The queen of Yorkshire who has captured the hearts of a nation
Fans Favourites' is a new feature in the Racing Post Weekender in which we talk to those closest to racing's most popular horses and find out why they pluck on our heartstrings. Out every Wednesday
The majority of the huge crowd that gathered at Doncaster on Saturday would have been happy to back a loser in every other race as long as their pride and joy Lady Buttons came home in front in the Yorkshire Rose Hurdle. They needn’t have worried though as the fabulous mare tanked through the Grade 2 contest in her usual exuberant style before powering to the line after the last.
The crowd erupted as their queen was crowned in spectacular style as she ran out an easy two-and-three-quarter-length winner to spark jubilant scenes in the parade ring.
Whether it be over fences or hurdles, two miles or two and half, fans just know that when they turn up to see Lady Buttons she will wear her heart on her sleeve, and her consistency has meant she is now one of the most popular horses in training.
Owned by Jayne and Gary Sivills, this is a mare who started from humble beginnings for then up-and-coming trainer Phil Kirby, but she has now shot to stardom with an army of loyal followers and has helped her trainer establish himself as one of the best at his trade in the north.
“When people visit the yard the horse they really want to see is Lady Buttons,” says Kirby, who trains in East Appleton, North Yorkshire. “She has taken us to the big races on a Saturday and that has helped us gain some recognition meaning we have got some other really nice horses in training now.
“I think people can see how straightforward she is and that’s why they take to her so much. She makes my life so easy as she is so genuine. She’s a great workhorse and is really enthusiastic about what she does.”
Lady Buttons clearly loves being a racehorse. Her 32-race career has yielded 15 victories, three seconds and a third and she has only failed to finish once when pulled up in a Grade 1 behind Apple’s Jade at Punchestown in 2017.
There may have been more talented mares over the years, but there are few as versatile as Lady Buttons, who consistently switches between hurdles and fences, and has even run on the Flat at Salisbury.
The ten-year-old’s victory on Saturday was her fourth win from her last six starts over hurdles, with her only defeats coming when far from disgraced in the Grade 1 Mares’ Hurdle at the festival and the Fighting Fifth. She is two from three over fences in that time though and Kirby is torn over what discipline suits her best.
“She is a very versatile mare,” says the trainer. “She can run over hurdles or fences, but because she’s such a brilliant jumper you’ve got to probably say that chasing slightly plays to her strengths a little more, but hurdling is no problem to her either as she is a very quick and nimble jumper.”
With wins over hurdles and fences so far this season, Kirby has a decision to make as to which race to let her take her chance in at Cheltenham in March with the trainer eyeing either the Mares’ Hurdle, in which she finished fourth last season, or an audacious attempt at the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
While taking on the likes of Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi in the Champion Chase might sound a daunting assignment, the prospect of taking on the latest Willie Mullins supermare Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle may prove no easier task.
Benie Des Dieux fell in dramatic circumstances with the race at her mercy last season, before landing two Grade 1s at Punchestown and Auteuil. She has since continued her red-hot form into this season when returning with a bang in the Galmoy Hurdle last week.
Despite the imposing opposition, Kirby has lots of belief in his mare and, while happy with her fourth in last year’s Mares’ Hurdle, Kirby can’t help but think Lady Buttons did not show her true running that day and expects a much better performance in whatever race she lines up at this year’s festival.
“We are looking at the festival again but the race – whether it be the Queen Mother or the Mares’ Hurdle – will be made closer to the time.
“I know she ran well enough in the Mares’ Hurdle last season to be fourth, but I just don’t think she ran her race. It was the first time in her career that she was beaten half a mile from home and from the position she was in, I think it was a miracle she finished fourth because I thought she’d be nowhere coming down the hill, but she really dug in to finish off the race nicely.
“Benie Des Dieux is obviously a very special mare and, while I’m not saying she’d have beaten her by any stretch of the imagination, she usually travels for a lot longer when she’s on her game so I just don’t think we saw the real Lady Buttons that day.”
While Lady Buttons’ festival target is still up in the air, Kirby pinpoints the Grade 3 Red Rum Handicap Chase, a race she was second last year, as her likely Aintree target.
“The plan is to go for the race she was second in last year. She’s only 1lb higher than that run where she ran right to her mark. We just bumped into one that day, which you can do in these races, but she’d have a big swing with that horse now. She’s in the form of her life at the moment so we’ll look at race again.”
With a new mares’ chase being introduced at the festival next year, it could prove a race tailor-made for Lady Buttons – albeit she will be an 11-year-old then – and Kirby hopes the mare keeps on showing her love for the game to keep talk of retirement on hold for as long as possible.
“Her last two runs – on Saturday and when beating Happy Diva and La Bague Au Roi over fences – were the best of her career so we have no immediate plans of retiring her.
“If she is showing the same enthusiasm next year then obviously the mares’ chase should suit her, but when the time is right we will do the right thing for her. She owes us nothing.”
Biggest win Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 2) – 2019, 2020
Future targets Cheltenham Festival: Mares’ Hurdle or Champion Chase; Aintree: Red Rum Handicap Chase
'She loves the camera – she thinks she's a supermodel'
While it has taken a huge team of unsung heroes to get Lady Buttons to the level she has achieved, no one knows her quite as well as Jennie Durrans, who rides her every day.
Durrans was hoping to watch from Cheltenham on Saturday as she was looking after another stable star, Top Ville Ben, who was third to Santini in the Cotswold Chase, but she unfortunately missed the race despite doing everything in her powers to watch it.
She explains: “Me and Ben were in the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham for finishing third and they were showing it on the big screen.
“The problem was we weren’t allowed to be in there that long so I was trying to do extra circles to try and stay in the parade ring so I could watch it.
“Unfortunately, I was ushered out so I missed the race. I tried to get it on my phone but it wouldn’t work, but I knew pretty much straight away that she’d won.
“She has such a big following now there was obviously a lot of people watching her on the big screen at Cheltenham. The more she keeps on winning the bigger her fan club is becoming. I was at Doncaster when she won over fences last time and the place was electric.”
Durrans has the job of ensuring Lady Buttons is fit and ready to race but claims her job is made simple by the mare’s love for her job.
“She is just the most lovely natured horse and an absolute pleasure to ride,” she adds. “She absolutely loves the camera – she knows she’s good and she looks for that camera and poses like there’s no tomorrow. She stands there and poses into the distance – she thinks she’s a supermodel.
“She is treated like a queen at the yard. She even has what I call a sunbed for when she finished her work which she loves to chill in.
“One of my favourite things she does is every time you put the bridle on she curls her lips up and it just makes me laugh every single time. I must drive people mad sticking photos of it on social media but I love it, it’s just what she does.”
Lady Buttons has more enthusiasm for the game than a lot of far younger horses and Durrans believes the time she missed in her earlier days have led to her form being prolonged and could have been a blessing in disguise.
She adds: “She missed out a couple of years due to injury and if she didn’t have that setback she might have been doing this two years ago. Some people might have retired her by now but she just keeps on improving – it’s like she is getting younger not older – she’s just amazing.
“She is like part of the family and has been massive for Phil to help him get his name in the lights. So I’m so glad she has turned out to be so good.”
Lady Buttons superfan Adam Wood from Sheffield got in touch to tell us what Lady Buttons means to him . . .
Where to even begin with Lady Buttons? She’s an incredible racehorse!
Whether it’s two miles or two and a half miles, hurdles or fences, she’ll give 100 per cent every single time and that’s usually enough to see her take the top spot on the podium in the winner’s enclosure.
Most horses tend to slow as they get older, but with Buttons it seems the older she gets, the better she is becoming.
The atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before as it seemed like all of Doncaster were behind her. She’s been an absolute joy to follow up and down the country over the last couple of years, and this success couldn’t have happened to a nicer team of people.
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