breakfast and then I'm free to explore Australia for a bit."

Homesickness is a bug that medication cannot cure, only your own bed and some familiar faces, but Wyatt is not showing any symptoms yet.

"I am only about a two, or a three at the most," she says when asked to rank how much she is missing home between one and ten. Williamson has climbed higher up that ladder, admitting she's a seven in the homesickness stakes. 

Like Williamson, Jason Dear has also left a loved one behind. He popped the question to girlfriend Sandra Myers this year and the pair plan to tie the knot in 2018.

The bride to be is busy planning a wedding back home in County Kilkenny, while the groom is being a different type of groom and planning how he is going to get the best out of Wicklow Brave in the Melbourne Cup in a couple of weeks' time.

"I've been here almost a month and I was in quarantine at Newmarket for two weeks before that so it has been a while since I've been home,” explains one of Willie Mullins' most popular grooms.

"I got engaged last January and we're planning a wedding at the moment, but there is Skype and WhatsApp so it is much easier to keep in touch with Sandra. She is coming out to see me on Thursday so that will make things a bit shorter. I'm looking forward to it.

"She told me that I would be mad not to come. I was here last year with Wicklow Brave as well and I really enjoyed it. I suppose it might be a bit different next year when I am married, so I have to grasp these opportunities now while I can."

He adds: "We are treated like royalty over here. Anything you want, you get. Leigh Jordan and all the gang at Racing Victoria make sure that we are properly looked after. There is plenty to do and Thursday nights are always great fun. There is a quiz every Wednesday night in the Park Hotel in Werribee so we enjoy that too. The food is good there. I certainly have nothing to complain about."

Complaining is not a characteristic of grooms. The happiness of their horses is far more important than their own and Mark Power, travelling head lad for Joseph O'Brien, is breathing a huge sigh of relief that Rekindling and US Army Ranger have acclimatised quickly.

"Both have settled in really well. They are more important than me. They are eating and drinking and happy with life, so that's the main thing," he says with a smile. 

But how has he himself acclimatised to his new surroundings? "The trip over takes a bit out of you, it is a long, long way, but I'm back to myself now. These trips do not come around too often so I would have been a fool not to go for it.

"It is fairly easy to keep in contact with everyone through Snapchat and WhatsApp so that helps cure the homesickness for me anyway. I go to the gym as much as I can and I hope to play a bit of golf too while I'm here, which will keep me occupied."

TJ Comerford is used to the rituals more than most. Aidan O'Brien's travelling head lad in Australia is a regular visitor to the Spring Carnival.

"I come here every year and I'm happy to be here. I am used to the routine over here now. Isn't the weather much better than at home? It's great," Comerford says.

"I talk to Aidan every morning and every night. My night is his morning and vice-versa. I keep him in touch with everything that is going on over here."

O'Brien's team is in safe hands with Comerford at the helm. The same can be said about the rest of the international challenge too. These grooms might be gallivanting but they all know where their priorities lie.

TJ Comerford's daily routine

5.30am alarm clock goes off
6am arrive at Werribee racecourse
6.30am feed horses
7am muck out stables
7.30am walk horses
7.45am bed down, water and hay stables
8.15am exercise on track with horses, trots and canters
8.45am wash horses, rug them, dry off heads
9.15am walk horses
9.45am allow horses to enjoy a pick of grass
10am gives horses their electrolytes
10.15am ring Aidan O'Brien to give update on horses
4pm walk horses
4.30pm allow horses to enjoy pick of grass
7pm switch rugs on horses depending on temperatures
9pm ring Aidan O'Brien for further update on horses

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The horse is happy, I'm happy and the weather is a lot better than we're getting at home right now. What's not to like? There is no downside to it
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