Tea party at Aintree as Cheltenham disaster turns to landmark win
Lewis Porteous talks to Lizzie Kelly in this extract from the Racing Post Annual
Some wait a lifetime for a shot at redemption but for Lizzie Kelly the chance to put things right came just 20 days after the initial disappointment, and girl did she make it count.
When it was announced Kelly was to become only the second woman, and the first for 33 years, to ride in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, everyone wanted a piece of the action. The 24-year-old and her partner Tea For Two were the feelgood story of the Cheltenham Festival but there was no happy ending, with the rider dumped on the turf after Tea For Two blundered his way through the second fence. She was down and out with the race a mere 30 seconds old.
“It was horrific,” says Kelly, laying bear the anguish she suffered that afternoon. “My friends had a real job picking me up and dusting me off. That feeling is a tricky thing to master – it’s like popping a balloon.”
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Amid the gloom, however, there was a glimmer of a silver lining; because their Gold Cup exit had been so premature, at least it meant a Plan B could be hatched as long as Tea For Two could prove his wellbeing after his Cheltenham mishap.
For a while, that was far from certain. “He wasn’t himself at home afterwards,” his rider says. “He’s the type of horse who will come and stand at the front of his box and have a chat with you but he wasn’t like that. It wasn’t very nice to see him lose his confidence in that sort of way, so our main objective for his next race was to get him there and to enjoy it.”
The race in mind was the Betway Bowl, a prestigious Grade 1 chase at the Grand National festival and Aintree’s version of the Gold Cup. While it offered the opportunity of a second top-level success for Kelly – already the only woman to ride a Grade 1 winner over fences in Britain or Ireland thanks to Tea For Two’s win in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase in 2015 – the duo were no longer in contention for back-page headlines after their Cheltenham anti-climax.
“From my point of view there was no media attention whatsoever, which was great,” Kelly says. “I didn’t even tell my dad. I stayed with a friend the night before and didn’t tell her either. Before Cheltenham it had got to the stage where I couldn’t even step outside the weighing room without someone asking me for an interview. This time it was very different, which was very nice.”
Instead the attention surrounded Cue Card, arguably the most popular chaser in training, who himself had fallen in the Gold Cup but was favourite to follow up his win in the Bowl the previous year. Silviniaco Conti, already a dual winner of the Bowl, was also in the line-up, not to mention promising young gun Bristol De Mai and proven warriors Smad Place and Empire Of Dirt. It was a worthy Grade 1 in all respects.
“I just wanted to go and ride him instinctively; strip it all back and ride him the way I knew how to,” Kelly says. “Riding him is a dream and to be able to focus on that and the task in hand was very nice.”
However, she and her mother Jane, who trains Tea For Two alongside husband Nick Williams, were unsure whether the horse’s mental scars from Cheltenham had completely healed – and his demeanour at Aintree caused further anxiety.
“When he was walking around the paddock he wasn’t himself,” his rider says. “Normally it’s really difficult getting on and getting him out on to the track but the fact I was able to sling my leg over and potter out on to the racecourse was a worry and Mum just said ‘do what you can’.”
The main objective was for horse and rider to negotiate the course safely, while making sure Tea For Two enjoyed the experience. “I jumped the first three and was happy with my place but coming past the stands he was still very unlike himself, still very quiet and travelling half-behind the bridle, whereas he normally pulls,” Kelly says.
“Fearing the worst, I thought I’d better make some ground and when I did that leaving the stands, he grabbed hold of the bit and I realised there was plenty there. All that had happened was that he’d mentally grown up and I pulled him back to where we had been. I knew then we were okay and that he’d changed as a horse – it was brilliant to know he had grown up.”
With confidence between horse and jockey rising, expectations started to stretch beyond merely a safe conveyance. “When I opened him up going down the back straight for the last time I made a couple of places,” Kelly says.
“I started to look around and they were pushing along and slapping with their whips, yet I’d made that ground so easily. By the time we got around the bend, the only one left was Cue Card. We still had a long way to go but I was travelling well, while Paddy Brennan was shaking the reins a little bit. The best thing about Tea For Two is his jumping; he takes lengths out of horses and I thought if I could get alongside Cue Card, I’d get him on the jumping and that was the aim.”
Cue Card started to wander to his left as Tea For Two piled on the pressure with his accurate jumping and approaching the last it was the underdog who held a narrow advantage over the 2-1 favourite. Kelly knew this was a crucial moment.
“We got to the last and he was long but I didn’t want to make the decision for him – he had to make the decision – so I let go of the reins, didn’t move and just went with whatever decision he made and up he came. Someone said afterwards that was his apology for what happened in the Gold Cup.
"It was slightly unbelievable and I was just begging for the line to come from there. Cue Card was coming back but Tea For Two tries so hard and when we crossed the line his neck was as far out as it could possibly go.”
The official margin was precisely a neck at the post, with Tea For Two having answered every call from Kelly’s dynamic drive.
“There’s no better sight in the whole world than my brother Chester running out to greet me when I’ve won a big race,” she says proudly. “For me, that’s the height of the joy I feel. He always comes sprinting out with a huge smile and that family association is what makes it so special.
“Tea For Two is Mum’s horse. She bought him as a young horse and has trained and looked after him from the start, but she has the trust to hand him over to me on the track. She has to be sure that I’ll make the right decisions and I have to be aware that if I make the wrong decision she won’t be happy.
“Emotionally it was the most amazing feeling I’ve had, especially after the disappointment of Cheltenham. I then had to call round people like my dad and say ‘I failed to mention I was riding in a Grade 1 – and by the way we won!’”
Asking Kelly which of her two Grade 1 wins on Tea For Two means the most is a bit like asking a parent to pick a favourite child, but there is little doubt which she thinks was the more significant in the bigger picture.
“The fact it wasn’t a novice chase but the top drawer at Aintree is hugely important. Realistically the top three-mile chases of the year are the King George, the Gold Cup and the Betway Bowl, and to beat the names we did was great. Tea For Two has made my career and winning that Grade 1 on that day with this horse was just brilliant.
“When I won the Grade 1 the first time it was overwhelming and perhaps I didn’t appreciate it like I should have. I’ve ridden in Grade 1s since and they’re so high quality and so difficult to win. It’s the best horses and the best jockeys and you’re privileged to be there.”
Kelly has no doubt been a pioneer for female riders and, while she would much rather be recognised as a jockey, rather than a female jockey, with time she is starting to accept her standing as a role model.
Even so, considering she is a dual Grade 1-winning rider, her services were hardly in Richard Johnson-like demand last season, when she had 11 winners from 112 rides, with all 11 winners coming from the 87 rides her family’s stable provided.
“I’m very aware that it’s difficult to get a lot of rides when you’re not working for a big trainer, but the job I have and the people I ride for outside of Nick and Mum are very good people,” Kelly says. “If I had 30 or 40 more rides a season because of that win it would make a big difference to my career, but I’m fully aware the times people want a second jockey are the big Saturdays when I’m riding for home anyway, so it’s quite difficult as I’m not always available.”
While she might have been the sole female rider to win a race at Aintree in April, there was plenty of success for women at the Cheltenham Festival and Rachael Blackmore took the Irish conditionals’ title. And with Josephine Gordon making waves on the Flat in 2017, it could be argued the status of female riders is on the up.
“I think we’re seeing more female conditionals and it’s more of an open opportunity now than it ever has been,” Kelly says. “For sure there’s been a move in the right direction but the girls have to make the decision they want to be jockeys. There will always be fewer female riders than males because a lot of girls who work in racing don’t want to be jockeys.”
For those who do aspire to make riding a full-time profession, Kelly is adamant that fitness is fundamental. Her own dedication is clear from her use of a personal trainer and she adds: “I’ll always be of the opinion that if you want to be a jockey and you’re a girl, you’ll have to try very hard and a lot harder than some females who are coming up through the ranks try.”
Coming from a history maker, that is advice worth heeding.
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