TRAINER TALK: TOM & GINA ELLIS

by Jake Exelby

COUPLE ON THE UP

Which husband and wife team have ridden over 300 winners between them, train 18 pointers from a yard they have mostly built themselves and have a combined age of just 54? If you guessed Tom and Gina Ellis (Gina Andrews until their wedding last June), you’d be right. Better known as jockeys, they are building up a stable to be reckoned with at their home in Marton, near Rugby in Warwickshire.

Gina – of course – has been champion Ladies point-to-point jockey twice, first in 2011 when she was just 19and most recently last year, when she rode 29 winners between the flags and three in Hunter Chases, including a memorable victory in Stratford’s House & Hound Cup on David Kemp’s Moroman.

Gina has a background steeped in point-to-pointing. Father Simon rode 170 winners in points and landed the 1988 Aintree Foxhunters on Newnham and mother Joanna was also a successful rider on the East Anglian scene. “I sat on my first pony – Cleo – when I was three,” Gina recalls. “She was horrible. I always had ponies that no one else could ride,” she admitted. “You don’t learn properly on a ‘push-button’ horse, you get good by riding the bad ones!”

Despite the success she’s already had in her career, Gina still has plenty of unfulfilled ambitions. “I’d love to win the Aintree Foxhunters – it’s more of a thrill than Cheltenham – but I’d also love to ride a winner at the Festival. I also want to beat Polly Curling’s (1995) record of 40 winners in a season.”

And what of Tom’s riding career? While less high profile a jockey than Gina, he has ridden “about 135” winners in points and is best known for his association with the Fred Hutsby stable stars Penmore Mill – “I’ve won 14 on him” – and Rash Move, whose third in the 2013 Aintree Foxhunters is Tom’s career highlight to date.

“That was the best day of my life,” proclaims Tom boldly. “Yes Gina, including our wedding.” He continues, ignoring the look from his wife! “It was better than winning at Cheltenham (on the same horse) as you only get one shot a year at Aintree. We knew he’d be quick and that if he took to the fences, we’d have a shot at being in the first three.”

Unfortunately, Tom recently took the decision to retire from the saddle after breaking his leg on a horrible fall at Mollington in May. “I broke my ankle in 2006 and have broken collarbones and ribs, but that was the worst injury I’ve had. I was on crutches for 14 weeks and still have a rod from my knee to my ankle and two pins in my leg.”

“It wasn’t great timing,” he admits. Not only did he miss a winning ride in a Hunter Chase on Full Trottle, the horse who fell with him at Mollington, and the chance to be South Midlands Area Champion Jockey, it happened just six weeks before Tom & Gina’s wedding. “We’d planned a horseback safari,” he reminisces with a wince. “But we ended up going to Mauritius instead. It was supposed to be thirty degrees and sunny but it rained every day and was about ten degrees cooler!”

Tom’s injury also had an impact on the building of his new stable barn – “I was supposed to be doing it all myself but Dad had to help”, confessed Tom. ‘Dad’, of course, is Tony Ellis, a well-known figure on the point-to-point scene, famous for the gin and tonics freely dispensed from the back of his Range Rover and for – usually – being last man off the course!

Happily the barn is now complete, as is the oval all-weather gallop laid last Autumn, a horse walker, schooling fences and plans to extend the gallop by incorporating a chute into an uphill That this is a training partnership going places is confirmed by the stable strength, which has increased from nine last season to 18 for 2015/2016. “It just sort of happened,” mused Tom when asked how he had managed to double the numbers in his yard after a – by his own admission – disappointing 2014.

Over half the horses are unraced from their yard – some are still unnamed – and only four inmates are winners. “Last year was a huge learning curve,” admits Gina. “It was our first year training as a partnership and we had lots of young horses. We’re more settled now and have a new yard and a new gallop.” So what do Tom and Gina hope to achieve this year?

“To train more winners than we did last season,” laughs Tom. Gina gets serious. “For people to want to buy our young horses that win races, ideally first time out.” They’re also setting up a racing club, tentatively named the ‘Ice & A Slice Partnership’ – “named after Dad’s car boot parties”, confirms Tom. “It started on November 1st and goes on until we rough off the horses”, he continues. “We’re looking for ten partners at £30 a week each and for that you get an interest in two horses. It’s a fun entry into the sport, while keeping the cost down.”

Tom and Gina have a staff of four full-time and four part-time employees –– led by the popular Charlie Tiso. “She’s brilliant,” eulogised Gina. “She treats the horses like they’re her own, never seems to have a day off and we can leave her in charge when we go away.” When they’re at home, I cheekily ask who is the main decision maker and the answer is unequivocal. “Gina’s in charge,” says Tom. “I’m there every single day while you go and do your thing,” adds Gina. The ‘thing’ in question is farming over 1,300 acres, most of them owned by Tom. “I’m a farmer who trains horses,” he confirms.

Finally, no visit to a young couple as immersed in point-to-pointing as Tom and Gina would be complete without their views on the sport.

Gina is particularly vociferous on of prize money. “It’s appalling.” Tom gives an example. “We won £130 when My Alfie won his Maiden and it only covered the cost of entry and diesel. Opens should be worth at least £500.” Another bugbear is race planning. “The early season meetings need looking at,” he tells me. “You run once, then there’s nowhere to go afterwards – and you don't get the crowds.” Gina is happy with the dates – “she just wants to start riding,” laughs Tom – but would go a stage further, opening the season in October and taking a break over Christmas. Both agree that mid-June is late to finish the season.

And what about the often thorny subject of good horses switching to point-to-points and Hunter Chases from National Hunt rules? Again, Gina has a strong opinion. “If a horse has reached a rating of 140, it should automatically carry a 7lb penalty. And to run in a Hunter Chase, a horse should be qualified to run in a point.” She’s on a roll now… “I’ve got no problem with the 60-day rule (an ex-National Hunt horse has to wait this long to run in a point-to-point) but horses shouldn’t be allowed to switch between rules and points in a season.”

It’s obvious that Tom and Gina have much to offer the sport, as top jockeys, up-and-coming trainers, and influencers. I’ll leave the last word to Tom, who when asked to sum up his views on point-to-pointing, simply told me:

“I love this sport, and wouldn’t change a thing.”

FIVE TO FOLLOW – TOM & GINA ELLIS

Belstone

A four-year-old filly by Black Sam Bellamy. She’s unraced, but comes from a good family.”

Celtic Silver

“Was a bit disappointing last season having come to us from Ireland. A six-year-old by Shirocco.” 

Sea Current

“Ex-Dan Skelton. Rated 112 but still a maiden. He’s got a lot of ability and we may take him to Higham.”

Tara More

“Another six-year-old, by Kayf Tara who has been placed in Irish point-to-points. He’s a lovely big horse with a great attitude.”

Total Compliance

“Fell first time out at Kingston Blount then ran well to be second at Dingley. He’s six going on three – a nice horse but immature. Owned by Mrs Rogers – I think every horse she has had has won.”