No sooner has the Cheltenham roar died on the savage Cotswold wind than the Flat boys, lean and tanned, bring a flicker of summer to the turf. The racing calendar waits for no one. Yet you could hardly blame Ray White if half an eye was trained on the action at the Festival last week. White was involved in the jumping game for more years than he cares to recall and being on the verge of his first full season as a flat trainer is no excuse for neglecting his roots.
His brother John, best remembered for winning the Grand National that never was, trains a decent stable of point-to-pointers back in the family's home town of Bannow in County Wexford. Now Ray himself is completing a classic journey through the ranks in the less than prime racing territory of Reigate in Surrey, once home of Steve Donoghue, 10-times champion jockey, and base for Jack O'Donoghue, once the Queen Mother's trainer, who still trained on the lush turf beneath the North Downs until well into his eighties.
Ron Hutchinson, the great Australian jockey, still owns a house on Reigate Hill, but when Littleton Manor Racing opens its doors for serious business this week at Doncaster, no great racing heritage is being resurrected.
White has earned his tilt at the top, clocked his time on cold mornings and ridden more bad horses than was good for his body. People might baffle him at times, but his experience of the horse stretches back to the cradle. For the son of a trainer, brought up with horses, careers guidance was largely a matter of breeding. White's father owned and trained Bannow Rambler, favourite for the Gold Cup which claimed the life of the handsome young Lanzarote in 1977. When Lanzarote slipped on landing over a fence at the top of the hill, injuring himself fatally, Bannow Rambler was in his slipstream. "Our jockey had to decide in a split second which way to go, left or right," White, then 17, recalls. "He went left, so did Lanzarote. Our fella was brought down."
The winner was Davy Lad, the same horse to whom Bannow Rambler had handed 32lbs and a beating earlier in the season. But Bannow Rambler was luckier than Lanzarote. He lived until the grand old age of 32 and is buried back on the family farm overlooking Bannow Bay, above the sand where White learned his trade.
"When I started riding, you just put a flat cap on your head and away you went," he says. "You just had to wait for the tide to go out to reach the gallops. I went back recently before Cheltenham and in the pub it's still the same. Everyone puts some money into the pot and picks 10 horses and the one with the most points at the end of the day buys the drinks. The winner always ends up more broke than anyone else."
Spells with Mouse Morris, Jenny Pitman and Nicky Henderson proved equally instructive. "I almost rode a Festival winner for Mrs Pitman," he says. "Team Challenge in the Kim Muir. We led over the last and I was just thinking, 'Hey, we're going to win this', when Cool Ground came storming past us up the hill." He can also vouch for the legendary Pitman temper. "She gave me the biggest bollocking I ever had when my horse got kicked at the start once. I wasn't given a ride for a month."
It was while lying on the turf at Plumpton with a strange ache in his jaw that White made a decisive career move. "I was riding bad horses and getting falls all the time," he says. "I broke my jaw in that fall and suffered from dizzy spells for three or four months afterwards. I thought enough was enough. You can only bounce off the ground so many times before you realise there must be easier ways of earning a living."
At the time, Mick Channon was just starting up in Lambourn, a footballer dabbling in a pastime. White went to ride out for him for a couple of weeks in the off season and has barely sat on a chaser since. When Channon needed a new assistant, White was the obvious choice. A yard of 10 horses multiplied to 25, then 50, as the former England international was transformed into a top-rank trainer. Channon still credits White for his early education; in return, White was smart enough to learn from an outsider.
Get horses fit and run them, that was the Channon way, and the brisk air of readiness which filled White's own yard last week suggested that the simple philosophy is being applied elsewhere. A clutch of compact two-year-olds, all named after characters in Lord of the Rings, and the four-year-old Zarin, entered for the Doncaster Mile, are primed to bring the blue and white colours of owners, Gary and Nancy Pinchen, their first winner.
"We've had some runners on the all-weather, but it really starts come Doncaster," says White. "When I was at Mick's, I had my responsibilities, but in the end I was just doing what I was told. Now it's my head on the chopping block. There's no pressure on me, but it would be a relief to get that first winner out of the way. I don't really care if it's a seller at Wolverhampton or a listed race at Doncaster. We've got 13 two-year-olds in the yard and I'd like to think they could all win a race, but at this time of the year, they're all swans, aren't they?"
A filly by Bahri, colts by Pennekamp and Peintre Celebre, there is ammunition in the armoury. Ambition too, judging by the new all-weather gallop and the reconditioned yard. The acquisition of a top of the range transporter, complete with satellite television, twin beds and kitchen, is sure to turn heads in the lorry park at Doncaster. "They'll think we're a right bunch of flash Harrys," laughs White with the confidence of a man who has never matched the description in his life.Reuse content