by Jake Exelby

Fittingly, I went to meet Adlestrop trainer/jockey Claire Hart a few days after the death of Jill Dawson and just before Claire won the Leicestershire Hunters Chase to emotional scenes, on Palypso de Creek for Jill’s husband Mike. Much has been written about Jill and her contribution to the sport as jockey, owner/trainer and personality, and it was the talented Palypso de Creek who helped put Claire on the map.

“I’d always had a couple of horses at home,” Claire begins, “but started training seriously in 2011 and Palypso was my first really good horse. He’d run in the Grand National for Charlie Longsdon – where I worked and still ride out – but had lost his way. Charlie suggested that owner Alan Halsall sent him to me to run in point-to-points and Hunter Chases and I loved the idea of a rescue mission!”

The deal was that the horse would be trained by Claire for a season and then be sold. “I won two points with him at Whitfield and Sandon and he was placed in four Hunter Chases. Jill came to see him just before he ran at Cheltenham (where he was third) and asked me to ride him in a Ladies Open at Dingley a couple of weeks later, where we beat Billyvoddan. I’d had a great season, but thought that would be the end of it.

Sadly of course, Jill Dawson’s cancer returned in 2012 and – as a result, Claire kept the ride on the horse now trained by Jill and Mike. Since then, Claire and Palypso de Creek have won ten out of their 12 point-to-points – eight in the 2012/2013 season when he was winningmost horse – and five out of seven Hunter Chasers, finishing second on all their other runs.

The other horse principally responsible for putting Claire on the map as a jockey was the profilic mare Lady Myfanwy, winner of an incredible 35 races before retiring last year. Claire was on board for eight of those victories in 2011 and 2012. She takes up the story. “I was riding at Charlie Longsdon’s and Hannah Lewis told me there was a spare ride going at Kingston Blount, so I dashed there to make it in time, getting changed on the way! I met the Miles’ who own the horse for the first time in the paddock.” And it seemed that not everyone was impressed by Claire’s credentials. “Carl Evans told someone that I was a ‘family rider’ – the cheeky so and so!”

It’s hard to believe now that she is in the highest echelon of female jockeys, but Claire was a relative novice at the time and Lady Myfanwy at Kingston Blount was only her tenth winner. However she soon proved her credentials as a rider, using the mare as a launchpad to winning the Aga for the leading rider in Ladies Races in 2012. “We went everywhere to win that Aga – we won two races on Palypso, two on Myfanwy and one on Power Shared down at Littlewindsor.” So where’s the Aga now? “In Mum’s kitchen!”

“Mum” is former rider Helen, whose biggest win was a Cheltenham Hunter Chase on Behest in 1981 and still an active part of Claire’s team at Adlestrop, while uncle Simon is well-known in the sport, having ridden 49 winners – “I’m always asked why I didn’t get to 50 and stop, but I could have been trying forever” – and now a prominent figure in the South Midlands Area. He relates a marvellously self-deprecating story about his first ride, on Veni Vici at Kingston Blount in 1977:

“I only got the phone call saying I was riding the night before so I phoned home and asked Mum to pack my bag for me. I took it from her at the course and started to get changed. But when I pulled out my britches, I found that she’d packed my morris-dancing trousers instead! I had to ride in a pair of white trousers, but luckily I was brought down early so I could run back and get changed before anyone noticed.” What Simon didn’t say – but I looked it up – is that owner George Hyatt decided to ride the horse himself next time out… and won!

Back to Claire, who had her first ride on Westington in 2001. “I was bloody useless,” she candidly admits, “but I learnt from it, which is why I appreciate what I’ve got now. I’ve had to work at it.” Given that it took her ten years to get established as a top-rank jockey, it is no surprise that she is a keen advocate of novice riders. Currently, she trains the experienced Marblehead for Lily Pinchin to ride and Argentato for fellow newcomer Jordan Nailor.

Lily’s story – she rides in colours of light blue and pink with white hearts, designed by her 11-year old friend Maddy Hems who has cancer – has been told elsewhere, so I asked Claire about Jordan, from nearby Moreton-in-Marsh. “He’s only 16”, says his trainer and mentor, “but has so much talent and a really professional attitude. He’s made Argentato a happy horse.” And the results bear out Claire’s praise – after a season off the track, the handsome grey has been third twice in competitive Intermediate Races behind good horses. And lost the “squiggle” so beloved of the form-book compilers and dreaded by owners and trainers!

Claire proudly showed off her other horses, including tough genuine Kazuri Kate – “a lovely little mare”, experienced Vincitore – “he’s got a mind of his own”, progressive Gift of Dreams – “he ran so well behind Storm Lantern at Larkhill and unraced Leith Hill Lad – “a half-brother to winning chaser Leith Hill Legasi”.

As well as the horses she trains herself, Claire is best-known now as the rider of the talented Alskamatic, trained by Richard Bandey, on whom she won an Exeter Hunter Chase last year and finished a close second in the Connollys Red Mills Intermediate Final. “He can be a lazy, idle toerag, an absolute rogue,“ giggled his jockey. “But at the same time he’s a lovely, wonderful horse. We started last season only just winning a Restricted and ended up second at Cheltenham.” And the pair have continued to progress this season, following up a second to leading Foxhunters fancy Current Event with an easy win in a Ladies Open at Milborne St Andrew.

Our chat came to a close as Claire went to work some of her string. She legged up Lily Pinchin on Fran Marriott’s impressive recent winner Dabinett Moon and mum Helen on Vincitore, before getting on-board the unraced “Willy”, an unnamed seven-year old chestnut gelding by Fleetwood, and riding up to the public bridleway to give the three horses a fast canter. I left Claire under sunny Cotswold skies, willing the engaging young trainer-jockey on to greater success.