Racing: Unsung lad who rebuilt broken-down House: A stablehand's role in rehabilitating a champion has won a well-deserved accolade. Sue Montgomery reports

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The Independent Online
IT is not only trainers who turn horses into champions and any member of that profession worth his salt knows that fact full well. Good stable staff are as important in the making of a racehorse as those whose names appear on the racecard. The story of Opera House and his devoted lad, Geoff Thompson, illustrates the point.

The value of such a man, at the top of his profession, is well known behind the scenes; last week he received a more public accolade when he was named one of the Lads of the Year by the Horserace Writers' Association, an award sponsored by the Stablelads Welfare Trust.

Thompson will play it down, but it is not stretching a point to say that Opera House, the best middle-distance runner in Europe this year at the age of five, would simply not have got to the races without his attentions. From the day as a promising two-year-old that Opera House tripped in the road and fractured a pastern Thompson has been integral in his rehabilitation.

'That's one of the great rewards of the job,' he said, 'having a decent horse and getting him there in the end.'

Thompson, 49 last week, had the time-honoured introduction to the game, going straight from school to the yard of a strict disciplinarian, Newmarket-based Jack Waugh. He recalls: 'I thought I might be in for a rough time when he told me I need bring only clothes to work in, nothing else. But I stayed there eight years. And if you can survive eight years with Jack Waugh, you could work anywhere. He was a hard man. But he was an excellent stableman.'

The little lad from Stoke-on-Trent had not had a horsey upbringing. But he had liked the beasts that pulled the milk vans round his neighbourhood enough to save them crusts and apples, and a visit to Haydock one day convinced him that racing was to be his thing.

He said: 'I saw Doug Smith ride nearly every winner, and he became my hero. I knew nothing about racing, but I wrote off to stables and was offered two jobs, one with George Todd at Manton and the other with Waugh. I chose him because at least I'd heard of Newmarket.'

Thompson met his wife Annie, the daughter of a Cornish hunt servant, at Waugh's. The job is still very much a family business. Husband and wife have been with Michael Stoute for some 18 years (Annie is now part-time); one daughter, Tracy, works there and the other, Marie, used to.

Thompson had a spell in a jumping yard in Norfork, then returned to Newmarket to join Paul Davey, one of the private trainers to the millionaire David Robinson, where he had a few race-rides. He said: 'I was on all the crazy devils and bolters at home, so he said I may as well take some down and back on the racecourse, at least to prove they were sound before they went off to the sales. They were all bad buggers, though, and if I could beat two or three on one I was well pleased.'

Since his move to Stoute's, Thompson has, in his own words, never looked back. The walls of the house are covered in photographs of 'their' horses. Annie's best have been top fillies Unite, Sally Brown and Untold, and Geoff's stars before Opera House were Music Maestro, the first horse he did at Stoute's, and ill-fated Ajdal.

Thompson gave up his post as a travelling lad to devote time to Ajdal. He said: 'He needed individual attention, and if I had to be away I didn't want him done as a spare and messed around. Opera House, too, needed time spent on him. After he split his joint we suffered with him for 12 months. I spent loads of hours just leading him round, all winter and half the summer, and the boss kept saying he'd leave him alone until I was happy with him. This is actually the first season he's been sound all year.

'With any horse, good or bad, you put as much as you can in, and hope you'll get something back out. I spent a lot of time with Ajdal's half-brother, Northern Flagship, taking him swimming in the afternoons, but in the end he didn't have the legs for the job. You accept that sort of thing, and then one day along comes one like Opera House, that you get as much back out of as you put in. People say I'm lucky with horses like Opera House and Ajdal, but it's like anything, the harder you work the luckier you get.'

Thompson loved Opera House from the moment he saw him as a yearling (and put a rumour about the yard that the colt had a vile temperament in order to be sure that he got him to do), and has his yearling half-brother by Nashwan to keep him dreaming this winter. But it is sad that he had to learn of the sale of Sheikh Mohammed's triple Group One winner to Japan by reading it on Teletext at home after work one day.

He said: 'The worst part of the job is when they have to go, especially one like him who has been around for so long. I'll never forget the special way he had of looking at me after a race. But losing them is part of the game. And when you get a new one you think maybe you won't like it as much as the one that's gone, but after only a few weeks it will stick its head over the door and call to you because it knows you.

'They become your own, and even if they're not any good you give them their carrot and their bit of grass. Caring about your horse is what it's all about. You just get so close to the bloody things.'

(Photograph omitted)

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