They first met, rather prosaically if also appropriately, over a water-tap in the yard of two-time Grand National-winning Toby Balding’s stables. What happened next could have been ripped from the pages of romantic fiction.
How she, the daughter of an eminent surgeon, who had been educated at St George’s School for Girls in Ascot whose alumnae include Princess Beatrice, and he, a dairy farmer’s son from County Tipperary who had left school at 14, determined to become a jockey, and blessed with what such a novelist would no doubt describe as a roguish charm, found love and founded a highly successful training operation.
Can the story be completed next Saturday when trainer Emma Lavelle and her husband and assistant Barry Fenton, now retired from the saddle, both protégés of the revered and much-loved trainer Balding, who died last year, saddle their first Grand National runner?
Reality is never quite so obliging, of course. But what can be said is that within Lavelle’s yard at Hatherden near Andover, barely two miles from Fyfield where Balding trained, the whiff of anticipation hangs heavy in the air as she returns from riding out the 10-year-old Court By Surprise, her first National runner in 17 years as a trainer.
Fenton, who retired in 2008 after his body received a pummelling over a 13-year career, the like of which Wladimir Klitschko might have taken delight in delivering, gave the horse a racecourse work-out recently. “Emma’s been riding him every day. I only got to ride him at Newbury,” he says. “But he’d be a lovely horse to be riding in the National.”
Lavelle interjects mischievously: “I allowed Barry that privilege. When he’s on his best behaviour, he’s allowed to have a sit on him.”
It is typical of their badinage. Ask Fenton what he thought of his future wife all those years ago, and Lavelle interrupts: “He thought (she adopts a mock-breathless tone), ‘What a gorgeous girl – God, I can’t wait…’.” He retaliates: “She was thinking ‘who’s this good-looking Irish lad? What can I do to be with him?’.”
The couple were finally married three years ago after Lavelle had almost given up awaiting a proposal. Yet, beyond the mutual attraction, the super-adhesive in this relationship is a shared obsession with nurturing young equine talent.
Court By Surprise, who is owned by Nick Mustoe, chairman of Kempton Park, came to them as a five-year-old. He has won his last two races. Fresh, after a winter break, he is considered mentally and physically suited to the fierce Aintree examination.
When the lives of Lavelle and Fenton converged at Balding’s stables, she was pupil assistant to the trainer who had been a National winner with Highland Wedding in 1969 and Little Polveir in 1989. The newly arrived Fenton joined a team which included another jockey who was already going places fast: a young man named AP McCoy.
The two jockeys at one time shared a house. “He was a great character and enjoyed a bit of craic,” says Fenton. “But I knew I could never achieve what Tony McCoy did. I just wasn’t so driven. On Saturday nights we’d come back from racing, and I’d be straight down the pub, meet up with the boys. He would come home, and watch all the replays of his races. I was always amazed by him.”
Lavelle’s original connection with Balding was through her father Richard, an ENT specialist who had horses with the trainer. She became Balding’s assistant after a year at Belmont in the USA with top trainer Claude “Shug” McGaughey III, and finally launched her training career at Hatherden with just six horses, helped by “a small nest egg”, the legacy of a grandfather. She had the benefit of Fenton and McCoy riding out for her in those early days.
Lavelle has an infectious laugh, somehow reminiscent of Miranda Richardson’s character Queenie in Blackadder. She displays none of the petulance but, you suspect, has the final say on the affairs of state.
“It depends,” says Lavelle, who admits there can be inevitable tensions. “I will run everything by Barry. If I said to Barry ‘is this the right horse to run in the National?’, and he said ‘you are absolutely barking, I totally think this is not the right horse’, then he wouldn’t run in the National. We’ve both got pretty strong opinions on things but 95 per cent of the time, we will be coming from exactly the right direction, so that’s perfect.”
They laugh together, and sometimes they have cried together. Last autumn, within a week, their seven-year-old chaser Le Bec, who had been an ongoing project from three-year-old, suffered a probable career-ending injury at Ascot, while Times Remembered, a fine novice, was fatally injured at Aintree.
“You never get used to that side of things,” says Lavelle. “That’s the toughest time we’ve had. You want to go and hide in a corner. I still cry like a baby. But you’ve still got your team here working, still got all your other owners that you’ve got to carry forward with you.” She brightens again: “So, Court By Surprise winning the National would cap off the season.”
Could it happen? “If he takes to jumping the fences, is 100 per cent spot-on in himself, if the jockey [yet to be confirmed] is getting a great spin off him, I could see him running a really big race. He’s stronger than he’s ever been and he’s ready for it.
“My greatest fear is, if everything has gone to plan, and we find ourselves five lengths clear at the Elbow, that may not be great. When he’s in front, he definitely gets to the point where he waits for his friends to come past.”
Fenton growls: “I’d take five lengths up at the Elbow… at least he’d have got over all the jumps.”
He speaks from experience. In the 2003 National he partnered Andrew Balding’s Gunner Welburn to fourth place. Two out, the partnership led the field. For a second, he believed the unthinkable was in his grasp. But then he looked over his shoulder and there was the eventual winner, Monty’s Pass, in his slipstream and poised to deliver. “My fella didn’t see the trip out. But he gave me a great spin around. Our fella is a similar type of horse,” he points out.
At least that was a clear round in a career in which his injuries included six leg fractures. Fortuitously, Lavelle’s brother Jonathon is an orthopaedic surgeon. “It got to a point where I’d be lying at the back of a fence, Emma would arrive, and I’d go ‘ring Jonathon – it’s gone again’,” he recalls ruefully. “She would just phone him before I’d even got in the ambulance.”
He retired, in part, because the training operation was expanding. “Also, owners, like trainers, always like to have a rant and rave about a jockey. I always felt a little guilty that it was hard for an owner to say to Emma ‘what the f*** is he [Fenton] doing on my horse?’ Maybe that wasn’t the case, but I always felt there was that element. For me, it was a relief to actually focus on the home side of things, and let someone else ride.”
One thing is for certain: he’ll be riding Court By Surprise from the stands on Saturday. As for his wife, though victory would make Lavelle only the fourth woman trainer this century to claim the Aintree showpiece, after Jenny Pitman (twice), Venetia Williams and Sue Smith, her first priority is that her charge should get home safely.