Many people come to the Cheltenham Festival for the craic but there can be no craic without the Irish.
So integral to the atmosphere during the week are visitors from across the Irish Sea that day three is now known as St Patrick’s Thursday, due to its proximity to the day on which Ireland celebrates its patron saint.
Last year Irish stables plundered 17 of the 28 prizes on offer over four days of racing - and eight of those were captured by horses trained by Gordon Elliott, who was the meeting’s top trainer.
Elliott’s success was not just down to his having superior horses. It was also the result of an exhaustive planning exercise which ensured a team approaching 40 horses and support staff were transported from Co Meath to Cheltenham without a hitch.
That task is the responsibility of Camilla Sharples, Elliott’s travelling head girl. Sharples, from Lancashire, worked for Ferdy Murphy and Donald McCain before relocating to Ireland four years ago.
The extraordinary results her stable enjoyed at the 2018 Festival suggest the operation went seamlessly but as Camilla explains in a special interview for Cheltenham Racecourse, the exercise nearly unravelled.
“I am the travelling head so - along with Mary Nugent, the second travelling head - we would organise everything,” she says.
“We start at the beginning of February, making sure we have all the gear together. Last year we had about 38 horses go over, so you can imagine we need quite a lot of tack and other racing stuff.
“We make sure all the bridles have new reins on them, that we have enough bridles, we have all the colours, we have enough water buckets, feed buckets and everything the horses need. Each horse will have their own bucket so there will probably be 40 water buckets and 40 feed buckets going.
“There is that much feed needed we have to get that delivered to Cheltenham from Blue Grass who supply us. We will have something like 60 bags of nuts, 20 bags of mix. It all goes on a big pallet. We would be overweight on the lorry if we tried to take that to Cheltenham ourselves so it has to go straight there.
“We send a two-box lorry loaded to the top with gear, saddles, bridles, buckets, all the sheets we need. I like to pack that myself. I have a checklist I go through. I even kick Mary out of the racing room so I can focus on that. At least then if anything is forgotten it’s my fault. I haven’t forgotten anything too significant yet.”
Not all the Elliott runners are at Cheltenham at the same time; those set to race at the end of the Festival arrive later as those that have already raced return home. But any such plans can depend on the impact of the weather on ferry crossings.
“We start booking the boats mid-February to make sure we get on,” says Camilla. “Last year became a bit of a nightmare as we were already over in Cheltenham when we heard the winds were picking up so the horses that were meant to go out on Wednesday to run on Friday had to get on the Tuesday boat.
“They were there a day earlier than they should have been but if we had left it to the Wednesday boat, they wouldn’t have made it out and we wouldn’t have had runners on the Friday at Cheltenham.
“We won’t make that mistake this year - we'll book that lorry that comes on the Wednesday on the Tuesday boat as well just in case the weather changes.”
She continues: “I always go out with the first lorry on the Saturday and maybe four or five staff will come with me. We tend to use our own lorries, but we might sometimes need a transport lorry.
“The first set of horses will leave on the Saturday, ahead of the start of Cheltenham on the Tuesday, and will arrive the early hours of Sunday morning. Another load will come out Sunday, arriving early hours of Monday morning. Then the next load normally come out Tuesday and arrive the early hours of Wednesday morning. Each horse that is running will have a day to relax before raceday.”
Camilla tries to accommodate as many of the stable’s staff who want to be at the festival as she can and few are left disappointed. “Each member of staff that comes to Cheltenham will have set horses that they lead up at the races, so we try to make sure everybody gets to go with their horses and, once their horses have run, they will come home,” she explains.
“Myself and Mary stay for the whole week and there will be a couple more of the older staff that will stay for the whole week as well. The rest will come and go as their horses do. We try to give everyone an equal chance to get to go to Cheltenham because it is something that everyone that goes racing in the yard at home wants to experience. We try to make it fair so everyone gets their turn, especially the younger staff. Everyone stays in the Hunters Lodge right next door to the stable yard. There must about 34 rooms which can sleep up to four people.”
Once in situ there is an established routine for the Elliott team. “We ride out at 7.30am so myself and Mary will be on the yard from 6.15am making sure the horses have fed and eaten up. Everyone else comes in at 7am by which point we will have had all the horses fed and checked and the riding out sorted.
“We could have 20 riding out," Camilla adds. "Jockeys will come and help as well and Gordon would meet us at 7.30am to go down to the gallops, which normally takes about an hour. While the horses are out the staff that aren’t riding out will muck out, do waters and tidy the yard. It works well. Everyone knows their role.
“After we have ridden them out we go for breakfast about 9-9.30am. We then usually have about an hour to ourselves to shower and get ready for the racing. Then everyone is straight back to the yard to plait their horses and get them ready for the races.
“After the last race we will normally take the horses for a pick of grass and a wind down, feed them, lead them out and make sure they are all okay. We normally finish at about 6.30-7pm so it is a very long day. It’s a very long week when you are doing that every day but when you have the results like we had, it’s worth it.”
Before races it is not only the horses that are expected to be immaculately turned out, there is an established dress code for staff too. “I have a couple of horses that I lead up myself, Shattered Love and Bless The Wings, but otherwise I will be helping saddle, taking sheets off, making sure the staff are all right leading up their horses,” says Camilla. “I am in charge in the parade ring making sure everything runs smoothly.
“We have our own sponsored jackets to wear and then smart black trousers, no jeans. We all dress very smartly. The horses are always turned out immaculately. For Gordon, presentation is key: he likes everything to be smart.
“The team spirit is brilliant - everyone supports each other. If someone’s horse wins, everyone gets a real buzz out of it. If we can, we watch the races together, jump up and down and scream together and hug each other when they win. It’s a great week, it’s just a long week.”
There was plenty of hugging and screaming last year. Just not on the first day when the odds-on Apple’s Jade was only third in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle and another leading fancy Jury Duty unseated in the National Hunt Chase.
But the celebrating began in earnest on day two when Samcro lived up to expectations by landing the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle and continued through another two successes thanks to Tiger Roll in the Glenfarclas Cross-County Chase and Veneer Of Charm in the Boodles Fred Winter Novices' Hurdle.
The stable bagged another treble on St Patrick’s Thursday as Shattered Love won the JLT Novices’ Chase, Delta Work the Pertemps Network Final and The Storyteller took the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate.
And on Friday wins from Farclas in the JCB Triumph Hurdle and Blow By Blow in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle ensured the festival trainer’s title was heading to Cullentra House for the first time. “On the first day the horses didn’t run great but then Wednesday, Thursday, Friday we couldn’t stop banging out the winners,” says Camilla.
“As I led up up Shattered Love, her victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase was the most special to me. You can’t beat having a winner at Cheltenham. We came away with eight which was just incredible.
“The last-minute change with the boat was the only glitch we had and hopefully it will be a similar story this year. I didn’t get shouted at once last year so that must be a bonus!”
Join us for Day Three - St Patrick's Thursday of The Festival 2019. See you one month today.