It's a long way to Epsom

Race horses travel thousands of miles in their high-tech pantechnicons. Do they enjoy their travels? Do they ever get car-sick? In fact they'll be riding to the Derby in style,
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
We've all passed them on the motorway: gleaming, silver-hubcapped pantechnicons doing a stately 55 in the inside lane, looking like luxury coaches with the windows filled in. Next weekend, in the run-up to the Derby, the roads around Epsom will be choked with them. Several race meetings take place around Britain almost every day of the year, and with 50 to 100 horses competing at each, thoroughbreds are necessarily seasoned motorists. Three miles of steeplechasing up in Perth might mean several hundred more by road from Berkshire. Six furlongs on the flat at Longchamp in France adds up to a fair distance when you're starting out from Newmarket.

Life on the road with a racehorse must be a curious affair; the idea of it begs some intriguing questions. Does Party Politics ever need a stop at Corley, for instance, to trot around the car park and nibble the grass verge? Do such long hauls ever make horses car-sick? How do four legs cope with four wheels?

To find out, I joined the horse hauliers of Lambourn stables for a day as the guest of Nick Gaselee, trainer of Party Politics. When I arrived at 8.45am, the great moose was being ridden out up on the Downs, and that day it was his somewhat less illustrious stablemate, Mad Thyme, who had a fair drive ahead of him. He was due to race in the 3.40 at Wincanton in Somerset. Appropriately, the Wincanton Logistics Handicap Steeplechase was being sponsored by a haulage company.

"I've had enough of this cold, haven't you?" said Trevor Painter, shivering and letting down the loading ramp of H6 BOX, a six-stall Mercedes horsebox from the fleet of Lambourn Racehorse Transport. Some of the more important trainers run their own transporters, but with its 13 vehicles LRT is the country's biggest haulier of horses.

"It'll be cold at Wincanton on top of that hill," warned Byron Mills, head lad at the Gaselee yard, as Mad Thyme obediently clopped aboard. Gaselee's is the first of three pick-ups around the Berkshire village which is home to more than 30 of Britain's top racehorse trainers. If Party Politics had been racing today, though, it would have been the last: like a sales rep with a list of deals to close, he starts to fret if you don't hit the open road as soon as he's aboard. There's no hanging around, waiting for other animals to board.

Many top racehorses have similar quirks of personality. Remittance Man, a Cheltenham winner, would never board the box without his best friend - a sheep called Nobby. Today, LRT has to find room for a goat to travel to Towcester with another horse. While one might expect the phlegmatic National Hunt stayers to be better travellers than, say, a nervy Derby colt, if anything it's the other way round. The younger "flat" horses will have become accustomed to travel very early in life, when accompanying their mothers to stud. By comparison, a jumps horse will probably have spent its first three or four years unbroken and out in a field. If a horse like that decides it doesn't like the look of a horsebox, it is simply too big and heavy to manhandle in.

Today we trundle on round Lambourn's narrow lanes. Once Runic Symbol, Portscatho and their respective stable lad and lass are installed, we're off towards Hungerford and the A303. We've set off early enough to arrive at Wincanton, as all trainers demand, a good three hours before the first race.

"The motorway system has changed things," says LRT's owner, Merrick Francis. "In the old days, before the M6, you'd go to Haydock [just outside Manchester] one day, and then on to Ayr the next. But yesterday it was Bangor-on-Dee, which always used to be a two-day, and now nobody stays overnight."

The logistics of hauling racehorses long distances are often more complicated for the driver, who has to watch his tachograph hours. For a Scottish meeting, two drivers may be needed to share the task to do it in one haul. Today Lambourn's drivers are on tenterhooks to see who will draw the short straw and get sent to Market Rasen tomorrow - four and a half hours across country to the middle of Lincolnshire.

While the humans will totter out of the cab with numb posteriors and aching backs, the horses will simply lock their joints and sleep standing up. "I remember when I used to take horses from stables in Sussex up to Doncaster," says Francis. "We went round the M25, up the M1 - and finally, when you came off the motorway and went round the roundabout for Doncaster, you'd hear clatter clatter clatter in the back. They'd all been so relaxed they hadn't bothered to steady themselves the whole way."

Not that you can drag a valuable thoroughbred the length of the country in an open box behind a Land Rover. Design has come some way since the days of the Forties-vintage relic that now languishes under a tarpaulin in Merrick's yard awaiting a sentimental preservationist: having the back of the cab open to the stalls right behind would have meant a large back- seat driver snuffling down your neck.

At Olympic Coachbuilders of Abingdon, who built the Mercedes that is on its way to Wincanton and the rest of the Lambourn fleet, Simon Harrison is now exercised by the physics of a horse's "centre-of-gravity line". When each passenger stands on four long legs and, in the case of the big National Hunt chasers, weighs up to a ton, this is no small factor in the stability of your vehicle and the smoothness of its ride.

The equine equivalent of car-sickness, I learn, is colic. "I've had them out on the hard shoulder of the motorway," says Byron Mills. "On the way back from Plumpton once I ended up walking one round somebody's garden until the vet came." Air suspension is the modern technological answer to the gastric problems caused by a large gut swaying about between four legs.

Debate continues over the relative merits of the classic "forward-facing" horsebox over the newer "herringbone" configuration, where the horses stand diagonally across the box. This gives them the chance to look out of the window, which they appear to enjoy. Moveable partitions allow extra- large stalls for horses with claustrophobia, oversize brutes like Party Politics, and those with oversize egos who won't travel with other animals around them - "Some of these horses are so intelligent," says Harrison, "it's, 'Look, I know I'm good, so give me space!' "

Just as-the car radio is a lifeline on long journeys for humans, so Harrison has installed stereo speakers in one box for a trainer who doesn't see why his horses should miss out. (Presumably, winners can be rewarded on the way home with a blast of "Simply the Best".) These days, the coach compartment at the front means the stable lads who have to accompany their charges all the way to Carlisle or Newton Abbot can also arrive in reasonable shape. "In my day," recalls Harrison, "the lads travelled with the horses. You'd be sitting in a little cubicle, freezing cold and covered with as many horse blankets as possible, with the horse's face right here, snorting all over you and trying to bite you."

Wincanton is reached in an easy two hours, with Trevor taking the speed easy and going down through the gears well in advance of any need to stop. Unlike rogue artics, horseboxes can't loom up in motorists' mirrors and then stomp on the brakes. "The first hour after I get back in my car, I drive just the same," says Trevor. As the three horses are led away to their stables, Roger Farley swings another Lambourn box alongside with just one horse aboard. There would have been room for it in Trevor's vehicle, but some trainers refuse to share for fear of picking up viruses from other yards' horses.

For Farley, driving horseboxes was a way of staying in racing after failing to make it as a jockey ("I had one ride, but I got too old and too heavy"). This is a common motivation among their fraternity, agrees Trevor, who used to ride out horses for one Lambourn stable. "It's a good way," he says. "It means you don't have to get up at the crack of dawn to go out on the gallops. I've got a full artics licence, which I could use to earn twice as much money - but I'd rather do this."

Horsebox drivers, says Merrick Francis, have to be horsemen. The horse that Roger has brought, for example, has come without a lad, so the trainer has asked him to saddle it up. He takes care, of course, not to get kicked so he can't drive the box home.

Though this is a job that lands you at a different course every day, with nothing to do but watch a full afternoon' s racing, a survey of the drivers having a cup of tea in the cafe reveals, disappointingly, not one demon tipster. "Every lad you bring will tell you, 'My one's the one'," says Bob Daly, shortly to be saddling up Distant Echo for the 3.10. "If I'd put a pound on every one, I'd be a poor man."

By now there are some 50 horseboxes parked in the paddock. Seeing the sleek coachbuilt palaces that have brought the top horses parked alongside the glorified Ford Cargo cattletrucks in which the amateur hunter chasers have arrived, you see where a certain Dick Francis - father of the proprietor of LRT - got the idea for his thriller Driving Force. On a routine run to Pontefract races, those fared-in sides, streamlining a truck chassis into a sleek slab of metal, are convenient and ingenious concealment for a smuggling operation that sees Croft Raceways' boxes putting up some illicit pounds overweight.

But today at bitter, blustery "Wind-canton", as Roger Farley calls it, the ducking and diving is altogether more innocent. Trevor Painter has evaded the course official of military bearing whose self-appointed mission is to marshal all vehicles into neat rows, and has parked the Mercedes over by the rails for a superb view of the finish.

In the last race of the day, our unfancied Portscatho is leading into the home turn - but Trevor points behind it. "That one in the yellow is sitting very easy - jockey hasn't moved." Sure enough, our horse is overhauled on the run-in, but second place is still a great improvement on a jumps record summarised on the race card as "Out of his depth last time out."

With Runic Symbol an unlucky fourth and Mad Thyme third, all three horses have exceeded the morning's expectations. In the cab on the way back to Lambourn, conversation is animated: "I nearly had a heart attack!" says Portscatho's proud lass, Dee Curran. But a peep over the back shows a whiffling nose and a steady head. For some, this motoring is no big deal. !