Rebecca Curtis: Taking West Coast main line to Cheltenham Festival
Chris McGrath visits the Pembrokeshire stables of the young trainer whose novice hurdler At Fishers Cross is a leading contender for Cheltenham success
You know you must be getting close when the car radio starts to pick up RTE from Dublin. Then the Pembrokeshire hills, in a silver wash of spring sunshine, take one final plunge before standing petrified over the sea. And here, on a field clinging to these last cliffs, awaits perhaps the most literally far-fetched tale of the 2013 Cheltenham Festival.
It is tempting to treat both its remote setting and central character as some kind of calculated, pioneering challenge to a notoriously insular sport. After all, Rebecca Curtis is preparing one of the season's top novice hurdlers, At Fishers Cross, on gallops closer to Waterford than Cheltenham. Since starting out just five years ago, moreover – with "four sh***y little boxes" containing horses of corresponding distinction – she has had two children and saddled a first Festival winner in Teaforthree, now among the favourites for the Grand National. And her emergence here, of all places, would seem to consummate a revolution in the Turf's perception of her homeland.
Long a backwater of jump racing, for all the endeavours of Peter Bowen, Wales is now home to three of the most ambitious and prolific young trainers in the land. First Evan Williams emerged from the point-to-point circuit in the Vale of Glamorgan, followed by a local rival, Tim Vaughan: lively, articulate lads, the pair of them, who place their horses cleverly. Their progress was meanwhile compounded by a new racecourse at Ffos Las, over a defunct mine near Llanelli.
Only English condescension, however, will post Curtis on the western flank of some proud Celtic uprising. Ask what kind of statement she might intend, training way out near Fishguard, and you might as well tell her she is also pushing boundaries as a striking blonde of 32, with two small children. That is who she is; this is where she is. Curtis grew up here, on her father's dairy farm, and was never going anywhere else once setting her heart on a training career. Any practical challenges are hers to overcome – leaving the rest of us to judge her on results alone.
That is what J P McManus did, anyhow, and the Irish owner and gambler's investment in Curtis and her partner, Gearoid Costelloe, last year enabled them to build 27 new stalls in a state-of-the-art American barn. One houses At Fishers Cross, who carries the McManus silks in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle on Friday.
The horse that first brought McManus here, Made In Time, was already responsible for a still more significant nexus. Curtis had gone to a sale at Kempton and fell into conversation with a young Irish dealer, who had brought over Made In Time. "If I don't sell him, I'll send him to you," Costelloe promised.
As one thing led to another between the pair. Made In Time won a bumper at Ffos Las under Tony McCoy, who promptly recommended the horse and his stable to McManus. McCoy will have known all about the Costello family (the extra "e" evidently survives fairly randomly). Gearoid's uncle was Tom Costello, whose eye for a horse was such that he sold six future Gold Cup winners.
Gearoid had gone to live with his cousins at 14, after his own father died. "I was there eight or nine years," he recalls. "I saw Florida Pearl as a young horse, One Man, Cool Dawn. And the more you see, the more you learn. All different types make it, I suppose – but you have an eye for certain things, don't you? Even if you can't always say exactly what it is you like."
Across the water, meanwhile, Curtis was spending her own childhood with horses of a different ilk. She made the Welsh junior showjumping team, only to turn to point-to-pointing in her teens, tending one or two of her own at home while working down the road at Bowen's yard. Gradually her vocation took shape. "But I knew I'd be here for life, when I did start training," she says. "So I went to California and spent five years working for Richard Mandella and Dan Hendricks. I must admit I found the system out there very monotonous. They are all trained on the same track, all do the same things every week. They get the same food, the same drugs, the same vets and farriers. I could never see myself training like that."
Having said that, she would gladly have imported the Del Mar climate. "Coming home to National Hunt racing, it was like a load of hunters running round a field in the mud," Curtis admits. "And it was freezing. Anyway, dad and me forked out 10 grand to buy Mango Catcher. He was our first runner, beaten half a length at Kempton, and then won at Chepstow."
Since Curtis hooked up with Costelloe, dovetailing their different strengths, the quality has soared. He buys young horses of good stamp and pedigree, 30 to 50 grand apiece but liable to fetch six figures if showing ability on the track. Naturally they don't all come off, but the presence of around 20 "stores" here suggests that the system is working pretty efficiently. "We both have to like them, to buy them," Curtis says. "It works well. Gearoid's not really into the training but does love the buying and selling – which is good, because I wouldn't be a pushy person. And we make our own horses. We start off with a nice, clean board. We're not taking on other yards' problems."
Costelloe admits "they can look like Humpty Dumpty" once they have shown form, but is himself faithful to the tenets learnt from his late uncle. That is to say, the one that stands out in a paddock of youngsters will usually turn out the best.
"That's the thing about racing, though, isn't it?" Curtis says. "There's no perfect scenario. There are no rules. You see people spending hundreds of thousands at the sales, and some of those horses will end up useless. That's what makes the game so exciting. All the money in the world doesn't necessarily buy the best horse. You do need a lot of luck, but there are plenty of fairy stories in racing."
"I don't think it's anything to do with luck," Costelloe replies. "You either have it or you don't. In races, of course, you can have hard luck. But you need a bit of both – to be able to train them properly and…" He pauses, gestures to the nursery block. "I've some lovely four-year-olds down there, horses I'd be really disappointed if they don't win."
In one respect, plainly, there really are no rules. That is why Curtis and Costelloe are perfectly happy to spend three and a half hours even to reach Cheltenham. "I'd rather live where we do, and have an extra hour on the road," Curtis shrugs. It is not hard to believe, wandering down to the tiny private cove, or a mile along the shore to the beach, where Curtis can take any horse sore of limb or stale of mind.
"I think this is a really healthy, relaxed place for horses," she says. "The air's clean and I think the seaside environment helps them mentally as well. Location shouldn't mean anything, though. You can do it from anywhere. And people won't care where you are, so long as you're doing it well."
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