It’s no secret that National Hunt racing, at least, has its roots firmly lodged in the hunting field. Point-to-pointing started when two hunting men, Edmund Blake and Cornelius O’Callaghan, challenged each other to a race in 1752 for four-and-a-half miles across country from Buttevant Church to Doneraile Church in Co Cork. They jumped everything in their path, and by keeping the steeple of Doneraile church in sight (steeple-chasing), the two men kept to the planned route along the banks of the Awbeg River. The same line can still be taken while hunting with the Duhallow Foxhounds now.
Amateur jump racing evolved from there – and subsequently became a professional sport. And a few decades ago, many Flat trainers would have spent their (all-weatherless) winters hunting. But does hunting still have any relevance to the modern racing world, and how strong are the ties between the two?
“The volume of racing is so much greater now and people are training more and more horses – who had 100 horses 25 years ago, let alone 150?” says Ralph Beckett. “The demands on a trainer’s time – all year round – are so much greater.”
Beckett is one of a handful of major trainers who still go hunting regularly, managing a dozen days a season with the local Tedworth hounds and, further afield, the big-jumping Portman.
“I genuinely enjoy it and it’s the one sport I can do with my wife,” he says. “And my daughter, who is eight, is now happy to go hunting without her mother, so I can take her out, which I love. So it’s about family as much as anything for me. And it gets me away from everything – it’s a holiday in itself.”
Beckett hunted the Marlborough College Beagles while he was at school there, and his fellow Group 1-winning trainer James Fanshawe hunted the beagles at Stowe. Fanshawe, the son of a famous master and huntsman, no longer rides to hounds, but among the Newmarket trainers who still make the pilgrimage to nearby Leicestershire to hunt across the county’s famous grass and hedges are Michael Bell, riding his trusty hack Ruby, and Toby Coles, who cuts a dash in top hat and scarlet tails.
Coles is passionate about hunting, saying: “It’s about horsemanship, but also about an understanding of the way nature and the world around us works. Hunting teaches you to know what is going to happen before it happens – and either to do something to help it or slam the brakes on if necessary, such as avoiding breaking a horse down.
“Those who made the best soldiers in the last War were very often those who went the best in the hunting field, and that can be compared to racing. It gives you the ability to read yourself and your surroundings. And conversely the sharpest thinkers in racing are probably the best in the hunting field as well – not just in terms of jumping huge fences but in watching what is really going on, the venery side of the sport. Major Hern made sure Willie Carson hunted, and some of the great hunting figures of that era, such as the Hon Migs Greenall, greatly respected him for doing it.”
Having grown up hunting with the Quorn and the Cottesmore in Leicestershire, Coles says that he got few days while he was learning his craft as an assistant trainer and in his first couple of years after going solo.
“Until I started in racing, hunting was my life, and then racing became my life, and I didn’t want to confuse the two,” he adds. “But now I am trying to do more and more hunting. It freshens up one’s eyes, not so much the thrill of galloping fast and jumping things but the actual hunting and the hounds.
“And I’ve probably got more owners from going hunting than I have by socialising and pressing the flesh in London!”
Coles has also visited the Ledbury to follow David Redvers over the whacking hedges for which his pre-Christmas meet at Tweenhills Stud is renowned.
Redvers’s racing and bloodstock commitments mean he gets only “six or seven” days’ hunting a season now, but he has been a joint-master of the Ledbury since 2005.
“It’s a great release from the pressures of everyday life,” he says. “A lot of it for me is about community. I have a genuine affection for the land and the people round here, and I get to see people from the local area that I don’t see often enough.
“Hunting and racing have always been intertwined. It’s a fantastic second career for racehorses and a great schooling ground for young riders. Those who have grown up in the hunting field are better prepared for the demands of race-riding. Their basic horsemanship skills are undoubtedly better.”
Redvers persuaded trainer Mikel Delzangles to have his first day’s hunting at the Tweenhills meet this season – but he’s not sure that, after sustaining four broken ribs in a fall, the Frenchman will be back.
I’ve probably got more owners from going hunting than I have by socialising and pressing the flesh in London!
Other trainers who escape the pressures of life on the hunting field include Eve Johnson Houghton, with the Old Berks, and Ann Duffield with the Bedale, where she is joined by trainer’s wife Deirdre Johnston. Another female trainer, Di Grissell, has long been a master of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh.
Redvers also masterminded the Ledbury’s Golden Button – a three-and-a-half mile race across natural hunting country along the banks of the River Severn. It has been won twice by jockeys: former Flat rider Eddie Ahern took it in 2007 aboard the former Jonjo O’Neill-trained chaser World Wide Web, who was enjoying his ‘retirement’ as a hunter with the Ledbury’s Ridley family, and Paul Carberry won it two years later on the Brendan Powell-trained Mandingo Chief. Davy Russell also rode in it that year, but fell early on.
Other Flat jockeys who love hunting include Jimmy Quinn and Jim Crowley, and Ahern introduced Adam Kirby to the sport four years ago.
“I’d never been before and Eddie took me to the Cottesmore with him and I had a really good time,” says Kirby. “It was fascinating to me: nice company, everyone was very welcoming, the jumping was great and I fell in love with it. I’ll always go now.”
While Tattersalls Chairman Edmond Mahony usually goes home to Ireland to hunt with the Louth, of which he has been a master since 1998, the Thurlow, local to Newmarket, attracts many racing figures.
Darley’s Sam Bullard can be seen in Leicestershire, but wearing the black coat and tan collar of Ireland’s famous Scarteen Hunt. Bullard had followed in John Ferguson’s footsteps by becoming a master of the pack, which has strong ties to racing. Its senior master and huntsman Chris Ryan worked for Frank Dunne in the days of Stanerra, and oversaw her preparation for and victory in the Japan Cup in 1983.
Several of the Scarteen’s neighbouring packs have ample racing connections. Coolmore vet John Halley is a joint-master of the County Limerick. Camas Park Stud’s Timmy Hyde is a former Tipperary master, and his son, Tim Hyde jnr, is Vice-Chairman and a regular field master of the famous pack, whose former huntsmen include Gold Cup and Grand National-winning jockey Capt Evan Williams.
Most of the Irish packs have jockeys, former and current, among their regular followers. Norman Williamson hunts regularly with the Meath, while Charlie Swan is often seen out with the Limerick packs and Jim Culloty hunts with the Duhallow – and Barry Geraghty, Davy Russell and even Ruby Walsh are regularly seen out. But there’s one Irish jockey whose love of hunting comes even before his love of race-riding. Step forward Paul Carberry.
He whips-in to the Ward Union, Ireland’s only pack of staghounds, and hunts as many days a week as his racing commitments allow. He has described hunting as “vital” to his preparation for riding in races such as the Grand National.
There are few British jump jockeys who didn’t grow up in the hunting field. Robert Thornton’s father Martin was one of the best professional huntsmen of his era and ‘Choc’ grew up following him over the walls, rails and hedges of the Zetland and Belvoir countries. Colleague Sam Jones, whose grandfather Peter Jones hunted the Pytchley from 1971-2005, does some whipping-in for the VWH.
And when last year’s Grand National winner Ryan Mania took time out from his race-riding career a couple of years ago he took a job as whipper-in to the Fife Hunt.
The hedges of Cheshire attract jockeys like flies to a honeypot. Lord Daresbury, himself a champion amateur rider and retiring Chairman of Aintree racecourse, is master of the Wynnstay, and his sons Tom, Jake and Oliver hunt with the pack when they are not riding winners on the track.
Joe Tizzard is a regular with the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale in Dorset, while a recent meet of the Heythrop – on a Saturday when most of the racing was cancelled due to flooding – witnessed Sam Twiston-Davies, Tom Bellamy, Ryan Hatch and Charlie Deutsch come and join the fun. Twiston-Davies was riding the quirky Mad Moose, now banned for planting himself at the start in his races, and his behaviour on the hunting field was rather similar.
Perhaps hunting will sweeten him up, as it did Silver Birch before his 2007 Grand National win. The top-class chaser Kingscliff was another who hunted regularly during his racing career.
But most horses either hone their skills on the hunting field as young horses, learning balance, patience, courage and to jump and gallop with their peers, or come to it as a second career when their racing days are finished.
“So many racehorses do, and always have, end up hunting,” says Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) Chief Executive Di Arbuthnot. “They are pack animals and love jumping and competing together. Why wouldn’t they take to it?”
Marcus Armytage has hunted many ex-racehorses, including the Martell Cup winner Kings Fountain. He also had an ill-fated day on the former Gold Cup winner See More Business, during which the great horse ran away with him and then tried to impale himself on an iron gate.
“I start shaking when I read those three words, See More Business,” jokes Armytage. “Kings Fountain was very good but, like in his races, he unfailingly uprooted one fence a day. Given his size, luckily it was usually the fence which came off worst.”
Another Gold Cup winner, Denman, has taken to the sport more successfully in the hands of Charlotte Alexander.
Many ex-racehorses find a hunting home on Exmoor and Dartmoor. There is little or no jumping, but crossing the moor takes stamina, speed and light-footedness – the characteristics of a thoroughbred. Welsh Grand National hero Edmond and the multiple winner Village King are happily hunting with the huntsman and the former master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds respectively.
There are many, many more horses and humans who find that hunting offers the same sort of adrenalin rush as racing. Long may the links continue.
Hunting gives Carberry the edge
In an open letter to the-then Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, when the Ward Union’s licence to hunt was under serious threat in 2009, jump jockey Paul Carberry eloquently described what hunting did for him…
“Every Friday in winter I miss racing to hunt with the Ward Union. Why? I need to keep my eye in.
“I get up on a racehorse each Friday, November to February, and we’re off, hounds out front. Way up ahead there’s a wild Irish red deer stag, and he’s out there jumping and towing us across huge hedges, cavernous drains, deep ditches and through the beautiful lush green Irish countryside.
“So, when it comes to the Grand National and I am coming to Becher’s Brook, I see the tension in the English jockey’s shoulders. I sense his fear. He doesn’t realise it but he is holding his horse just a ‘gnat’s tight’ and we’re seven strides out, galloping 40 miles an hour, to a deadly drop. Suddenly you are there. The moment of truth, and in my head I know I jumped bigger following the stag the previous month.
“I kick on, I hear the brush of the top of the fence and we’re heading down and down, and the horse lands, I adjust my balance and I feel his lungs fill, his head comes up and we are galloping on. Out of the corner of my goggles I see a flailing body, the English jockey is gone and I look around and there are just a few of us in contention now, Barry [Geraghty], Ruby [Walsh], and this year, coming on behind me, is Puppy [Robert Power], all regulars hunting with the Ward Union.
“How come all the big jump races are being won consistently by Irish jockeys? It all starts with brave kids hunting bold ponies. Hunting is what gives us our bottle.”