TRAINER TALK: LAURA HORSFALL

by JAKE EXELBY

‘NEW KID ON THE BLOCK’

It’s quite an achievement to train a winner with your first runner, which is what Laura Horsfall did when Katnapping won at Clifton-on-Dunsmore in 2014. Laura has now taken over responsibility for the Highfields yard, near Towcester, from Heather Kemp and I visited her stable to find out what she has learnt and how she plans to do things differently…

“I’ve lived at Highfields for four years now,” Laura told me in response to my question on how she came to take over the famous yard. “I used to work for Pauline and Doug Harkin and then worked for Heather for two years. She’s always treated me like family. When I had my own pointer (Katnapping) two years ago, I got the buzz, then I trained a racing pony in the summer. Heather said she was thinking of slowing down so I thought ‘why not give it a go?’”

The Highfields stables have their own history. Grand National winner Party Politics was born in the yard – formerly owned by his breeder David Stoddart – then John Upson developed the buildings when he embarked on his own training career. The likes of Nick The Brief and Zeta’s Lad were housed there when he was in charge, and others who have used it as their base include Terry Casey, Frank Jordan and Julian-Smyth Osbourne, before Heather Kemp moved in five years ago.

Laura’s own involvement in the sport dates from her childhood. “When I was a kid we had ponies, that were stabled with Jenny Garley, who also had pointers,” she remembers. “She let me work one of them one day, and it just p***ed off with me! I didn’t like dressage and eventing, as I liked to go fast!” Laura went for work experience at Caroline Bailey’s when she was 14, then started working there full-time as soon as she left school. “I was always going to be involved in racing,” she confirmed with a smile.

After leaving the Bailey yard, Laura went to Mike Roberts – trainer of Horse & Hound Chase winner Bitofamixup – in Sussex, then back to Northamptonshire to be head girl for Bill Warner, where she looked after 20-race winner Coolefind, “he still hunts”, and Coole Glen, who gave Laura her proudest moment in racing so far. “I led him in after he’d won the two-miler at the Cheltenham Hunter Chase meeting – there’s no better feeling than that.” Laura credits Bill with teaching her the attention to detail that a trainer needs. “Looking at injuries, how to bandage a horse, the basic stuff. He made me what I am today,” she laughs. “I have OCD and swear quite a lot!”

Many trainers have a long career in the saddle before running a yard but Laura’s spell as a rider was, by her own admission, brief and unproductive. “I wanted to try being a jockey, so I got an old schoolmaster, Dook’s Delight (in 2004). I had four rides on him and he looked after me, but I didn’t get the buzz. I enjoyed working with horses at home, making them look pretty! And when I fell off him (Laura’s words not mine) at Mollington, you can imagine all the stuff that went with my name!”

Still, Dook’s Delight was – inadvertently – responsible for introducing Laura to Heather. “We were riding in the same race at Mollington. I remember seeing her in her blue mascara and thinking ‘I’m too scared to talk to her!’ But when we started speaking, I thought ‘she’s alright actually’. I still think she’s more taken by my Jack Russell, Buddy, than by me though!”

Laura now looks after three horses formerly trained by Heather, as well as her own Katnapping. She tells me how she came to acquire the mare. “She came from the Waley-Cohens, where she was placed over hurdles. A friend was looking for a horse for dressage so I rang Katie Mawle, their “head lad”, who said they had a mare who was crying out to go pointing and who jumped for fun. My friend didn’t want a mare, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind, so I spoke to Heather, went to see Katnapping, rode her on the gallops and picked her up that afternoon!”

“I didn’t tell my parents,” continued Laura, “I thought I might have to sell Katnapping if she turned out not to be any good, but the first thing my Dad said after she’d won was ‘When are we getting another?’” Having only run once since her debut success, the plan is for Katnapping to reappear in January.

The other three horses in the yard are more experienced. Edgar Henry, owned by local butcher Roy Hunt, is a winner of three races. “He had a year off after winning at Barbury Castle in 2014 and has legs of glass,” admitted Laura. “Roy is desperate to win the Oakley Members – they didn’t have one last year so he had to run in the Confined – and he’ll have a couple of runs beforehand.”

Treacyswestcounty, owned by Roy Hunt’s wife Bridget, was second in three Restricteds after winning a Maiden at Guilsborough and will come on for his first run of 2016 at Higham last weekend. “He’s qualified with the Pytchley so we’ll be targeting the Members there after a Restricted,” confirmed Laura. “He’s come on over the summer and he was a nervy horse – it took a lot for him to gain our trust. When we got him, the vet’s certificate said we couldn’t lunge him due to a nervous disposition. He’s got a really distinctive high-pitched whinny when I come to feed him – it probably wakes Heather up!”

The nine-year-old Bay To Go, owned by Heather and leased for the season to a group including rider Lucy Wheeler, pointing stalwart Steven Astaire and Laura’s parents, has scored six times in all. “He’s got so much ability, but he’s quirky and I’m trying to sweeten him up,” said his new trainer. “I take him out in a lorry once a week and he needs company – he can’t work on his own. We’re hoping to pick up a little race,” she continued when pressed on plans for the season, now he no longer races with penalties after a winless 2014/2015. “And he may go Hunter Chasing. He’s a sound jumper and took Lucy round Cheltenham last year.”

Lucy will take most of the rides this season, although Sam Davies-Thomas will have first refusal on Katnapping after partnering her to her Maiden victory. Laura is a firm believer in loyalty. “You’ve got to help the people who help you. Lucy comes here to ride out two or three times a week and deserves her opportunities. She had a great season last year (Lucy was second in the National Female Novices Championship). And Bay To Go and Treacyswestcounty seem to go better for girls.”

Laura laughs when I mention staff. “I’ve only got four horses, so I do most of it myself, but my Mum has learned to muck out! She comes in twice a week.” She also praises Lauren West. “She works in the yard next door with eventers and comes and rides out occasionally before work and I’m trying to convert her from eventing to racing. I’ve persuaded her to come up the gallops, so I’m getting there.”And Heather? “If I need her, she’s there but if not, she leaves me to it,” says the independent Laura. “She’s always been great at giving youngsters a chance. But I still make sure she’s part of it and she helps me with the paperwork!”

Talk of the gallops leads us outside where Laura and Lucy, smartly decked out in matching burgundy – “my favourite colour since school” – are schooling Bay To Go and Treacyswestcounty up the steep five-and-a-half furlong all weather gallop. Laura has access to impressive facilities for a first-season trainer, with 75 acres of well marked out grass gallops and six schooling fences.

 

When we return to the yard, I ask Laura about her hopes for her small string. “Being a new trainer,” she replied, “All I’m asking for is that they come back safely – that’s a successful season.” The horses in the yard are well groomed, with glossy coats, and look ready to race even though some of them are several weeks away from an outing. When I compliment Laura, she laughs again, keen to have the final word. “I was the official ‘best turned out queen’ last year, but I’d rather be known for training winners!”