In her first column for the Western Morning News, Exeter Racecourse ambassador Bryony Frost relives the Betfred Classic Handicap Chase and says you can never be a boss of a horse but you can be a partner
When you've never sat on a horse before until you get on him in the paddock it is like speed dating going down to the start. This is what it was like when I sat on Milansbar at Warwick on Saturday. The first thing I noticed was his stamp. He stood tall and with a big front on him, he's everything you want in a chaser. First impressions were going well. As we cantered down to the start I touched his mouth, he retaliated. I soon knew he had a light mouth and liked to be left to his own devices. We were getting to know each other.
The Welsh National didn’t go to plan last time. He was crowded down to the bottom bend and he threw his toys out the pram. Neil King, his trainer, rang me in the morning to give me my instructions. He wanted me to be in my own space. The night before racing I do my homework on a horse that my agent Dave Roberts has booked me to ride. As a young horse, Milansbar was very prominent in all his races and I thought that’s where he wanted to be, so in theory, don't change what works. Neil's instructions were to be positive, so I could ride him this way.
When the flag fell at the start he jumped out like a grey hound on the track. He got away like a 12hh pony – all 17hh of him - and winged the first, which filled me with confidence.
It's always nice to get the first on a good stride as it sets your rhythm up. When he landed out over the it I knew if I kept his balance and momentum he would do the rest.
As we hit the rising ground it gave us an opportunity to relax into a rhythm and start to settle down for the next mile.
Gavin Sheehan joined us and we locked horns. I knew he'd want to make sure the gallop was strong as all his horse does is stay. Fortunately, I believed my horse would stay just as well. As long as he was comfortable in the gallop we were setting, I was comfortable to remain at that speed. I preferred him to be upsides, rather than half a length down, as it was his first time in blinkers, and I didn't want his concentration to be taken by seeing the horse beside him. I needed him to concentrate on me and his fence.
We rounded the bottom bend into the back straight. I raised my hands slightly off his withers, put my heels into his side and clicked in his ear to give him his revs and confidence to meet the fences that come up quickly. At Warwick down the back straight the fences come fast and furious. You must have rhythm, balance and momentum to meet them as best you can. We entered the home bend. This was our first opportunity for a breather. I brought him down half a gear, he cruised for me and filled his lungs.
Up the home straight he grabbed a hold of me, this was him having fun! As we passed the winning post with a lap to go, I thought if you can do that again the next time around chap, you're going to be very hard to pass!
Our trust was in full swing. The last fence before the rising ground meets slightly on a dog -eg bend. We met it on a neat stride, I put my inside heel slightly down, which pushed my balance to the inside, allowing him to land on his inside leading leg. This saved time as we cut the bend and, needless to say, I didn't have to touch his mouth, which also saved the same argument that we’d had earlier going down to the start!
The rising ground came which offered our second breather - important as once we got down to the bottom of the hill we knew the taps would be turned on and the race would be winding up.
We rounded the bottom bend into the back straight. I raised my hands a few inches to gather his balance. I was keen to ride the same line as we met all the fences perfectly the first time. With the same momentum I was confident we could this time too.
As we came down to the ditch it was our only miscommunication out of 22 fences. I thought that the short stride option was the best for us. However, he disagreed and said the long stride option was definitely the best. As we parted the birch I was very firmly put back in my box and reminded to trust in him and his scope more than I had been.
His light footed jumping down the back straight allowed our last and final opportunity for a breather before I asked the final question of him to kick for home. As he went through his girths, and filled his lungs, he pricked his ears. This is when I knew my horse still had a strong pair of legs underneath me.
I waited for us to be straight and balanced before I asked him to hit top gear and just like the first time, thankfully he flew as we came down to the second last. I took the clock out of my head and made sure we met it as neatly as we could. When he landed out over it I clicked in his ear, we galloped down to the 22nd fence. I waited for his stride to find take off. All I needed to do was make sure he concentrated. Driving him away I looked up at the screen to see us well clear and patting him down the neck, I thought, "You have changed your tune old man, good lad!" He felt so good about himself and he knew he’d done well!
Neil, his owner and his team all stuck by him and believed in him and their faith was repaid. Neil missed the race as he’d been shooting with his brother. Apparently they had running commentary on the phone shouting him home. I said if he’d been there he wouldn’t have need to shout as he did it so easily! When you call the trainer the next morning to find out how your horse is and their reply is "Happy as Larry" it makes it a perfect day.
The Grand National is a long way away and that road is one we have to travel down a bit longer. There are a lot of uncontrollables along it. He jumps, he operates, he stays and you can trust him. He’s been in some big battles and he knows how to step around danger. He thinks for himself. For Neil and his team to go to the National with a horse like him will be very exciting. For me he’s a horse that could hold his own and in the same heart as he was at Warwick he's a good one to go to battle with. If you were trying to describe him, he’s the equivalent of a four-by-four with a V8 engine, the most posh leather seats you could imagine and a very fast cruise control speed! Okay, he has worn his wheels in, but with that, he's become a slick operator.
After the race it was great talking to everyone about the win. A lot of people have given me the time of day and I like to give time to people. I guess it's just the way I've been brought up, the way I like to live. I enjoy talking to people and sharing a little bit of my world if I can. Its cool if they want to run with me. It’s a hard enough world if you don’t have a friend and what's the point if you're not creating memories. When the press talk to me, I’m not talking to a newspaper, I’m talking to the person in front of me who has taken time to think of a question to ask me. I try to answer it honestly and portray the emotions I have at the time, hoping that what they write may shed a little light in the world that I love to be in and the pride in which I hold my team.
Ever since I opened my eyes, my world has been horses. To trust something I have no control of is a challenge that I will never get bored of. My job is to give my horse the most successful career he and his team behind him can have. To do this I must trust his character and believe in his ability. I guess this is why I ride how I ride.
You'll never be a boss of a horse but you can be a partner, and the way I ride is to ask not tell my horse what to do. I try and get the best out of him because my job is to ride winners, that's what I want to do, and without a willing partner I can't ride winners, I can't do my job. Therefore, I couldn't live the life I love to live.
Just to try and let people understand how I see our horses, how I ride them, the little techniques that I use to help them and how much they mean to us, how much we strive to win is what I call the "racing world"
Everyone has an enthusiasm in their life and mine is the horse. It’s a really hard thing to explain, but if you think about something you really love passionately and it’s all you really think about – that’s how I feel about the horses I am riding. You get in the zone and you have to concentrate because every instruction has to be clear. I am just the last piece of a huge jigsaw. I say it all the time, there’s no me without a we.
Exeter Racecourse’s January Jumps meetings is next Wednesday with the first of six races off at 1.40pm. Then its onto its Super Sunday meeting on February 11 when two pre-booked Grandstand and Paddock tickets cost just £15. Visit www.exeter-racecourse.co.uk