From Turf to Thames: Varsity Horseracing 2014 preview


If you had told me this time last year that I would be getting up every day at 5:30am to go out and ride racehorses, I would’ve assumed you were still feeling the effects from a recent night out. Being a show jumper, racing had always sounded like something fun to do, in the way that being a spy/driving an F1 car sounds like fun – it’s a nice idea, but it takes a very specific set of skills, is super dangerous, and let’s be honest, who’s really going to let you try it. But, when I heard that there were try-outs for the Oxford Horse Racing Team, I thought I would give it a go.

That was back in May. Five months down the line, I am fully invested in this new and exciting venture. I now love the moment when the horses rev themselves up as they prepare to gallop, and the feeling of a horse dropping lower as you give them the signal to push on a little bit more. It’s still slightly terrifying, but the experience is like no other, and with the race less than a week away (October 17th) our training has seriously intensified.

I, along with Elli Gilje (Keble), have been riding out for Charlie Longsdon through the summer. Charlie is regarded as one of the top ten trainers in the country, and he happens to be one of the youngest. Charlie’s yard is just outside of Chipping Norton in the middle of the Cotswolds. There are roughly 75 horses in work at the moment; and, all but one compete in National Hunt, meaning they race over jumps. The varsity race against Cambridge at Newmarket will be a flat race over a one mile distance. So, the horses may be a little smaller and faster than Charlie’s, but the principles of racing are the same for both.

Every morning, except Sunday, we get to the yard at 6.45 to find out whom we will be riding that morning and frantically gather together the specific tack we need for that horse. Then, one by one, each jockey either hops on or gets thrown onto their respective rides, and walks up to the outdoor riding school, where we walk in a circle until all of the horses and riders are present. The number of horses per lot can range anywhere from 16 up to around 30. Then Charlie comes up in the “jeep” (an old land rover) and organises us into the groups that we will be “working” in – there are about 6 horses in each group, placed together so that the fastest are at the front, before we head off towards the gallops through the stubble fields

We usually do two runs up the gallops. The first one is done single file to get the horses going. The second one is done ‘upsides’, meaning every horse runs in a pair so that they get a little competitive and work harder. I remember the words of advice that DJ, one of the head jockeys, told me the first time I went out, just as we were at the bottom of the gallops, just as the horses were getting ready to run; “The aim is to try to stay up with the horse in front of you, but not too close.” Boy, did I have fun trying to guess what the hell that meant.

Once the horses have done their work for the day, we walk back to the yard en masse. Every horse gets washed off and goes on a walker to cool down properly. Once they have been on for long enough, we take them out and let them into the field where they will spend a few hours relaxing and eating in a huge herd.

If I only have two lots for that morning, then my work is done, and I hop in the car and am back home by 9:30am – the time most people my age might be starting to think about when they’ll get up!

This has been the majority of our training – just getting out and doing it as much as we can. We have also had lessons with John Reid and Colin Brown (both famous former jockeys) at Oaksey House. We get on an equiciser, which is basically a mechanical imitation of a horse. On this, we can focus on our positions, as well as “riding a finish”. This is when you urge the horse on as much and as hard as you can, while remaining perfectly balanced and in control of everything. This movement is physically and mentally exhausting, and you find yourself completely out of breath in around 30 seconds.

Every member of the team has to work very hard to train for the race, but it’s all in the name of beating the tabs and making Oxford proud, and so it is definitely worth it. We hope as many Oxford students as possible will come up to support us on the day (and take advantage of the free entry and free drink!).

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