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Head of the class: Getting Gordon Elliott’s yard ready for Cheltenham

Camilla Sharples is head girl at Cullentra House.

Sharples leads Jack Kennedy and Shattered Love back into the winner's enclosure at last year's Cheltenham Festival.
Sharples leads Jack Kennedy and Shattered Love back into the winner's enclosure at last year's Cheltenham Festival.

ONE OF THE more disappointing aspects of being an adult is finding out that, for all the warnings, swans are not strong enough to break your arm.

For all their bluster, for all their ‘you want some’ attitude, the fact is, such displays are mostly for show.

What is true of swans, however, is that no matter how serene they look on the surface, you can be sure their legs are working away frantically beneath the water.

The same is true for training horses.

The volume of work, and attention to detail, that goes into preparing horses for an event like the Cheltenham festival is easily forgotten in the agony and ecstasy of your six-horse, €5 each way, accumulator.

But whether a 40/1 shot lands the Champion Hurdle or an odds-on favourite falls at the last in a handicap he should be winning by 10 lengths, you can be almost certain it’s not for the want of trying on behalf on the horse’s yard.

For each individual horse coming from Ireland, Cheltenham can be a logistical nightmare. Deciding when the horse travels — especially if it is entered in multiple races — is just the tip of a post-it note iceberg.

Each horse needs a handler, and to be worked out every morning. They need feeding (at the same time every day for consistency), to checked by the vet, the farrier, and the trainer him or herself.

Now imagine organising that for 50 horses when, a week before the festival, you’re not altogether certain what they each will run.

It’s all in a day’s work for Gordon Elliott’s head girl, Camilla Sharples, who previously worked with Ferdy Murphy and Donald McCain in England before taking a role at Cullentra House four years ago.

“Cheltenham is the biggest meeting of the year for us,” she told The42 this week. “It’s what our sport is centered on but it’s also the biggest challenge.

“There’s a huge amount of planning to go into it and it starts months in advance. But because horses are entered in multiple races, the final details can only be arranged pretty close to the festival so, as you can imagine. This week can be a bit hectic.”

Unlike some yards, work in Elliott’s doesn’t start at the crack of dawn and it’s all part of the trainer and staff’s philosophy to keep their horses as relaxed as possible.

Sharples’ job is to consider all of the things you probably don’t; from what jockey is going to ride out with each horse right down to the order in which they are loaded into their trailer on the way to the ferry.

“Horses can pick up on a lot, and they all have different personalities so you have to work around that as best you can,” says Sharples

“So a big part of my job is getting to know the horses and getting to know the people and understanding which people work best with which horses. To be honest, people do tend to have their favourites and those are usually the horses that respond best to them.”

Gordon Elliott looks on as his horses do their morning work Gordon Elliott watches on as his horses work at Cullentra House. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It doesn’t always have to be the horses people look after in the yard either. Should Shattered Love run in the Gold Cup — she’s also entered into the Ryanair Chase — it will be Sharples who’ll lead her at Cheltenham despite the fact she doesn’t ride her in the yard or muck her out.

Another horse Sharples feels particularly close to is Bless The Wings, the cult hero who has finished second in the Cross Country at Cheltenham in two of the past three years.

“He’s just such a brilliant character,” says Sharples. “He really is a legend, even though he’s 14 now.”

When Elliott, Sharples, and the rest of the team actually get to Cheltenham, there’s little time to relax.

“It’s a much earlier start than at home. Not for everyone, but for me it certainly is.

“We’ll be on the go from around 6am and working right through to 8 or 9pm. It’ll be the usual stuff in the morning like making sure the horses are fed and checked over before getting them ready for the race itself.

“At Cheltenham, we like to get the horses in the day before they run to make sure they’re nice and fresh on the day of the race.

“To be honest, the meeting itself flies by as there’s so much going on while the races are happening. Then, once we’re finished for the day we’ll spend the evening making sure the horses that need to go home head off okay and then we’re planning for the following day.”

But the long hours and painstaking planning are very much worth it when you get a winner.

Last year, Elliott’s team had eight winners, enough for him to land the leading trainer’s title for a second successive year. 2018’s success was all the more remarkable when you consider the yard failed to make the winner’s enclosure on day one of the festival.

“I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous until that first winner comes in,” says Sharples.

“But the other side of it is that, even if you only get one winner, you have to remember that a winner at Cheltenham is an incredible achievement when you consider this is the best of the best going head to head.”

Sharples is not a gambler herself, instead enjoying racing for racing’s sake. However, she does invest in horses in other ways.

Having bought Andy Dufresne for €30,000, she sold him last year — after less than a year of ownership — to JP McManus at Cheltenham for over €380,000 after he had won his point-to-point maiden.

Earlier this year, the horse went on to be an impressive winner in his first race at Down Royal but will sadly miss out at the festival after being tipped to run in the Champion Bumper.

She has reinvested some of her earnings in a young point-to-pointer she’s quite keen on while she was gifted another, the 12-year-old Kruzhlinin, who has won seven point-to-points in succession.

But could Sharples see herself as a trainer?

“No, I don’t think it’s for me. Gordon’s obviously a brilliant trainer and I do learn so much from him, but there’s a different set of skills involved.

“And even if you don’t get much of a chance to relax or a holiday — we’ve racing on Saturday and Sunday after we come back from Cheltenham — I love what I do. I wouldn’t change that at all.”

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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