Cheltenham Festival: The women keeping Gordon Elliott’s string on the road
From stable to racecourse, women play crucial roles in the Meath trainer’s operation
From left: Camilla Sharples, Mary Nugent and Zoe Winston (with Lily the dog), pictured with racehorse Don Cossack at Gordon Elliott’s stables in Cullentra, Co Meath. Photograph: Barry Cronin
Zoe Winston’s tiny prefab office in Gordon Elliott’s racing yard in Meath is a long way from Brown Thomas. Her previous job was a three-month spell selling fashion on Dublin’s most fragrant shopfloor, but this is where she is happiest.
Teddy, a lovable Great Dane, is among the pack of dogs standing sentry outside and, if this was BT’s, the pricey candle scent would be “Eau du Cheval”.
Cheltenham is galloping towards us, but everyone at Cullentra House Stables says their racing secretary’s personality, pace and perfectionism never changes.
Winston is their organisational ninja, making race entries and declarations (confirming entries five days before races), dealing with all transport, logistics and emergencies, and running the racing club and all media, including a website and even a Gordon Elliott app.
Everything she needs is within a swivel of her chair, including the immaculate file of colour-coded horsey passports for each of the yard’s 135 residents.
Her dad, Ferdy Murphy, was one of Britain’s top jump trainers.
She worked for him for 10 years and when he relocated to France three years ago, she and her Irish husband, John, moved to Ireland.
Her father saddled 10 winners at Cheltenham, but Winston has actually only been to the famous Cotswold meeting twice.
“I’ve always preferred working in the yard to going racing,” she says. “I had my amateur and point-to-point licences, but I only rode for fun. I’m not that competitive.”
She does concede to being “a bit of an organisational freak”, as her boss of the past 18 months confirms.
“She does a good job and gives out to me sometimes. She keeps me in line,” says Elliott, a man equally obsessed with fine details.
Her days are mostly 8am-5pm and, like many yard staff, she is happy to be part of the wallpaper, even during the so-called Olympics of jump racing, where Elliott will have a 25-strong string, including big Gold Cup fancy Don Cossack.
Business as usual
“There’ll still be over 100 horses here at home,” Winston says. “We’ll still be very busy.”
Elliott sends horses to Britain regularly, so the logistics for Cheltenham are not new, just magnified. The first of their two loads leaves on Friday, on the night ferry from Dublin.
Elliott’s travelling head girl, Camilla Sharples, and Barney Flood will drive the horses and Elliott’s assistant travelling head girl, Mary Nugent, and assistant trainer Ollie Murphy are bringing a double-horsebox jam-packed with tack and feed.
They’ll dock in Holyhead at 5am to start a four-and-a-half-hour drive to the racecourse. Nugent and Murphy will bomb on ahead and have all their allocated stables disinfected and bedded down by the time the horses arrive. Disinfection is not just for health reasons.
“We use the same one at home; it’s the same smell for them. The idea always is to recreate their normal routine,” Nugent says.
Sharples and herself keep Elliott’s show on the road whenever there is racing. They have it down to a fine art, but the volume at Cheltenham increases their workload and worries, and life can always throw a curveball.
Last October, Sharples took a couple of horses to England to run in two different meetings and the gearbox went halfway to the second.
“We actually stopped the M5 on a Friday night, the busiest motorway possible,” she says. “They had to close it at either end so we could move the horses off our lorry to Tony Martin’s. It was only a five-minute job, but there were traffic cops everywhere.”
Sharples and Nugent both ride out regularly as well as doing their travelling duties and say the toughest parts of racing are the long hours and the cleaning.
“One of Gordon’s signature things is that we use sheepskin nosebands and they’re white. Not cream. Not brown. White!” Nugent says, laughing. “They have to be handwashed and brushed. Everything has to be en pointe.”
Their days will start with 6am feeds and won’t usually finish until they’ve done one last check on the animals at about 9pm, extra-vigilant for those telltale signs (sweating, not eating/drinking, pacing the box) of an unsettled one.
“But I can’t stress how chilled ours are at the races,” Sharples says. “We have a great bunch. I think it’s because they’re so relaxed and happy at home.”
They’ll stay at Hunter’s Lodge themselves, a legendary hostel for stable staff situated at the racecourse. Rooms sleep four in bunks, and the lucky ones avoid the beds that fold down off the wall, but there’s a bar on the top floor where everyone congregates each night.
During racing, Sharples will be at the parade ring, overseeing all the final touches, while Nugent (who’s also the bandaging expert) will be down at the yard, checking that every noseband and cheek piece is in place.
“I’m the madness!” she says. “Camilla’s the swan and I’m the legs paddling furiously under the water!”
Elliott’s last horses will be on the night ferry home next Friday and back home by 7am next Saturday, and his travelling team could be working again that weekend.
Cheltenham’s extensive TV coverage now helps throw a rare spotlight on the sport’s hidden army of devoted stable staff and work riders.
Women make up one third of them in Elliott’s yard.
“I think the girls we have doing the racing are second to none,” Elliott says. “They look after the horses a lot better than fellas.”
“A lot of the lads like to just ride the horses, whereas girls like to do the cleaning, the plaiting, the brushing, making the horses pretty,” Sharples says. “We get very attached to them and kind of forget they’re not ours.”
She led up a Cheltenham winner in 2011 (Divers, for Ferdy Murphy). “It was the last race of the day,” she says. “I cannot stress how cool it was!”
So did Nugent (Hunt Ball for Kieran Burke in 2012), who confirms that “there is no feeling like it”.
“We’re going over with a lot of horses and a lot of chances this year,” Nugent says. “Just knowing you got the horse there in one piece, and that they run as well as they can run, that’s all you can ask for. If they win, it’s just a bonus.”
From: North Yorkshire.
Job: Racing secretary with Gordon Elliott for the past 18 months.
Background: Worked for a decade for her dad, Ferdy Murphy. Her husband, John, is second head lad at Elliott’s stables and they live on the yard with their son Tighe, aged five.
Favourite horse: “Baltazar D’allier. I’m not usually one to go on looks, but he’s the best-looking horse I’ve ever seen!”
Job: Travelling head girl with Gordon Elliott since last June.
Background: She rode pony club and eventing. She used to go racing with Ferdy Murphy when younger, and eventually asked him for a job. Worked for him for four years and for Donald McCain for three years.
Favourite horse: “Bless the Wings. He’s so kind and sweet. He sees you coming and whinnies. I’ve fallen in love with him.”
From: Navan, Co Meath.
Job title: Assistant travelling head girl with Gordon Elliott for past two years.
Background: From a non-racing background, she started riding ponies in a local riding school. Left school at 16 to work for local trainer Pat Martin and worked for Kieran Burke and Paul Nicholls in England.
Favourite horse: “No More Heroes is my little pet. He’s very laidback, loves getting brushed and loves getting attention.”