ANN Duffield is one of the most upwardly mobile trainers in UK horse racing and is enjoying a fine season. With the expert help of husband and former top jockey George, she has developed one of the finest training establishments in the north. But it has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get where she is today. Here she gives Horse Racing Chat a fascinating insight into what it takes to train winners…
How would you say the current flat season is going for the yard?
The season is going very well after a slow and frustrating start. The weather played hell here and the incessant rain made ordinary, simple jobs difficult. The slow start was made even slower by the fact we are predominantly a two-year-old yard at the moment. We don’t have many older horses and it is the older ones who have a better immune system and the ability to cope with such a changeable climate. Two-year-olds are still developing their immune systems and are more susceptible to problems. They also need more time. While I adore two-year-olds and want more of them, I also realise we need more older horses. But you can only train what you have in your yard at any one time.
You’ve had a great run with your two-year-olds. Is there one in particular that excites you?
We have a good, promising bunch of two-year-olds this year, which is just as well with the number of older horses being low. We only have three horses aged four and over. Luckily they have won five so far between them with more to come (I hope). We have been delighted with the two-year-olds so far. Melody of Love was second in a Listed race recently and can improve further; Willie The Whipper was very impressive at Hamilton first time out and could be anything; Lady Moonlight was a bargain buy at only 6,000 euros, winning her first two races and I think there is more to come from her too. Rust is a colt with a lot of quality and he will run soon.
Reading your blog, you seem a very “hands on” trainer. What would be a typical day and do you ever sleep?!
I am out on the yard between 5.30am and 5.45am every day. I answer some, if not all the emails waiting for me. I put the list together using the computer so everything I do with each horse is well documented. The work list on a proper work morning is worked out the night before because I have to take into account which horse should work with who, who rides them, what the weights need to be, do they need to carry some lead or a heavier rider etc, who will lead the gallop, who will stay in behind, who will go upsides who, which gallop to use etc ‒ all according to what you’re trying to achieve with each horse. The list takes a while to type up and has other important information on for the staff, such as reminders as to who goes racing, times, any additional headgear etc. I put the lists up in each barn and walk round the horses, stopping to talk to head man James who has already fed them starting at 4.30am. All this takes place before the other staff arrive for work at 6.30. I go in the house just after 7am to wake George at 7.15 (with a cup of tea), grab some breakfast and look at the entries in the Racing Post, while the staff are loading first lot on the walkers and mucking out. First lot pulls out into the parade ring at 7.45 unless I am away racing early, in which case we pull out at 7am. I watch every lot either off the back of a hack or on foot, and in between lots I am often taking youngsters through the stalls, washing horses off, going through entries and declarations, and jockey bookings. In the afternoons I am often away racing or doing paperwork and I try to finish in the office by 7pm, cook dinner and then start again on the computer in the house, writing the blog, speaking to or emailing owners, race planning and at this time of year I have my head in sales catalogues or am trying to sell the horses we have just bought. I try to sit down with the hubby for 20 minutes before giving in and going to bed, but George will tell you I just fall asleep!
Your husband rode more than 2,500 winners. His experience riding out must be a huge asset?
Yes, a massive help, especially now that he enjoys my training more than he once did. At one time my horses were rated between 28 and 55, so he found it very hard to be enthusiastic. Now we have better horses and some fantastic, patient owners who are a pleasure to train for, and he really enjoys it now. He is chief work rider and his input is invaluable. He can assess a horse in seconds, is as strong as an ox and can teach a horse more in one morning than most riders can in a month. He is also a big help in deciding on race tactics. He still knows the strengths and weaknesses of most of the jocks riding and, of course, he knows every race track inside out and how each one should be ridden.
Sun Hill has undergone an amazing transformation since you and George took it over in 1999. How hard has it been to get it where it is today and do you have other plans for the yard?
It has not been easy ‒ very challenging in fact. The horses at one point were very ordinary to say the least. We arrived here with only 18 horses and then a serious sickness problem on the yard saw our numbers drop to eight. But with persistent hard work things picked up. I was also lucky that I carried on buying and selling a bit of property in the boom times which helped keep the place afloat. We also established a couple of holiday cottages that do very well, but the real difference was that despite everything being so tough I kept going to the sales and buying horses on spec. That made me get off my backside and find owners for them. Luckily some of those horses we had retained shares in won well and sold for a lot of money to places like America and Hong Kong. Every penny has been poured back into Sun Hill to make it the great place it is, but there are still things I want to achieve here and improvements I want to make. Each year I make sure I drive the place forward a bit more, updating and improving facilities. This year we have spent a lot on equine physiotherapy equipment, which has been invaluable in recovery, and the general health and wellbeing of the horses. A better and bigger lunge ring will soon be under construction. I need to resurface the all-weather gallop and there is another big project I am working on that will be fantastic if it comes off but I will keep “schtum” on that for now!
How has the economic situation affected Sun Hill in the past few years, especially in attracting and keeping owners?
It has actually helped in some ways; I was so worried about it that I had a big clear-out of everything and everyone who was not excellent value for money. I was pretty ruthless. I sold some properties I had bought for staff and consolidated as far as possible. Our two-year-old numbers at the time were low. We only had only 10 or 12 and as the older horses had had such a great year (Salerosa won seven), I knew they couldn’t possibly do that again the following season: the handicapper wouldn’t allow it. So I offered a special breeze-up deal for breeze-up horses only to increase our numbers, where the owner got a big reduction on fees for the racing season while the business got 30% of prize money and 20% of re-sale (instead of the usual 10%). The vital thing was for us to pick the right horses. Luckily we did and many of the two-year-olds that year won both the yearling bonus of ten grand and the breeze-up bonus of a further five grand (no longer available), plus the usual prize money. Our extra % of prize money compensated for the reduction of fees and the re-sales made a decent profit. The knock-on effect from the extra winners it created was that we attracted several new owners. The downside, of course, had it not worked, was too unpleasant to contemplate! It was a big risk. We had a great year though, culminating in a Listed winner for Harry Findlay and Sam Sangster in the famous Sangster colours.
North Yorkshire and the Middleham area in particular is a wonderful racing metropolis. Would you consider training anywhere else?
Sun Hill is three miles from Middleham [in Constable Burton near Leyburn] and recently the Middleham Trainers’ Association extended its boundaries to become Middleham and District Trainers, so in some ways I am now considered a Middleham trainer. Our facilities are totally private and self-contained, which is what we wanted when we looked for somewhere to buy. I wanted to build my own yard as per my own plans. Buying away from a training centre was also very much a commercial decision. Whilst being in a training centre obviously means you share gallops and therefore don’t have to spend fortunes putting your own in, the downside is you are always going to be limited to how much value you can add to your property and who you can sell it to. Sun Hill is an exceptional place in the most glorious setting, with well-established holiday cottages on site. It is much more than just a racing yard so “if” (although neither of us ever intend to move) that should happen, it would be a very valuable and attractive property to anyone and not just limited to racehorse trainers.
Away from racing, what do you do to chill out (if you get time)?
I go hunting in winter with George. We hunt twice a week with the Bedale Hunt, although I can only go for the first half of the season as I am too busy with the horses to do much after that. I also like to keep pretty fit and try to do an hour a day of some exercise or another.
Who is on your iPod? I don’t have an iPod!
You seem to enjoy blogging in your Duffield’s Diary column. Is that a good way of winding down?
In the season when we are really busy I am usually pretty knackered by the time I start to write it. But yes, I like writing and I find the blog is a great way to communicate with owners (and anyone else interested). They get to know what’s going on all the time. It educates a lot of people too, which has to be a good thing. I get emails from followers and racing fans all the time telling me they had absolutely no idea just how much work, effort and expertise goes into preparing a young horse for racing.
If you had a magic wand what one thing would you change about racing?
Everyone talks about prize money and that is the obvious big issue, so I will say I would wave a wand over some of the Arab owners who currently do not support any northern trainers bar Mark Johnston and certainly no lady trainers, and have them support our efforts to train more horses and to win bigger and better races.
What winner has given you the greatest pleasure so far?
Many have given me a big lift for a variety of reasons, some because they improved markedly for coming here, others because they were particularly challenging to train. This year I would say Melody Of Love. Her owner/breeder, Mrs Good, sent her here because she had not had any luck with her home-bred fillies with other trainers. Her colts have been runaway successes and she has bred some fabulous racehorses such as Tomba, Delegator and Holding Court but had never had a filly do well for her. As a breeder it is essential that the fillies in the family are winners, preferably at two years of age and black type is the Holy Grail. Melody Of Love won impressively second time out for us and was second when stepping up in a Listed race recently and she has the potential to do even better.
And finally, what race would you love to win more than any other?
To read Ann’s blog or for more details about her training facilities please visit http://www.annduffield.co.uk