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Middleham Stables Annual Open Event 2008

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					Middleham Stables‟ Annual Open Event, Good Friday 2008

To Wensleydale in the Yorkshire Dales for the Middleham Stables‟ Annual Open Event, as it
is known these days. It has been held on Good Friday each year since 1993 with the single
omission of the „the foot and mouth year‟, but this year‟s event could have been the last.

There is an external threat from the possibility of the bookies getting racing on Good Friday
after 2009 (and why not have racing in England on Christmas Day, too: after all, bookies have
their overheads to pay?) and there are internal and local threats.

One of the latter comes from the age-old dispute between the trainers who use Middleham
Low Moor and the owners of gaits on the self-same ground. Gait is a dialect word and means
the right to graze animals, in this case sheep, on specified land and usually for a specified
period each year. That would be during the fine weather, when the grass grows, and that also
just happens to be when the training of racehorses is at its most intense.

The use of gait in this context is common in the north-east of England and may well be from
the Icelandic gata, plausible because of the immense influence of the Norsemen in shaping the
Yorkshire Dales as we know them to-day, with their instantly recognisable pattern of nicely-
rectangular fields, straight drystone walls, field barns, etc. Those settlers probably did not
plant the abundant flowers. The flowers are wild and so were the settlers.

The problems caused to racehorse trainers by sheep on Middleham Low Moor during the
grazing season do not require much imagining. Accidents have happened. The Middleham
Trainers‟ Association erected a barrier to stop sheep getting onto the two all-weather strips,
which are on the northern side of the Low Moor, which runs east-west and is only about one
furlong in width. There is little to eat on the northern side, anyway, because hundreds of
horses and the gallops‟ men‟s tractors go over the grass, such as it is, most days of the year.

The barrier consists almost entirely of the sort of white plastic railings that nowadays define
racecourses (tracks). Garishly-coloured plastic netting is hung on the railings during the
months of the grazing season and readily stops the sheep. Some of the gait owners objected.

The Middleham Trainers‟ Association is said not to have bothered with planning permission
and that led to a „local public enquiry‟ under the Law of Property Act 1925. It was held in
Middleham during the week previous to the week of the open event and began on the first day
of Cheltenham. It was short and the outcome is unknown, at least not to your correspondent.
There are hopes that the verdict will point the way to final settlement of this dispute.

Middleham Low Moor is a common and is for the use of “inhabitant householders” of what
King Richard III called “My town of Middleham”. It is said to be the smallest town in
Yorkshire and seems to have almost as many racehorses as people. In his play that opens with
„Now is the winter of our discontent ………..‟ Shakespeare has the King give the order on the
eve of the fatal battle of Bosworth in August 1485 to “Saddle white Surrey for the field to-
morrow”. One often wonders whether Richard might have exercised Surrey on Middleham
Low Moor or rode the horse there in cavalry training or impromptu races.

Middleham High Moor is more than one mile to the west of the Low Moor. They are quite
distinct from each other though both are on the line of a ridge that separates Wensleydale from
Coverdale and runs up to the higher part of Pennines. The trainers‟ stables are in two groups, a
little below either end of the Low Moor, and so out of the wind. Looking north the local post
town of Leyburn can be seen a couple of miles away, just below the northern lip of
Wensleydale. There are no houses or trees or stuff like that on the „tops‟.

Some people in Leyburn and in Harmby, a village near it, have telescopes in their houses and
watch the racehorses working on the Low Moor. Wensley is a village on the floor of the dale.

Another threat to the Good Friday open event is from the apathy or even antipathy of trainers
who are members of Middleham Trainers‟ Association. Two of the fifteen did not open to the
public this year and Mark Johnston will not open any of his three yards on Good Friday next
year because he feels his efforts are not appreciated. The chairman of the association, James
Bethell, has stated publicly that „if the trainers don‟t get a satisfactory conclusion‟ to the public
enquiry he will recommend that his members do not hold an open event next year, adding
„This would be a great shame …..‟

According to The Northern Echo the trainers pay £28,000 per annum in rent for Middleham
Low Moor to the Town Council and that represents 80% of the council‟s annual income.
In the same piece James Bethell is reported as saying “Racehorses can reach speeds of
30mph.” No wonder his horses ……. Oh, forget it. We don‟t do cheap gags.

Your correspondent is very much a regular in Middleham on Good Fridays and began this
year‟s tour of stables at Paul Murphy‟s Cappall Lodge, there mainly to see a horse that had
twice failed to distinguish himself in the two greatest races of the Cheltenham Festival and was
to be prepared for the Grand National. This was Contraband. Paul Murphy was not on hand
but Contraband was, looking in top form and very pleased with himself. He was getting lots
of t.l.c. and the staff were not in the least defensive about such a no-hoper being campaigned in
top races.

Paul‟s stables are unusual. They somewhat resemble an American barn but the place was
purpose built a few years ago on a fresh plot of land as the Middleham equine swimming pool
and therapy centre. It was „state of the art‟ and had Jockey Club approval, too, but it was not a
commercial success and got the chop. The pools were in-filled and the place re-named Cappall
Lodge, which does not look as if it is a Yorkshire toponym; cappall is the Irish word for horse.

Paul Murphy is son of Ferdy and in the early stages of his career as a trainer of racehorses. His
two winners were on show. There was Sybellius D’Artaix, winner at Cartmel about a year ago
and which finished the course in the Velka Pardubice, a feat in itself, as well as the gallant
mare Elzahann that had won at 100/1 at sixteen days before, also about a dozen others.

Then it was across the road to Karl Burke‟s number two yard. The staff were impressive,
knowledgeable and helpful young women. A couple of two-year-old fillies by Mr Greeley
caught the eye; neither has been named yet. The head girl was really keen on one of them, the
one out of a mare called I’maknightschoice. The other Mr Greeley filly is out of a mare called
Quarrel Over Halo.

Awful as those mares‟ names look they can be partly forgiven because both are derived
directly from the names of their own sires. The filly out of I’maknightschoice was mentioned
obliquely as „very expensive‟ by Karl in the Racing Post Weekender „Stable Tour‟ (not really a
tour, just a telephone call) published on 2nd April. A lot is expected of this filly so she will
hardly be „value‟ when she first runs, which will be later this season.

Quickly back across the road to Karl‟s main yard, Spigot Lodge proper, where the first staff
member encountered was Declan Cannon (7). He‟s from lovely Leitrim „where the Shannon
waters flow‟ and has already ridden winners. The boxes at Spigot Lodge are in a gloomy
situation, closely surrounded by ranks of fir trees. The idea is that the trees provide a shield
from the wind but they also act as a shield from the sun. The trees are said to have been
planted by the famous old „handicap king‟ Sam Hall (incidentally, the sire of Red Rum was
trained at Spigot Lodge by Lt Col Wilf Lyde).

It was noticeable in Spigot Lodge how many of the staff are Indian. A paddock just behind the
boxes is infested with rabbits. On mentioning this to one of the lads he observed “Too much
rabbit”. Was that a hint? Not really, but it was taken as a cue to hie a few hundred yards
across the ridge of the Low Moor to Ashgill, where John Weymes trains. This meant by-
passing Jedd O‟Keeffe‟s yard, which is in hollow to the right, a secluded spot, while his next-
door neighbour Sally Hall was closed this year again.

Also closed was Andy Crook‟s yard, Ashgill no. 2, though he seemed to have lots of visitors,
anyway. Tupgill Stables are empty these days (the box of Pretender, winner of the Derby in
1869, stills stands there) and James Bethell‟s refurbished Thorngill, which used to be the
stables of the late Don Enrico Incisa, were not on the writer‟s schedule this year, so it was time
to catch one of the free buses to the town of Middleham, a couple of miles away.

With the pressure of time it was decided to skip Manor House Stables, the yard of Pat Haslam,
where Dante was trained, literally in the shadow of Middleham Castle. Also skipped were the
National Hunt stables of Kate Milligan‟s, which are rather confusingly named Castle Stables,
though they are across the road from Haslam‟s and some little distance from the castle. Kate is
quite ill with multiple sclerosis but she had a winner at Catterick, Springaway, on 5th March,
sixteen days before Good Friday, on the same card as Paul Murphy‟s Elzahann.

It is a couple of furlongs of a diversion to Mrs Kate Walton‟s and the American barn of Chris
Thornton, which stables are like conjoined twins. Further up that lane, a cul de sac, is Park
Farm, Mark Johnston‟s third yard, which has never been open to the public since Mark bought
it. He is developing the place at a great rate. He has an airstrip there for his „plane, which
makes an appalling racket on taking off, and is installing a „Tapeta‟ all-weather track more
than a mile long.

Tapeta is an artificial surface developed by Michael Dickinson. Mark pronounces it „tapeeta‟.
His grass gallops at Park Farm are maturing, as can be seen from the Low Moor above, and he
has direct and immediate access to the Low Moor when he wants it. But is the problem with
the sheep and the gait owners leading Mark to withdraw from using the Low Moor and perhaps
even, in time, becoming fully self-sufficient with his facilities and withdrawing entirely from
the Middleham Trainers‟ Association?

Passing the art gallery where works by many local equine artists such as Jo Stockdale (she
worked for Mark Johnston at one time), Mrs Julie Whitwham, John Atkins, etc are for sale, the
first call in Middleham was on Chris and Judy Fairhurst at Glasgow House, right in the centre
of the town, practically next door to the shop. The yard was packed and Chris was mobbed.
Burnt Oak is back in training after injury and three or four out of the Darshaan mare Reine De
Thebes (FR) are there too. The mare‟s last foal is the three-year-old filly One Tou Many. Judy
Fairhurst is quite hopeful of her.

Next, dropped into the offices of Racing Welfare, the other side of the shop. Dismay. Raye
Wilkinson, the very popular welfare officer for nigh on thirty years was nowhere to be found.
He has just retired. In his place is Amanda Donkin, who has a degree in psychology. That
should be a great help. Amanda was assistant trainer to the McMahon family but could not get
enough finance to set up as a trainer on her own account. Let‟s hope she prospers in
Middleham. Racing Welfare do good and necessary work.

No time for Micky Hammond‟s, though he has with him a conditional who was soon to win
the Pertemps series of a Hands & Heels jockeys‟ competition. The lad is Michael McAvoy.
The next call was just across the road from Micky‟s, to Warwick Lodge, the stables‟ of his
sometime guv‟nor George Moore. The trainer was scurrying around, not standing still in the
cold wind. It was nearly 12.30pm; the weather had been quite good up to then but now sleet
was threatening. George seems to have lost weight. His best prospect for his favourite race,
the Northumberland Plate, may be the four-year-old filly Bogside Theatre.

There was no sign of George‟s fearsome guard dogs, Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Someone said
this breed is prone to die suddenly. Thus, having got out in one piece, it was across the lane
and into Mark Johnston‟s second yard by the back entrance. This is Warwick Lodge, once
famous as the stables of the late Captain Neville Crump. Now it is full of two-year-olds with
most of the yard space taken up with horse-walkers. Goodness knows how many two-year-
olds Mark has this year. He certainly has the most numerous string in England. Sheikh
Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Maktoum has ninety-five horses with him.

Just time to get into Kingsley House yard, with the clock of the parish church directly behind
and above the first boxes showing that time was indeed running out. One of the yard managers
here is the some-time jockey Andy Larnach and the guv‟nor was in his wonted Good Friday
bad-weather place, sitting in the back of a horse box in the main yard autographing and selling
copies of the latest book about him, which he agrees is much better than the first, which was
simply a „year in the life of‟ effort. Mark has not received any royalties from the current book,
called Mark Johnston The Authorised Biography. It was published in 2006 and is by Nick
Townsend; hardback; ISBN 1-905156-26-X.

So it was all over for another year. Or was it? There are three licensed public trainers in
Wensleydale who are not members of the Middleham Trainers‟ Association; Ferdy Murphy,
Bill Ratcliffe and Mrs Ann Duffield. These days Ferdy has his own place, at West Witton,
below the High Moor. His landlords are Bill and Edith Kettlewell, who owned Mrs McArdy,
winner of the 1000 Guineas in 1977. Ferdy resigned from the Middleham Trainers
Association and does not have public open days but Bill Ratcliffe and Ann Duffield had their
stables open in the afternoon.

These both have their own gallops. The Duffields bought their place, Sun Hill Farm, from the
Wyvill family of Constable Burton, who were famous in the early development of the
racehorse. Another very famous racing family, the Scropes of Danby, live nearby.

Bill and Elena Ratcliffe work, and that is mainly what they do, work, at Bolton Hall Racing
Stables, more or less on the floor of Wensleydale opposite Middleham High Moor. Bolton
Hall is on the northern side of the River Ure a judicious distance upslope from the river, which
can flood. The yard is reminiscent of other stables formerly a hub for an aristocratic house.
The present Lord Bolton is well-known in racing. He rode many winners as Mr Harry Orde-
Powlett and, indeed, one of his sons, Ben, was a conditional jockey for a while.

For this year Bill and Elena Ratcliffe‟s best horse may be the fast filly Style Award and the
stable‟s old reliable is the handicapper Bel Cantor. Elena is Ukrainian but she has worked in
several stables in England. She is a marvellous rider and has won many trophies in eastern
Europe. So good a rider is she that she once got a part in a film as a double for the star. The
star was a man. How did they get around that? Easy. They just stuck a moustache on her.

				
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Description: Middleham Stables Annual Open Event 2008