VISIT TO GRAEME MCPHERSON’S MARTIN’S HILL STABLES
TO SEE AMI DESBOIS, MY CHARITY AND LONDONIA
SATURDAY 14 OCTOBER 2017
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This was the first of a round of stable visits scheduled during October 2017; an opportunity for syndicate members to see their horses at the respective yards. A major perk of belonging to one of the EPDS syndicates is the fact that any member of any of the syndicates can attend these visits; it doesn’t just apply to the trainer of their specific horse or horses.
Graeme’s yard is situated near Stow-on-the-Wold, beside the road to Bledington. In fact it’s ‘Choc’ country, as Apple Tree Stud is located nearby and Choc has told me that if they need to gallop any of their flat home-based juveniles, they use Graeme’s gallops.
The trainer currently had five EPDS horses in his charge, namely Ami Desbois, My Charity, Londonia, “Rabbit” and Stynes. A disadvantage when visiting Martin’s Hill is the fact that attendees are asked to report by 08:00, so that we can go to the gallops to see the horses. The time isn’t early, provided one doesn’t live nearly 90 miles away in Hertfordshire! Mind you, I wasn’t the longest distance traveller – someone drove nearly 100 miles from Stoke-on-Trent!
I had intended to visit the yard on 01 July, but picked up a stomach bug the day before. By mid-October it remains dark until around 07:00, and I would have to leave home just before 06:00. If I was younger it wouldn’t be a problem, but I now have to contend with a certain amount of night vision issues; it’s a nuisance and the situation can only deteriorate.
Anyway, I set my alarm for 04:15 on Saturday morning. I showered, washed and dried my hair, applied minimal makeup – foundation, eyebrow pencil and mascara – ate a breakfast of two croissants and departed home at 05:53.
My outfit consisted of a jade-coloured v-neck sweater, one of six identical design BHS ones purchased many moons ago; the others are mid-mint, fresh aqua, ocean, foxglove and soft pink. The jade is my favourite and, as such, it’s not been worn very much ... does that make sense? It does to me, as I save my favourite clothes for best, but that means they don’t get worn very often! I also wore my bright purple fleece and black jeggings. My necklace was a small purple pendant with toning beaded necklace; my handbag a black and grey ‘monkey’ design Kipling Gabbie-style one. I decided to wear my black M & S ankle boots, and take my black M & S snowboots, along with a pair of moccasins; all footwear eventualities were covered!
My outbound route took me around the local ring-road and down to the London Colney roundabout; I’d forgotten that only main city access roads are now lit between midnight and daylight hours, along with road junctions along said ring-road. There were no lights upon the London Colney bypass, but there never have been. I joined the M25 at junction 22; the motorway is lit, so there were no issues during my journey to Junction 16, at which point I joined the westbound carriageway of the M40.
There is also lighting along the M40, until the viaduct across the valley east of High Wycombe. The lighting recommences before Wycombe Central, junction 4 and continues to the beginning of the escarpment; they need lighting on this particular stretch as it’s often affected by a low cloudbase during inclement weather. There was a vehicle following me, a white van, which had just one headlight; that’s illegal. I left the motorway at junction 8, following the A40 to reach the Oxford bypass. It was now beginning to get light; phew.
I followed the dual carriageway to the Wolvercote roundabout, before heading out across the Cotwolds on this very familiar route. The service station, on the eastbound carriageway close to Eynsham, was closed for refurbishment. I’d soon reached the beginning of the Witney bypass and sped along to the far end of it, before continuing along the ridge to the southern end of Burford; I turned right at the roundabout and headed down the high street to the single-track bridge over the River Windrush. There was a queue ahead of me, but the lights changed back to red before I could follow them across. However, they can’t have been on a timer because they reverted almost immediately to green again; a traffic sensor presumably.
I turned left at the roundabout to the far side of the river, heading up the A424 to Stow-on-the-Wold. I soon became stuck behind a lorry moving at around 55 mph. The drivers ahead of me, presumably locals, overtook as soon as it was safe. I didn’t mind the slightly slower than usual pace, better safe than sorry. Besides, further along, the lorry driver pulled into a layby to the left of the road and my way was open once more. This stretch of the road had been quite bleak but, further along, the road continued to rise through trees before falling once more.
I soon arrived at the junction with the Cirencester road; the A429 Fosse Way. I turned right at the traffic lights thereon and drove up the steep hill into Stow-on-the-Wold. There is a staggered junction at the top of the town and I turned right into Sheep Street, before heading down the hill, past The Bell, and out into open countryside once more. The B4450, Bledington Road, is situated to the right; I took this turning and drove a short distance along it before turning into the yellow-brick gateway of Martin’s Hill stables; it was 07:38.
Being rather early, I waited within one of the passing places, hoping to see others arrive. On my previous visit, the parking area I’d used was beyond the stable yard; you had to drive through it in fact. Someone in a blue 4x4, a staff member, acknowledged me as they drove in from behind. A number of horses were warming down in the area to the side of the driveway and I saw a couple of horses being turned out in the paddocks ahead of me.
A few minutes later a silver 4x4 also drove by; I followed it in and we parked in the area beyond the yard. I changed into my snowboots, as it had been drizzling for the final stage of my journey; also my mid-blue raincoat. However I was a little tardy and wasn’t sure where everyone had disappeared to. The previous string arrived back in the yard whilst I was loitering; a member of the stable staff then told me that everyone was congregating in the ‘canteen’ situated within the main yard. Graeme was offering tea or coffee to the arrivals; I declined as I didn’t wish to be caught short!
Amongst the attendees were ‘Cirencester’ man (who I think may be called Will) and his friend (possibly Murray). With everyone expected having arrived, we headed around to the menage as the next lot where ridden in to warm up; John Powell and toddler son Alfie joined us, his partner Ellie was otherwise engaged, visiting her retired ex-racehorse Benny.
Included in this lot was EPDS Racing’s current star attraction, Ami Desbois; also Alexander The Grey, Daydream Aulmes and, possibly, EPDS’ My Charity. Another was the unusually marked filly Visage Blanc; the latter was sired by Champs Elysees, which explains the excessive amount of white on her face! Apple Tree Stud bred a filly by the same sire, she also had much white about her. Amongst the pilots riding out this morning was Danny Hiskett.
Once warmed up, the horses and our group headed across the road to the gallops. The string did two gallops, with Ami Desbois and Alexander The Grey leading the way, before returning across the road to warm down in the field adjacent to the driveway. Graeme was a little disappointed that the riders decided to head back immediately after their second gallop, rather than come back down the field to where we were standing! Anyway, I walked back with Graeme and we got a little ahead of the others ... I’m accustomed to a fast walk, besides he wanted to view the horses warming down before they were taken back to their stables.
Graeme explained that he loves National Hunt racing; He isn’t keen on flat racing, except for the hospitality which is sometimes offered when flat-race owners invite him to attend; he’s a QC who does work on their behalf. He also admired a yellow porsche belonging to one of our group; it was parked on the grassed area adjacent to the driveway, quite close to the main gate. I think I’ll park there next time, rather than drive through the stable yard to the area beyond.
Having returned from the gallops, Graeme invited everyone to breakfast in the main house. The trainer warned us to be careful as we negotiated a couple of steps on the pathway; loose paving stones which were to be secured imminently. We removed our boots and shoes before entering the hallway and heading into the main galleried lounge; an extension to the original house. Graeme offered everyone a glass of champagne; I didn’t partake as I was driving ... and I’m not particularly a fan of any alcoholic drink! J2O is my tipple or Shloer!
There was orange juice, coffee and tea to choose from; I chose the former. Also numerous bacon or sausage baps and croissants; I ate a bacon roll and a croissant ... I can never resist a croissant! A lady named Katie came over to chat, as did Murray; the latter has been a Cheltenham member for the past 20 years, he lives in Cheltenham. We spoke about the traffic issues, being local he’s noticed in recent years the rise in traffic numbers using Harp Hill and Greenway Lane to avoid jams ... that will be me then! The problem is probably due to the rise in the use of satnavs – although I found my routes by buying a street atlas showing the local area! The family’s dachshund enjoyed being fussed over by the visitors.
Ami Desbois, who finished 5th in the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, had undergone a second breathing operation during the summer and was in the process of preparing for his 2017/2018 campaign. He takes a while to recover from these operations, so Graeme knows what to expect; he’s not ‘sparkling’ on the gallops as yet but, once back to his usual admirable self, he’ll run in novice chases. The trainer isn’t using painkillers to mask any ulcers or sore throat which Ami might still have; the healing process is progressing naturally, they are in no rush, and he’ll be ready when he’s ready. A run in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day was one possible target, as was the Grade 2 Dipper Chase on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham.
Graeme was very pleased with My Charity, a horse by King’s Theatre out of a Beneficial mare, which finished 5th in a Market Rasen bumper at the end of September; his second only run. He was formerly owned by Trevor Hemmings and trained by Oliver Sherwood but, at the age of 6, had experienced training issues. Graeme ascertains that the problem is the horse’s flat feet, which means he’s more susceptible to corns and infections within the soft tissue thereof – stones are his enemy. However, provided these are managed – he wears protective pads on his soles for general work and is fitted with stick-on shoes for races – he may turn out to be something special, given a further trip and good health.
My Charity is currently deputising for Pride Of Pemberley and Stynes, the latter remains on the injury sidelines until the New Year. Stynes doesn’t like true winter ground and they are hoping that a trip to the Punchestown Festival to run in a handicap chase might be on the cards at the end of next April. They think he would run well, although probably not win because there are bound to be a number of well-handicapped Irish horses in the race; they want to go for the craic! Presently, Stynes is turned out in a field at his vet’s practice, along with “Rabbit” and the in-foal Money Maid. The vet’s wife keeps an eye on their ‘boarders’.
“Rabbit” is too weak to take much training at the present time; she was being trained for a few weeks and then the trainer ‘backed off’ her again. She’s by Mawatheeq out of Intersky High and is in need of a name – at this time syndicate members had been asked to name her ... I wasn’t a member, but my suggestion would have been “Knit N Natter”.
It is intended that, once Money Maid has had her foal (expected next May), by Eagle Top I believe, she will return to training to see if she can be successful as a mum too. John Powell would like a filly foal, to continue the bloodlines (she’s by Blueprint), but Graeme fancies a colt/gelding to race! They are not quite sure about the weaning period required but, if it’s a filly, they’d like to keep her with Shilpa’s progeny for company. Shilpa’s career-ending injury was also mentioned; she was injured by a falling horse – that horse was Our Phylii Vera and the jockey was Choc. He rebroke his arm and missed the 2013 Cheltenham and Aintree Festival’s as a result. In fact it was bad news all round that day. Shilpa’s second foal is expected in March; the mare’s sire is Medicean.
Londonia is taking a break, having raced on the flat and over hurdles in recent months. The trainer believes his charge may now prefer some give in the ground and, because of this, may not have given his all during recent hurdle starts.
I also found out that John and his partner Ellie attended Noel’s wedding bash held at the yard last August; Choc, Jennie and William went to that. John and Noel both play for Stonor Cricket Club, so the association is social as well as owner/trainer based.
I was told an interesting story today, by one of the other attendees, regarding Galactic Power – evidently trainer Robin Dickin was expecting a delivery of four horses from an Irish dealer, but five arrived in the shipment. It was buy four, get one free; that free horse was Galactic Power ... definitely a bargain!
With breakfast over, Graeme took us outside for a tour of the current yard inmates. We started at the far end of the main block, the first horse being Daydream Aulmes. He has very high hopes for this youngster although, at present, he is very very green. I took a number of photos, although I cannot identify many of the horses because there were no name labels attached to the boxes! I know trainers tend to regularly move their horses around within the yard, depending on when they arrive back from holidays, etc, but it doesn’t help their visitors!
There was one horse, which has a name but not a passport yet, also the ‘monkey’ which is Shady Glen; the latter was friendly though, despite his shortcomings! I remember seeing Serpico, who I believe was recovering from a breathing operation, Scooby, Ami Desbois of course, and veteran Harry Hunt. The filly Poperinghe Ginger, Beneficial Joe, the sidelined Captain McGarry, Visage Blanc who I spent some time with; the disadvantage of having a lack of pigment is the risk of sunburn during the summer months and she was still showing small signs of this on her face. Others were Cranbrook Causeway, Red Admirable and My Charity too.
We then headed outside to the ‘drive through’ section of the yard – housed here were Sammylou; wise beyond his years evidently. Also a dark grey mare; plus a bay/brown mare purchased to go pointing with Graeme’s amateur jockey Conor Taylor; sadly Conor has been forced to give up race-riding having broken his back too badly to continue in the sport.
There was the grey Silva Samourai who recently finished 3rd in a race, having got over serious health issues in the past. Next door another grey ... was it Alexander The Grey? I don’t know; I don’t recall seeing the ex-Alan King-trained grey Paddys Runner. I recall Follow The Swallow because of his wide blaze. We saw Hollywood All Star, and I think it was Rio Bravo who is a reformed character this year; he used to try and take chunks out of people but has now totally changed. Graeme wonders if something was bothering him previously but, whatever it was, it isn’t an issue any more! Whilst we were in the yard, two or three vehicles drove through and the dachshund chased them!
At the end of the visit, Graeme asked if we’d like to see Londonia; the horse is currently turned out with five others in a newly-fenced paddock along the road. The dachshund was now a constant companion, so the trainer picked him up and carried him as we walked along the route to the field; Graeme’s other dachshund had been killed by a car last year but he’d still not found a new companion for the remaining one. John Powell waited at the yard as Alfie had become a little fractious; they would latterly accompany the trainer to see Stynes, Money Maid and “Rabbit”.
The adjacent land had recently been purchased by the trainer, with the intention of expanding his training operation; Graeme is hoping to expand his string to around 75 horses once planning permission has been granted to build more stables. Earlier permission had been sought for stables in a different location but these, although not rejected, would have required revision due to their ‘height’ in the original setting. The original site was too close to the Stow Rugby Club development and thus classed as a minor blot on the landscape by the planners! As the name suggests, Martin’s Hill is fairly prominent!
Graeme also wishes to put in a new driveway; the current one had to be sited a certain distance (at least 350 metres?) from the junction with the A436. The crossing to the gallops, which are on the other side of the road, are slightly nearer the junction. The Bledington road is a B road and it undulates at this point, there isn’t a totally clear view along its length; although it’s not quite a hidden dip as on some roads.
As soon as we appeared, the six horses trotted over hoping it was feed time. Bless them. Londonia’s friends included 23-year-old Another Raleagh and 16-year-old Kilcrea Asla. After a few minutes we headed back along the Bledington road to return to the yard. The two houses adjacent to Graeme’s house are used as stable staff accommodation.
It was now the end of the visit, and I thanked Graeme and said goodbye to my fellow visitors before changing into my clean ankle boots and leaving at 11:30. Having driven through the stable yard, chased by the dachshund of course, I headed down the driveway to the Bledington road. A stable-girl, riding a grey horse, was heading in the opposite direction; as I passed, she thanked me for slowing down.
I turned right to drive down to the A436, retracing my route back to Stow-on-the-Wold. It took a few minutes, and a number of traffic light changes, before I was able to turn left to head down the hill upon the Fosse Way; the A429. The Burford road bears off to the left, so I took this route. The road continues downhill initially, then uphill through woodland close to Wyck Hill House. There’s additional woodland further along, before the route opens out and becomes quite bleak, although there’s a great view across the Windrush Valley, with Burford nestling below. An oasis in the midst of a desert!
There’s a sharp left-hand bend, just prior to the roundabout situated close to the single-track bridge over the River Windrush. Unlike on my previous visit to Burford, via Bledington in July 2016, there was absolutely no traffic tailing back towards Fulbrook; I’d been caught in a jam that day, because vehicles heading down from Stow-on-the-Wold have priority at the roundabout. Lights control the flow of traffic over said bridge, but I only had to wait for one change today before I was able to head up the steep hill towards the A40; at the top I turned left to head in an easterly direction along this ‘A’ road.
I’d soon reached the Witney bypass; it was a pleasant change to drive along this stretch, in an easterly direction, during daylight hours. Weirdly, it gave the impression on taking less time too! The bypass having terminated, the weight of traffic heading in the other direction was heavy; much like the rush-hour conditions heading into Oxford on a weekday in fact. For me, there was a tail-back from the Wolvercote roundabout and I was stuck in this for a few minutes.
I continued along the next short stretch of the A40, before arriving at another roundabout; this one is now controlled by traffic lights too, as is the Wolvercote. The bypass continues as a dual-carriageway to Headington; I switched my CD off at this point, as my car sounded a little strange. However, a little later on, as I headed down the final stretch of road towards the M40, I decided it was the noise of my tyres on this particular road surface!
Normally if I use this route, I continue onto the aforementioned motorway but, today, my aim was to travel back via Thame, Aylesbury and Hemel Hempstead. This being the case, I took the slip-road to the left; I had to give way to traffic from my right as I merged onto another road, after which I negotiated two roundabouts, one each side of the motorway. The entrance to a service station also led off the first of these. I continued along the A418, past Thame and Haddenham, through Stone and onwards to Aylesbury.
Everything was going just hunky dory until I reached Aylesbury. In my mind’s eye, I had to continue straight ahead at the approaching roundabout but, in fact, I discovered there was a left and a right option, with solely a residential road straight on. I should have turned left, but ended up turning right and heading in the direction of Stoke Mandeville Hospital as a result. Never one to turn back, I continued through residential areas, skirted the hospital to my left, but then turned right again, when I should really have turned left along Station Road.
“I bet this is the road which runs past the Goat Centre” I said to myself, possibly out loud too ... it was! The road was vaguely familar from my rambling days. Anyway, further along I turned left to head through Nash Lee, and eventually found myself on Worlds End Lane, heading back to Weston Turville. I have to admit that it’s not always easy to read roadsigns and concentrate on the road ahead at one and the same time, so I had to make a split second decision between left and right further on, choosing the former, New Road; at this point I was hoping I wouldn’t emerge onto the A41 at the junction beside the Holiday Inn. You’ve guessed it, I did!
Roadworks were being carried out to install traffic lights here, but they were not functioning yet, sadly. There was a queue of traffic waiting on the A41, to turn right into New Road, and these were blocking my intended exit route; I turned left instead and headed back into Aylesbury. Doh! This had been the first ever occasion that I’d wished I had a satnav ... but, now back on totally familiar territory, that soon passed! But I will be in trouble if the authorities ever decide to remove road signs (which they did during World War II), expecting everyone to rely totally on satnavs these days, especially as they are now examined upon as part of the Driving Test. I think today’s problem was that I thought the route on the approach to Aylesbury was more familiar than in fact it was, having last driven it in August; so I didn’t revise it.
At this point I formulated a new plan ... I’d head around the ring-road, as I didn’t fancy driving around in a circle, and then take the A418 to Wing. Having subsequently arrived on the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard, I turned right to head along their ring-road, before turning off to the right and entering Totternhoe; on this occasion I didn’t miss the turning as I’d done in July, on the return from my visit to Abbots View Alpacas. My route took me back to Dunstable, where I drove through the residential area along Meadway, Langdale Road, Lowther Road and Beech Road in order to join the A5183. It’s always slow going along these roads, as there are numerous speed humps and a 20mph speed limit.
Having reached the main road, I continued to the Markyate bypass; just before the village there were traffic signals to denote roadworks. I had to wait quite a long time, as only half a dozen vehicles managed to negotiate the lights each time they changed. The traffic heading in the opposite direction had far more ‘green light’ time allocated to them!
I continued along the A5183, passing under junction 9 of the M1, around the Redbourn bypass before turning left to reach Harpenden Common. I returned to St Albans along the A1081. Approaching the Ancient Briton cross-roads, I was convinced the traffic-lights would change to red before I got there ... they didn’t; I’ve now got to eat my hat!!!
I continued around the ring-road and arrived home at 14:15 – it had taken me 2 hours and 45 minutes – I wish I’d returned via the scenic route through Chipping Norton and the Bartons after all. I think the only thing that deterred me today was the fear of getting stuck at Bicester due to weight of traffic outside the Retail Village!
The journey must have taken a little bit out of me, as my cervical spondylosis flaired up towards the end of my drive and lasted for two or three hours; I had a touch of it the following morning too. In the meantime I settled down to an afternoon of watching the racing from Chepstow on ATR, whilst beginning a draft of this diary.
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It later transpired that Ami Desbois had an abscess in his throat, which burst a couple of days after our visit. This being the case, it was expected that he would return to ‘sparkling’ form very soon and subsequently be ready for his first race of the season.