Love of horses gave lass the spur to battle cancer

When you watch Racing Demon in the parade ring before the Gold Cup at Cheltenham next month, take especial note of the sheer exhilaration on the pretty face of his lass Katie Clark as she leads him round. Her delight in her beloved charge will be wholly apparent, but even a smile as broad as hers cannot not tell all of her remarkable story.

Twelve months ago, she was a girl in a sterile bubble, placed in strict isolation to help her fight Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph system. She emerged, weak and distressed, but determined to return to her job with Henrietta Knight. And yesterday, her dedication made her a winner at the industry's annual awards ceremony for stable and stud staff.

As a creator of 19,000 jobs, racing is the greatest employer of all sports and the best of those who work behind the scenes were named and feted in five categories (and rewarded; the Godolphin-sponsored proceedings had a prize fund of £75,000). The thread that binds them is passion and Clark, 26, freely admits that without the thought of horses to return to she would not have come through either the chemotherapy treatment for the tumour in her chest, or the depression that accompanied it.

"Not to put too fine a point on it," she said, "it was a shit two years. It was as if my whole world had stopped. During the chemotherapy I had to stay away from the yard because of the risk of infection. And in my dark days I pushed everyone away. But when I came out of isolation I began to get back to normal. I had my job as a focus."

Though Clark was still frail, she led up another of her horses, Aztec Warrior, at Cheltenham last year. "I shouldn't have done it," she admitted, "as the effort set me back. But you're not going to be busting your arse to get back to an office job, are you?"

Clark, 26, who picked up her trophy for special merit, has ridden since she was a child. Victoria Blueman, the winning newcomer, had not sat on a horse until she joined the Northern Racing College and although she scored top marks for attitude, her efforts in the saddle took some time to come together.

Now, nine months into her first job, she is rated by Newmarket trainer Lucy Wadham one of the best work-riders in her yard. And racing has been a lifeline for 18-year-old Blueman. "My mum died when I was 12," she said, "and I didn't take it well. I left school, kept running away and I had no direction. I have now."

At the other end of the spectrum the nine finalists in two senior stable staff sections, and that for stud staff, had 285 years experience between them. Step forward overall winner Sean Travis, who started with Sam Armstrong at the age of 12 in 1956. And 42-year-old Karen Parris, who is at William Jarvis's yard at 5.30 every morning and once walked five miles through a blizzard to get there.

And Corky Browne, a legend in Lambourn and at Nicky Henderson's in particular; studman Charlie Wood, who saw his first foal born 40 years ago and still delivers 50-odd each spring at Side Hill Stud; former apprentice champion Ian Emes, who has found fulfilment in the breeding world at Coln Valley Stud in Gloucestershire after his riding career was ended by injury; Jerry Walsh, who brought up his full house of British racecourses when he drove the Paul Webber lorry to Hexham last summer.

One who comes under the 'Where-are-they-now?' heading is former jockey Brian Proctor, 28 years with Dick Hern through the days of Brigadier Gerard to Troy to Nashwan to Dayjur. The answer is that, at the age of 66, he is a linchpin work-rider with Godolphin.

Another of the newcomers yesterday, Nathan Alison, was talent-spotted as a schoolboy into the Chelsea youth squad, but eventually his 5' 2" size compromised his chances of making it as a footballer. But judging by the stars in the eyes of the 17-year-old, attached to Jim Boyle's Epsom yard, yesterday, Abramovich's loss may well be racing's gain.

* Tony McCoy, injured at Warwick last month, expects to be riding again before the Cheltenham Festival. "I'm not in any discomfort," he said yesterday, "I'm going for a scan on Monday and if that's all right hopefully I won't be far off riding again."

* Great Leighs will finally open its gates on 4 April after a British Horseracing Authority inspectorate gave the Essex track a belated thumbs-up. Following a series of delays, it will at last become the first new British course to stage racing in 81 years.