While the spotlight in the racing world is firmly fixed on the Sussex Downs and the superpowers of British racing going head to head at the latest big summer meeting, in Leicestershire John Holt is busy at his Hall Farm Racing set up readying his one runner for the week, the self-owned stable veteran Emjayem, for his trip to Teesside to contest the Class six 6f handicap at Redcar.
Holt, a jumping man at heart who has ridden at Cheltenham Festivals as well as over the National fences at Aintree as an amateur jockey, started out with a handful of pointers before taking out a full dual-licence and creating the Hall Farm centre for racing that now sits in the heart of Peckleton.
He is best known for his exploits with Number Theory, a winner of Haydock’s Old Newton Cup and placed twice in the Ebor as well as competing in the Ascot Gold Cup and Goodwood Cup. He is a horse who’s legacy lives on at Hall Farm and is still a visible fixture, ruling the roost in one of the many turnout paddocks;
“He’s easily the best horse I’ve had and took me to some great places, placing in group races and taking part at all the big meetings. All of us here had a great time looking after him.”
“He’s one I picked out and purchased myself as a yearling having been asked by his owner Mr Fonsaka to find him a staying type. The owner was very patient with us, and for him to develop into the star he did gave me plenty of pleasure.” Said Holt of his time overseeing the career of the four-time Haydock winner.
1st lot of the morning begins at 7am and features the upcoming week’s runners. Appearing from the old milking sheds which have been transformed into your typical modern day American barn style racing stables are: Goadby, an interesting character, who would go on to finish second at his beloved Catterick and Dream Voice, who is as lovely a looking filly as ones eye can find and one the handler has high hopes of making into a proper dual purpose horse in the future;
“I can see her jumping a hurdle in the future. I’m just taking my time with her, inching up in trip by the run and seeing where we end up. She’s got talent that’s for sure.”
However before work can commence the first task of the day is to clear the gallops of sheep which have escaped a neighbouring field, followed by chasing away those pesky geese who have gathered to take a front row seat for the mornings breeze-up at the brim of the steep straight six.
Holt’s gallops are all self-contained within the grounds of the farm, an uphill Warren Hill replica which see’s most of the fast work is accompanied by an all-weather gallop which circumferences the farm and acts as a nice loosener before the challenge of the climbing grass.
This is one of the way’s Holt makes the expensive world of training thoroughbred racehorses work;
“It’s handy I’m able to use the existing buildings and the land from the farm for stabling, gallops and turnout paddocks. I’ve not had to go out and rent an expensive stables like some of these Newmarket yards with hefty overheads.”
“It all works alongside the farm which is still in operation and we produce our own hay and straw”
The trainer also likes to keep up with modern trends in training and is soon to install a new gallop to replace the all-weather track that is currently in existence;
“The old wood-chip is past its sell by date really, were getting the new carpet gallop installed which is low maintenance with a long lifespan. It all helps keep operating costs low whilst keeping a facility suitable for training thoroughbreds.”
Following a little stalls practice for the pair it is the turn of lot number two, which feature the Redcar contender and stable stalwart Emjayem acting as the lead horse for a strapping sprinting two-year-old filly by Captain Gerrard. Third to Mick Channon’s Neola at Nottingham last time, she is one who seems to be coming to the boil nicely and the handler is confident a first victory shouldn’t be too far away;
“She’ll win, she’s learning all the time and I just need to find the right race for her now.”
The majority of the riding at Hall Farm is done by a pair of teenagers, firstly Megan Ellingworth, the stable apprentice with 35 rides to her name and who has teamed up with agent Mark Furnass in search of that elusive first winner. Secondly Emily Berry who is looking to attain her own apprentice license by the end of the year.
Both girls are at home on a horse and naturals within a saddle. They are graduates of local Pony Clubs and have competed on horseback throughout their lives.
Hard working and conscientious to their trade, most importantly they possess that style and substance in the saddle which should see them become race winning jockey’s when the opportunities arise.
Holt is full of praise for the girls who he rates highly and predicts great things for;
“The girls are keen, work hard, learning all the time and they are good prospects who I’m sure will have long careers somewhere within racing.”
“They are here every morning never grumbling and don’t do anything wrong with the horses.”
The girls are assisted throughout the week by jockey Royston French who Holt sees as a massive cog in his operation;
“Royston is a key figure here, riding out and helping me map out where to go with the horses. He coaches the girls and is someone the girls can look up to and learn from as well, which is brilliant for them.”
A common trend throughout my time at Hall Farm is how well turned out the horses are. Every one of them looks a picture of health, a testament to Holt’s small and select workforce who attend to the strings every need;
“It’s one of the benefits of not having many horses that they all get proper time spent on them by the girls, fussing them and making them feel loved. They obviously will have their favourites but they all muck in and make sure every single horse here has the attention and care they deserve.”
With only a small string at his disposal, you may think that the handler would feel the pressure of having to run his horses regularly, to maximise the opportunity to earn prize money. However he disagrees;
“Timing is key. You’ve got to wait for them to be ready and tell you they are fit to run.”
“There’s no point wasting a run on an unfit horse. I do all the race planning myself and it’s just about placing them correctly. I don’t mind travelling and it’s important you send them to the correct track on the correct day that’s going to do best for the horse.”
So how does Holt, a small time trainer away from the racing hubs of Lambourn, Malton and Newmarket lure in new owners and keep himself in business?
“The main attraction is winners! Oh and also my location! I’m lucky there’s not a lot of other trainers around here!”
“So if an owner is local and wants to watch their horse they don’t have to travel miles and be hustled up with others on the gallops, they can just come here have a coffee and meet and watch their horse.”
One such group of owners, typical of Holt’s patrons, is the local Jobsworth Racing syndicate who own one of the stables three-year-olds, Glyder. The syndicate is made up of local Leicester City Football Club fans looking to play up their gambling winnings from when Leicester landed the premier league a few years ago. Holt was a natural fit;
“There a great bunch of owners and I love training Glyder for them! They are all local and it’s nice for them to come to me and I imagine we’ll have plenty of fun with the filly. Certainly if Catterick is anything to go by when she won!”
Glyder, who represents Holt’s sole winner of the 2017 campaign so far, is a typical product of Hall Farm and the way the experienced horseman likes to select his horses from the sales ring.
“I enjoy buying yearlings and developing a horse. I enjoy looking through pedigrees and marking up the attributes you are looking for.”
“And then it’s fitting the puzzle together of finding a horse at the sales with the right attitude, which is crucial, and matching it with the budget you have and the potential profit you can make through racing the horse.”
“I often buy on spec to develop myself and then hopefully if an owner does arrive at the yard there is a ready-made product waiting in the yard ready to go out and race which I can pass on.”
Glyder was the beau ideal Holt creation, race ready and five runs already to her name by the time the Jobsworth Racing team came calling;
“Quite a lot of owners these day’s want instant action (and instant success!!) so I need to have some ready to rock and roll!, The old days of buying a baby and bringing him through are sort of disappearing but then again I do have the facilities and time for that if one does need nurturing and I’m not one to give up on a horse.”
It is this part of the training game which gives the Leicestershire man the most pleasure as he goes on to say;
“Developing a young horse, and then selling them on to owners who can then have great days out is what I enjoy most really. Like the Jobsworth guys and seeing how much it means for them to have a winner.”
“I buy everything myself and I don’t use an agent. It gives me great pleasure studying them and getting to know them and watching them develop.”
A man steeped in jumping pedigree, it’s interesting that it is mainly flat horses Holt houses at Hall Farm;
“I would love more jumpers but it’s hard to make it work. You have to take your time more and there’s more injuries that are picked up, and before you know it the horse hasn’t ran for six months!”
“Also placing a horse is so much tougher. You’ll think you’ve found the perfect race, at say a Market Rasen, and you’ll arrive at the races and find Paul Nicholls has one entered that you have no chance of beating!”
The passion for racing and love of horses is of overriding paramount importance in a small yard where success can be rare. John Holt and his staff possess this in abundance.
Training racehorses to win is not easy for the small man, without the backing of the many millionaires who frequent the racecourse restaurants and premier enclosures. However Holt is a shining beacon representing the small time handler, an honest man full to the brim with integrity simply wanting to do the best for his horses and his owners.
Yes he may only have a handful of winners a season, and they are more than likely to be under the floodlights of Wolverhampton than World Cup night Meydan. But this is racing, real racing, and any winner counts!