Whenever disappointed by human beings, Stef Liddiard has always found succour in horses. But the feeling is entirely mutual, judging from the radical renewal she has achieved in Mac Love, an ancient gelding who entered her stable on a barren run of four years and won his third Group Three prize of the summer at Goodwood last weekend.
The scars of her upbringing, and then her own marriage, were all soothed by the same balm. "My childhood was pretty horrendous," she reflected yesterday. "But I was given a riding lesson for my 12th birthday, and from that day I was at the riding school every spare minute. It became a place to get away from all the rubbish going on at home.
"I bought my own pony with my paper round," she added. "There's something therapeutic, about a horse's mentality in sync with your own. And when it comes off with a horse like this, there's no better feeling."
Horses brought scars of their own, admittedly, notably when Liddiard was so smashed up in a hurdle race at Hereford in 1995 that she might be said to have bounced off the Pearly Gates. Patched together, she served nearly seven years under Paul Cole before taking out a licence of her own, six years ago. She made a promising start, but after the acrimonious end of her marriage, briefly resolved to flee to the United States, where a job was waiting. Ultimately, however, she seems to be finding precisely the same fulfilment, at 37, that has evidently transformed Mac Love himself, at eight.
"He had to learn to settle," she explained. "And, to do that, he had to understand that racing wasn't so bad. He was always a talented horse, but he didn't know it. He used to get anxious, sweat and shake, and run his race before it started. Now, by not racing with the choke out, he has learned that he only has to pull out for a couple of furlongs, and he's coming back chilled, diving into his dinner. It's as though life has been passing him by."
Liddiard herself is certainly living her new life to the full. Few other Group races can have been won by trainers who must ask the runner-up's staff to hold her horse's reins while she collects the trophy. She concedes that she is hopeless at delegation, with just two helpers for 22 horses. Still based at the yard built by her ex-husband, in the next valley to Lambourn, she accepts that things may have to change once she finds new premises.
"This isn't a place where I can put roots down," she reasons. "So for some time now I've been looking to relocate. I'm trying not to be picky. It doesn't have to be perfect. But it does have to be right. I haven't got kids, but presume this is as close as it comes. The day comes, I suppose, when you have to let them loose with someone else, like leaving your pride and joy at school for the first time. I've always known I can train, and want to go as far as I can. But I wouldn't ever want battalions."
For now, her impractically bespoke methods doubtless encourage condescension to Mac Love. "It drives me nuts," she admitted. "Every time he wins, they knock the form. I don't know what they want. He did a rocking good time at Salisbury, and Confront has won both his races since."
The next target is a Group Two, perhaps in Germany on Sunday week. "You need a horse like this to get noticed," she said. "But the biggest thing you need in this game is consistency, because you're only as good as your last runner. And my last runner was useless. But whenever I have a bad day, and I'm soaked to the skin after riding six lots, I just have to think of all those commuters staring out of their air-conditioned office windows, wanting to go home, and I feel so blessed to do something I adore.
"Someone gave me some good advice as a kid, when I was going through a bad patch: 'Don't try to achieve the unachievable'. But I think a Group One, and lots more black-type horses in general, and buying them as yearlings – I think that's all achievable. Maybe not straightaway, but it's got to be worth a crack."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Beauchamp Wizard (3.30 Pontefract) Lightly raced compared to most, and showed up well on his comeback at Goodwood until his long absence told. He can improve past what looks an undemanding handicap mark.
Promise Maker (4.30 Pontefract) Conditions were very different when he won cosily at Catterick last time but he has gone well on fast ground and he owed his improvement to the step up in distance. Further progress can follow over this more testing track and trip.
One to watch
Charlie Delta (R.A. Harris) set a suicidal gallop at Bath on Sunday, having previously hinted at a return to form, and remains worth another chance at a modest level now that he is fully 16lb lower than his last winning mark.
Where the money's going
Youmzain is 16-1 with Coral to finish second in the Arc yet again.Reuse content