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Press Release 13th March 2023 Cheltenham

By Graham Clark

Taking on Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins at The Cheltenham Festival might be a daunting prospect for some, but not for beautician-turned-trainer Sheila Lewis who will saddle her first runner at the meeting since swapping painting nails to grooming tails. 

The Brecon-based handler, who has only held a licence since 2015, will go head-to-head with two of jump racing’s most respected trainer’s when saddling stable star Straw Fan Jack in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase on the opening day of The Festival, Champion Day (Tuesday 14th March).  

And although the eight year old is a general 66-1 chance Lewis admits she will perform ‘cartwheels’ if he can secure a spot in the hallowed winner’s circle, which he has already visited once this season after striking gold at the Showcase Meeting in October. 

But despite looking forward to the challenge ahead Lewis remains realistic of the task that Straw Fan Jack faces in toppling the Henderson-trained Jonbon and El Fabiolo from the Mullins yard, who are both unbeaten over fences. 

She said: “I’m not getting ahead of myself as at the end of the day we are going to Cheltenham with a 66-1 chance. Every time I see a video of Jonbon I think he is like a God as he gallops so beautifully so I have quite imposter syndrome about him.

“However, it is a novice race at the end of the day and they have all only had a few runs over fences under their belts so anything could happen.

“He has won at the track over the distance before and although I’m not saying we can beat Jonbon or El Fabiolo, as they are exceptionally good horses, we could run into a place. He likes a smaller field as he tries a bit harder.

“I would definitely be doing cartwheels if he finished in the first four. People love a story like this as it is much more exciting. This is all very exciting for me and it is nicer for the viewer when they see that enthusiasm.”

Although spending much of her working life as a beautician, including a spell on cruise ships before returning to dry land to set up The Beauty Mill, the 54 year old’s involvement with horses is not a sudden revelation.  

Lewis said: “I was brought up on a farm and we always had horses. Throughout my childhood we were involved in harness racing. We used to race through Wales and we used to breed them as well. 

“Dad (Brian Lewis) always had a couple of horses in training with Steve Brookshaw and I had one from Steve in about 2012 and I thought I will have a go at this. She won a point-to-point then I got another one and it all started from there really. 

“I got a permit to train my own in 2015 then I went for the full licence, with just six or seven horses.

“I wasn’t earning enough money to go full time into it so I was backing it up with the salon as it was installed into me, by my dad, that there is no money in horses and you have to have day job.”

Few good things came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, however it was due to the enforced lockdown that helped Lewis make the decision to give up her day job as a beautician and to turn her hobby of training racehorses into her profession.

She said: “Covid came and the salon closed. Horses were always my passion but I just went down the beauty road. Like everything in life you agonise about making a decision then something happens to make the decision for you and basically that was Covid. 

“When we opened up again clients a number of clients stopped coming and it did peter out and one day I decided that was is it and I just made that leap of faith to train horses full time. 

“I’ve still got the salon but one of the girls runs it for me now. I still do the odd client now and again when I need a bit of money, but we’ve 15 horses in the yard and two full time girls that work here.”

It is not the first time that Lewis has attracted the attention from the media after she saddled a 1,182-1 treble at Hereford, initiated by Straw Fan Jack, in October 2020-a moment which to this day she still looks back at with great fondness.

She continued: “I only had six horses in training and I took three of them to Hereford. I swear they were chatting to each other after Straw Fan Jack won the first race.

“I kind of expected him to win as we thought he was quite special. He was just wanting that bit better ground. Then Knight Commander was the second one and to be honest I was happy with one let alone two.

“Then Cotton End run and there was a question mark whether she would stay the two and a half miles. They didn’t just win they all bolted up which was just bizarre.”

Although Straw Fan Jack saw his unbeaten run over fences come to an end on his most recent start at Newbury the mother of two believes that effort will have taught him plenty ahead of his return to Grade One company.

She said: “Sean (Houlihan, jockey) came back after his Newbury run last time and said he was flat out from start to finish and it was only his jumping that kept him in the race.

“He was carrying quite a bit of weight and he was only beaten just over five lengths. The form of that race has worked out well. 

“I’d say two miles around Newbury is a bit too sharp for him and I think he just needs that hill at Cheltenham or a bit of a stiffer track, but it would have done him the world of good to jump at that speed for two miles.”

While Straw Fan Jack will not be carrying the weight of the Welsh nation solely his shoulders at the Festival he has plenty of supporters back in Brecon who will be rooting for him along with his passionate owner Graham Wilson. 

She said: “The local bookmaker in Brecon said to my mum Megan, who had gone in bless her to put a bet on him ante-post, that there were a lot of people from a recent article that had gone in to have a bet on him.

“On Wednesday last week, I did an International Women’s Day evening and I was asked to speak at it. There were about 50 or 60 people there and I told them all to put a bit each-way on him so there will be a lot of people watching.

“Graham Wilson is a wonderful guy and is one of the nicest human beings you will meet in your life. He is just a lovely guy. He loves his horses and he loves his racing.

“He doesn’t mind if it is at a wet and cold Ffos Las where they are running or Cheltenham. He just enjoys his horses and his races. I’m very lucky to have him.”

It will be all hands to the deck for Lewis who will be on box driving duty, but having already booked a holiday to Las Vegas following his previous win at the track she admits she could end up coming back on the minibus her family have organised for the day. 

She said: “The family has got a minibus coming up, and both my husband Peter and daughter Jodie will be there but unfortunately my son Tomi, who plays rugby for the Jersey Reds can’t make it 

“I’m driving the lorry unfortunately but I might be on the minibus on the way back though depending on the result.

“I told the girls if he won at Cheltenham that we would go to Las Vegas and it was just a thing I said as I knew how I would be if I had a winner at Cheltenham.

“It is all booked and there are five of us who are going including my mum who is 77. We will probably do the Grand Canyon, but I’ve not thought that far ahead to be honest as I thought we will get this race over and done with first.

“The most important thing is to enjoy this and not get too stressed.”


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