Muck and dreams of a likely lad: Cheltenham festival

Andrew Baker visits Jackdaws Castle, where 'Smiler' tends to his Festival favourites
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The Independent Online
At one o'clock last Wednesday the canteen at the trainer David Nicholson's yard started filling up with hungry stable lads and lasses. One switched on the television (to the Racing Channel, naturally) and then joined the queue for plates of mince, peas, sweet corn and a baked potato. They talked about their payslips, about winners, and about Cheltenham, which was 15 miles down the road over the Cotswold hills, and less than a week away.

Through the kitchen window and across the yard they could see that one of their number was still at work. "That's Smiler," someone said. "Smiler" is Jim Tully. He looks after three horses: Viking Flagship, Sanmartino and General Pershing, and they are all running at Cheltenham. Most National Hunt stable lads and lasses will never have so much as one runner at the Festival, so to have three is quite exceptional. But if Jim was overjoyed at the prospect, he wasn't letting it show. His nickname, it quickly became clear, was ironic.

"It's great that all three of mine are going to Cheltenham," he said, deadpan, adjusting a rug on Sanmartino. "I get two days out, anyway. I've never looked after a Cheltenham winner - the closest I got was last year when your man there [he nodded towards Viking Flagship in the next door stable] just got edged out. But it's the best meeting of the year, isn't it? It's what the season leads up to."

A couple of days up at the Festival are just reward for months of hard work. Tully's cheeks have been worn red by the cold winter winds, and his dark eyes are hooded and look tired. Leaning against the door of Sanmartino's immaculately tended stable, he explained the daily routine at Jackdaws Castle. "Up at six. At 10 past we muck out and water the horses, then I go back to my room for a bit. At 10 to seven I'm back out into the yard to look at the Lot Board and find out what I'm riding when - I ride out on all three of mine. First lot go out at seven. We're back at 8.30, grab some breakfast in the canteen, then second lot goes out at 9.15, third lot at 11. After that I make sure my horses are all right and give them their feed. Then I give myself a feed, and after that a bit of a break until evening stables at 3.30. The governor walks round at about 5.15 - rugs off time - to have a look at them all. Then we feed them again and finish at six-ish." And he might have added, we are finished at six- ish.

All this effort so that someone else can climb aboard and ride the horses on the days that really count. Does that rankle? Tully stared back.

"Am I jealous of the jockeys, is that what you're asking? No, not really. I've had my chance of that and turned it down many a long moon ago. At least this way I don't get a bollocking if the horse doesn't win. And I get a proper buzz when they do win. This is a grand old job."

Another consolation - aside from fewer bollockings - is that unlike the jockeys who are constantly hopping from horse to horse, the lad really gets to know his charges. "Sanmartino is a totally laid-back character," Tully said, glancing in at the horse as it munched its lunch. "General Pershing gets rather keen, he's liable to piss off with you any minute. Viking Flagship comes and goes, but when he's in form you know about it. If I had a favourite among them it would be him."

Tully gets on well with his boss, the occasionally irascible Nicholson, who describes the lad as "a superstar". Tully was promoted recently, to second head lad. "It's another step down the road," he said. He looks to be in his late twenties - how far down the road might he go? "How far will I get before I jack it in? That's a question mark."

Upwards of 25 lads and lasses live in at Jackdaws Castle, which is a good 15 minutes' drive from Stow-on-the-Wold, the nearest town. In such a close-knit community it might be expected that some might begrudge the successes of others. But Tully was adamant that the fact that his horses were going to the Festival caused no resentment. "The other lads and lasses don't take the piss because my three are going," he said. "They're cool. It's the luck of the draw, isn't it?"

He stressed that if he had a winner he'd be pleased for the whole stable, not just for himself. And everyone would join in the celebrations at the local pub. "If we get a winner at Cheltenham we'll have a sesh in the Plough for sure. Come to that, we'll have a sesh anyway." And then, at last, he smiled.