Pat Rodford on Sparky May: 'Who knows? She might be the next Seabiscuit'

At 70 Pat Rodford has hit the big time with Sparky May, who runs in today's mares' race. Chris McGrath hears about the unlikely heroine's harrowing journey to fame
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The Independent Online

Ancient tractors, punctured and stripped out, stand here and there around the barn. Some day, perhaps, the combine harvesters – and all the other monsters of 21st-century farming, with their giddy ladders and air-conditioned cabs and fighter jet consoles – will suddenly be wiped out like the sauropods. And somebody will come here with a toolbox, and the last drum of diesel in the west. In the meantime, they stand and wait and rust.

Something that looks like a wild sheep, but is said to be a dog, limps by in a long, ragged fleece. A quadbike bustles into the yard, loaded front and back with bales. Between the bales stands a man who could be Gandalf himself, but is probably just Pat Rodford. He makes a cheerful salute, hoses the mud off his wellies, and then shows you the mare.

"You wouldn't buy it for its conformation, would you?" he grins. Sparky May has a dip in her back that would make a purist run for the woods. "Her mother's the same, sister too. But whatever she does at Cheltenham, she's still a decent mare."

Just to be going there is a triumph in itself. Her owners have been worried about security, but Rodford thinks that one glance at Sparky May would persuade any miscreant he must be looking for a different horse. "They'd look in and say: 'It can't be that one, we won't touch that.'"

Yet it is because of this same, ungainly creature that people are belatedly getting to know a trainer who has reached 70 – hard though that is to believe, with his upright, supple bearing, and mane of hair – without entering the reckoning of any bar the most devoted regulars on the West Country circuit. Rodford only has 10 horses and they have some of the top jumps stables in the land in Somerset. One trainer who has since risen through the ranks used to hire his lorry. "Up until quite recently he knew who I was, but wouldn't recognise me in any way, not really," Rodford said. "Now I'm walking across at Taunton and it's: 'Hello, Pat!'"

Unbeaten in four starts over hurdles, Sparky May is the Cinderella of this year's Festival. Every time she has been raised in grade, she has won more easily. On her latest start, at Ascot, she thrashed the horse that had finished second in the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle last year. She duly proceeds to the same race today as the big danger to Quevega, an Irish mare who is trying to win it for the third year running.

It is a bewildering denouement to a tale that nearly ended in its prologue, in the spring of 2005. Rodford had been woken, here in his little bungalow, by rain buffeting the windows. He thought of the mare his wife had checked before going to bed, the one close to foaling. Glassy Appeal was among three mares from Virginia sent here by Bill Muddyman, to breed showjumpers. "It was 2am and tipping down," Rodford recalls. "So I thought I'd better go out and see if she's all right. And I went out and the mare was looking a bit agitated. And there was the foal, rolled down 20 yards the wrong side of the [electric] fence. So I dragged it back up, and as I went under – I was pretty wet by this stage – the fence gave me a hell of a shock."

And so life, and a name, began for Sparky May. When the torch had settled on her, she looked stone dead. But she was soon on her feet now and, satisfied that she was over her trauma, Pat and Judith left her with her dam in the dark and rain. "Because that's always the nervous bit, when they've got to suckle," Rodford says. "But I went back in the morning, and they were all right. And she lived the first three years of her life in the field. We had her in as a two-year-old, to teach her to take a head collar. But that's about it."

The sparks that accompanied this nativity were fairly innocuous compared with those that announced Rodford's own arrival in Ash, just outside the honeyed little town of Martock. "I was born the day they dropped the bomb in Yeovil," he says. "The first the Germans ever dropped round here." By a macabre coincidence, when he went up to London to get his licence from the Jockey Club, in 1982, the IRA killed four men and seven horses in Hyde Park. "I got out of the Tube and a bomb went off," he remembers. "All hell let loose, helicopters up in the air, everything. I didn't know where to run. But eventually I got to Portman Square, and they gave me the licence."

One way or another, plainly, Rodford does not do quiet beginnings. He only sat on a horse for the first time when he was 34. Incredibly, he rode in a point-to-point four months later. His first wife had left him, and the next woman in his life brought some horses with her. "I've always been a competitive sort of guy," he says. "I couldn't bear that she could ride around the field, and I couldn't. So one day I said: 'I'd like a crack at that.' So I sat up on it and rode it round the field. I was hunting within three weeks, I suppose. And jumping hedges within two days. Not because I wanted to, but because the horse thought it best to keep going and I didn't know how to turn him round."

He attributes this unsuspected felicity to twin groundings, in sport and livestock. His father captained the football team that played on the famous old slope at Yeovil, and might have played professionally. "But in those days they were earning 10 or 12 quid a week, and his mother and wife decided he had to stay on and be a farmer. To my mother, if I wasn't milking cows I was wasting my time. But I played a lot of cricket for Martock, captained them a few years, as my father did before me. He wouldn't let me off work much, but he would for cricket."

He lights another cigarette. The kitchen is suffused with smoke and nostalgia, the drift of time. Sundry inquisitive fowl are venturing in from the yard. They remind you that a different kind of genetic legacy finally caused him to abandon cattle, 20 years ago. "When it comes to their well-being, there's not a great difference between a cow and a horse," he reflects. "I can walk through that yard and look at a horse and know whether it's feeling all right, or not. And that's not something you learn. It's something you're born into. I was driving a tractor by the time I was eight, milking cows when I was 10. And then dealing with pigs, and stock. Not horses, though. I did go to Wincanton with my dad, sometimes, and have half a crown on. And my grandfather used to mess around with horses. He was a big-time gambler, lost everything. But if you know about stock, you'll know about horses. And if you keep them healthy, you've got a chance."

It is precisely this homespun lore that has produced Sparky May. True, she also owes a palpable debt to Kieran Burke, who has been here full-time for three years and, though still only 25, will quit as a jockey when Rodford hands over his licence at the end of the season. Between them, they have given this mare a chance she might never have found at one of the elite stables. "I don't think they'd have taken her," Rodford says. "They'd have taken one look and said no. They might take her now, though! As a trainer, the horse must find you. You won't find the horse. And I suppose that's what she has done."

Like all his horses, Sparky May is turned out in a paddock every afternoon. "They come back pretty dirty, but that doesn't make them any faster or slower. And mentally I think it's great for them. Sparky May shakes her old head and rears up in the air, all that nonsense. I love to see it, and I think it helps her. And then she's turned out with four or five other mares for the whole summer, down by my fish pond."

It is the anglers, in fact, who put the bread on his table. There is Judith's work, too, as a district nurse. Until Sparky May, however, the horses have never made money – right back to the very first one Rodford owned, along with a pal, some 25 years ago. He won a seller at Exeter, but they worked out they were "a fiver short on the day" after buying him in. Little wonder if Rodford expresses avuncular anxiety about Burke's chances, with a young family to feed, of making it pay. Rodford hopes his acknowledged role in the mare's emergence will give impetus to Burke's new career. "Because otherwise we've always just tipped along quietly, down at Taunton and Wincanton and Newton Abbot," he says. "We've had our purple moments, but they've been in £3,000 or £4,000 races. And suddenly we've won a £22,000 race at Ascot. Which is out of our league, really."

So much so that Rodford was contacted by a top bloodstock agent ("I'd never heard of him") with an offer of £150,000. Rodford tracked down Muddyman, who was just about to meet his son off a plane in South Africa. Muddyman promised an answer within 48 hours. A few minutes later, he called back: "We've taken a long time to decide this. Ten seconds. The answer's no. Because we're enjoying the journey."

The two men had been introduced when Rodford's son, Neil, was chief executive of Fulham. Kevin Keegan, the club's manager at the time, still sends a Christmas card to the stable. "Nice man, Kevin," Rodford says. "Takes the mick out of my Somerset brogue, but I tell him at least it's better than what he has."

With the Festival at hand, he frets about Sparky May failing to meet expectations. In reality, she has already far surpassed any sensible ones. "I don't expect to win," he says. "I expect that Irish horse to win again. We just hope the dream carries on. She's a freak. If you've got a horse with no breeding that wins races, then you've got a freak. And a freak's better than a bred horse.

"But there's something about her that would make her a great racehorse. There's no accounting for it at all. On that score, being a freak, you might have an exceptional horse. Perhaps she's the next Seabiscuit. Who knows? She has come from humble beginnings, and she's living in our Fred Karno yard. But she has the life she wants."

What's in a name

Sparky May is so called because of her electric start to life. She's not alone in having an interesting background to her name. Here is today's nomenclature form guide.

* GIBB RIVER (Supreme Novices' Hurdle)

A waterway in Western Australia that gives its name to the famously rugged 400-mile Gibb River Road, a former cattle trail through the Kimberley region.

* REALT DUBH (Arkle Trophy)

Irish for black star.

* DUNGUIB (Champion Hurdle)

A townland of Killenaule in South Tipperary. Echoes the name of Dunguib Lass, a famous greyhound once owned by his joint owner-breeder Lily Lawlor's family.

* FRENEYS WELL (Cross Country Chase)

Co Kilkenny landmark commemorating 18th-century highwayman James Freney, later a customs official, now buried in Inistioge graveyard.

* AMERICAN TRILOGY (Centenary Novices' Chase)

Medley of three songs saluting the American Civil War, made famous by Elvis Presley.