x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Horse racing: Head grooms are the best kind of travel companions

Head grooms Alice Clapham and Steve Jell say winning big horse races in the UAE, Europe and Far East makes the long hours and miles all worthwhile, writes Geoffrey Riddle.

Head groom Alice Clapham was alongside Animal Kingdom in Dubai and is still with him at Kingsdown Stables in Lambourn, England. Geoffrey Riddle / The National
Head groom Alice Clapham was alongside Animal Kingdom in Dubai and is still with him at Kingsdown Stables in Lambourn, England. Geoffrey Riddle / The National

When Animal Kingdom and Shea Shea step out into the Royal Ascot limelight tomorrow on the opening day of five they will be heralded as the key international stars at this year's royal meet.

Animal Kingdom faces 12 rivals in the Queen Anne Stakes having narrowly failed in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita and subsequently made good in the Dubai World Cup.

Shea Shea took the tortuous journey from South Africa to Dubai via Mauritius and England ahead starring at the Dubai World Cup Carnival when he picked up wins in the Meydan Sprint and the Al Quoz Sprint. After Sunday's declarations the South African challenger takes on 18 others in the King's Stand Stakes.

Both horses transferred to England in April after World Cup night and yet the two people who accompanied these horses around the world will melt into the shadows.

Alice Clapham left the US on March 19 and has not been back since. She has been taking care of the daily needs of Animal Kingdom both in Dubai and in Lambourn. Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer, has been in daily contact and has jetted in from his Maryland base at regular intervals.

Steve Jell, Mike de Kock's long-serving assistant, has been in Newmarket for over a month, overseeing not only Shea Shea's preparations but also those of the De Kock string that numbers around 15 horses in training.

For Clapham, 42, this is a new experience. Last year she travelled to Dubai with Motion's Lucky Chappy, who was seventh in the UAE Derby. For the past two summers she has run a satellite yard for Motion at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania. Having arrived in England, however, Clapham found the one-horse-and-his-girl routine initially tricky.

"When you go to Dubai all the Americans travel together," she said. "You're in another country so you try to see as much as you can and we did; falconry displays, the Gold Souk and Ski Dubai.

"This situation is completely unique. I really don't have a fixed place to live. At the beginning of the year I'll be in Florida, then I'll go to Fair Hill, and for the last two summers I've been at Presque Isle. I'll be at Saratoga next. I move around a lot."

Clapham was born in Basingstoke, around an hour's drive from her Lambourn base. She has five siblings and, as her mother lives in England, her trip was in some ways a return home.

For Jell, however, he is almost always travelling. In almost a decade with De Kock the 41 year old has been to Hong Kong 11 times, Singapore four times, Australia, Mauritius, Canada and Dubai, all in the name of racing.

He was in Australia in 2005 for eight weeks orchestrating the campaign of Grey's Inn, who capped an unsuccessful bid Down Under by finishing 17th in the Melbourne Cup behind Makybe Diva. He also spent eight weeks in Hong Kong with Eagle Mountain, who won the lucrative Group 1 Hong Kong Cup in 2008.

"You are living out of suitcases all the time, changing your base all the time. It sounds great but it is not easy. I might see my parents for a week once a year and we were on the road for 150 days before this year's Dubai Carnival," Jell said.

"Winning the big races makes it all worthwhile. Even if the horse runs well it shows we have chosen the right race."

Jell rises at 4.30am and goes to bed on a normal night at 10.30pm. He has to organise work riders, feeding programmes, equine travel plans, sift through track-work data and report back to De Kock mostly on a daily basis.

The continued internationalisation of racing has opened up more opportunities for those who have the drive, energy, administrative skills and equine understanding to get involved at a level at which, if they went out on their own, they could never dream of.

The hours are long, but at the elite level the rewards can be huge. De Kock has accumulated more than Dh70 million in prize-money in Dubai in the past five seasons.

"I'm saving it for a rainy day, and want to retire early," Jell says of his share of the spoils. "When I was young I always said that I would go out on my own, but then the job with Michael came up and it was too good.

"I'm going to the biggest races all over the world, when I could be stuck in my own training centre watching and racing in maidens.

"This is the cream of the crop. There must be people out there dreaming of going to Royal Ascot, the Melbourne Cup and the Dubai World Cup."


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