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My Journey – Toby Lawes

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Born in racings Headquarters

I was born and raised in racing’s headquarters of Newmarket, where I started riding horses when he was just 2 years old, and most of his childhood was spent on the back of a horse at pony club or on the hunting field. Eventing was also a huge part of my teenage years, but it was racing that was beginning to become my one true love. At sixteen, I started riding in point to points, and like many young riders in that position, in my mind I was definitely going to become a professional jockey. It took me a few years to realise that height, weight and lack of talent would make that dream easier said than done!

Away from school I started spending every possible minute gaining experience with several different trainers, including James Eustace, Venetia Williams, Chris Wall, Neil King, John Ferguson, Sarah Humphrey and Victor Dartnall.

By the time I turned eighteen I knew that training racehorses was my absolute target in life, and when I left school, I was lucky enough to join John Ferguson’s team at his base in Cowlinge, just outside Newmarket. At the time John was at the very early stages of his hugely successful training career, with 20 boxes primarily filled with point to pointers and a few bumper horses. This was the first chance I had to be to be involved with racehorses for a full season and see what it truly takes; we had a lot of fun and an abundance of success with his pointers.

Traveling to Education

After a spell travelling as much of the world as I could afford, I returned to John’s Bloomfields stables before taking up a place at the University of Exeter. During what seemed like a very short time I had been away, John’s operation had developed into a huge operation, which I re-joined during the Christmas and Easter holidays during my first academic year.

I studied Human Biology at Exeter. I loved everything about Exeter, my course was fascinating, but I was constantly thinking about how I can relate and apply it to horses. From physiology to genetics, I knew racing was never going to take a back seat.

During my first University summer holiday, I wanted to spread my wings a little and started working for Sarah Humphrey at her West Wratting base outside Newmarket. I loved working for Sarah; she has a wonderful team of staff and horses. She must have got fed up with me constantly asking her questions. Sarah is exceptional with schooling horses – she used her eventing background to really fine tune her horses’ jumping, and that was when I realised, I can call on my own eventing experience to do the same. It was at Sarah’s that I got a taste of what training racehorses involved outside of the day to day horse interaction, Sarah kindly devoted a lot of her time to me, showing me the ins and outs of the office, which to be fair probably came in handy to her when she wanted to take a summer holiday with her family. I loved Sarah’s so much he went back for Christmas and Easter holidays before being offered a job as Assistant Trainer to Sarah the following summer.

Investing in the Future

During my last year of University I thought it would be an terrific idea to blow my entire student loan on a point to pointer… and to pay for it to be in training with Lauren Braithwaite, who was based at my uncle’s yard, Crockfords Stud and set up a syndicate. ‘The Student Loan Partnership’ was born, a group of family and friends came together for a chance to own a racehorse for a fraction of the price! Great Fun! This was my first experience of owner liason, a part of training racehorses which comes very naturally to him; there was always a drinks hamper available… win, lose or draw!

Opportunity of a lifetime

After graduating from Exeter, I called my previous employer and mentor to this day, John Ferguson, with a ‘What should I do now?!’. John suggested that Australia might be a great place to go and made a couple of phone calls. I remember I was driving down to some close family friends in Berkshire when the call with an offer to go and work for Godolphin in Australia, and as you can imagine I was absolutely delighted. Funnily enough, Nicky Henderson was at the dinner party I was attending, and as a hero of mine I couldn’t wait to tell him about my recent good fortune despite having never met him before. He very kindly invited me to come and watch first lot the next morning, which I obviously accepted! It was the Saturday before Royal Ascot, and Nicky was galloping the likes of Forgotten Voice. It was absolutely mind blowing to see his set-up, beyond anything I had imagined. I ended up spending the entire morning with Nicky as was rather taken aback when he offered me an Assistant Trainers job for the coming season!

Two jobs in two days was a rather bizarre turn of events for an unemployed student. As I always have done, and probably will continue to do in anything of which I am unsure, I rang John Ferguson. It took him all of about 0.8 seconds to say “Henderson’s; you must go to Henderson’s. Positions don’t come up very often at institutions like that”.

Seven Barrows is a place of dreams, and for me it was just that; being immersed into a team of horses of that quality was mindblowing.

The first horse I ever rode at Seven Barrows was a big, raw, French 4 year-old called L’Ami Serge, an unknown quantity back then, but who would go onto to win multiple Grade 1’s including the French Champion Hurdle.

Battle Wounds

I broke my knee 6 weeks into work at Seven Barrows, courtesy of L’ami Serge funnily enough. He whipped round so quickly – I stayed on board which as probably what went wrong – and fractured the top of my tibia! Anyway, a young 4 year by High Chaparral was off games for a few weeks with a splint, and was coming back into action the same day that I got back into the saddle. Nicky thought we could look after each other, and so Altior and I have been best mates for the 5 years since that day, the best 5 years of my life (so far!).

Among the many top-class horses that I was lucky enough to ride in these 5 years, along with Altior, I built up particularly strong associations with King George winner Might Bite, and future Gold Cup winner Santini! Through riding these horses each day, along with observing the training of the rest of the string, I learnt the nuances of training these athletes to perform at the highest level, and with this the marginal details that make the difference between winning and losing.

Building Relationships and Making Friends

Of course, my time at Seven Barrows was not all about the horses I rode; I had the opportunity to learn from some of racings greats including Albert ‘Corky’ Browne, who, between himself and Nicky, built up the winning routine that has worked for over 40 years. It is the details in the everyday life of a racehorse that can make a difference, and these crucial aspects of training and caring for racehorses make up much of the knowledge that I gleaned from his time at Seven Barrows. In addition to Corky and Charlie Morlock, I was exposed to the knowledge of the top-quality teams who provide the expert support to the horses at Seven Barrows. These people included world-class vets, farriers, physiotherapists, nutritional advisors and many more, most of whom I still bugs with regular phone calls to this day!

While in my role of Assistant Trainer to Nicky, I built up strong relationships with the top-flight jockeys who regularly grace the gallops and schooling fields of Seven Barrows, including the inimitable AP McCoy, Barry Geraghty, Jerry McGrath, James Bowen, Daryl Jacob, Aiden Coleman, Noel Fehily and Nico De Boinville. Nico’s career in particular has developed hugely during the time I have known him, going from being an essential member of the team at home for schooling and working horses, to a top-class jockey with success on the biggest stage. Nico remains a close friend, and his knowledge and experience is second to none; both his advice and his riding will be a huge asset to my training career.