Located just a couple of miles out of Newmarket, the village of Exning offers an ideal, laid-back environment for training racehorses.
It is also the location of Exeter Stables, from where Alison Hutchinson is starting to make a real mark with her fledgling career, with year on year improvement since she first took out a training licence in 2012.
Alison’s career has been dedicated to racing ever since she witnessed first-hand the exploits of Norfolk Air, winner of the Lingfield Derby Trial in 1976:
“That was it for me, I was hooked on the sport,” she recalls. “My family were not from a racing background but when I left school I started writing letters to trainers and Peter Hedger took me on at Fontwell from the age of 16.”
It was the start of a life-long passion for racing that has seen Alison accumulate a treasure trove of experience as she has travelled halfway around the world and back before establishing her own stables.
“Peter only had jumps horses and I really wanted to work in Newmarket so eventually I went to work for Mark Tompkins where I worked with talented horses like Pokey’s Pride and led up the Cesarewitch winner Private Audition. Another stable star at that time who Alison worked with was Hard as Iron, who won six races in one year whilst she was based at Mark’s.
“Mark was brilliant to work for and gave me the opportunity to do everything and learn new skills. I could ride work and also help with the stalls training; some of these disciplines are very restricted in other yards so I learned plenty there.”
After a stint work with Alan Bailey, Alison moved to Australia in 1993 and worked there for five wonderful years, working with Magic Of Money who won The Galaxy in 1995 and leading up Dupain who landed the Brisbane Cup a year later before contesting a vintage Melbourne Cup and finishing ninth to Doriemus and the likes of Vintage Crop and Quick Ransom.
“Dupain ran in the Melbourne Cup in his first season, having started off with a win at the country track at Kembla; he won the Brisbane cup the next year,” Alison remembers.
“I had a good job out there and worked as stable foreman for Alan Bell. It was an amazing experience and I was very lucky to get to take all the horses all around the country,” she adds.
But a return home was calling and in 1998 Alison came back to England to see her family before heading to Chester to reunite with Alan Bailey, who had relocated to the north-west. Alison spent a year as assistant trainer to Bailey and took out an amateur rider’s licence whilst there.
Her riding career continued as she moved to the yard of Hugh Collingridge, working in an unofficial capacity as assistant trainer and continuing her education, whilst riding 6 winners as an amateur rider, including two victories aboard a horse called Strike Force at Beverley and Newbury.
Alison had purchased Strike Force, a half brother to Sir Mark Prescott’s champion sprinter filly Danehurst and the very accomplished middle distance performer Mighty prior to joining Darley for two years.
“Afterwards I moved to Darley for a couple of years where the money was very good; while Strike Force was my catalyst for eventually becoming a trainer.
“I bought him in 2007 when he was a three year old and I had been watching him for quite a while. He had started out with John Gosden and then moved to Ron Harris, but I felt he was running over the wrong distance.
“Ron ran Strike Force in a seller and he won and I thought that I would never get to buy him! However he later ran in a claimer at Leicester and I claimed him.
“When I got him home he was a complete lunatic initially and needed a total break. It took a long time to get him right and he was off the track for more than six months, recuperating and starting again. At that time, because I didn’t have a yard, I kept him with Ken Clutterbuck.”
Whilst Strike Force was learning to become a fit, happy, healthy racehorse again, Alison was busy studying for a trainer’s licence, having to jump through a number of hoops to attain the exacting standards set by the BHA.
“I had to complete three trainer modules at the British Racing School; these encompassed horse management, business management and staff management. Additionally I had to take an NVQ in horse management and had to have worked in a senior position for two years.
“It then took a further six weeks for me to receive the licence and despite having been in racing all my life, there was an accompanying letter to say I had only just qualified! You really do have to have had extensive experience to acquire a licence in this country!”
That positive news came in June 2012 and Alison was on her way, getting set up in Exeter Stables, where Strike Force had already arrived and was being trained by Clifford Lines and Olivia Maylam. Alison put in her application with the lease for the yard and was granted permission to train following a BHA inspection.
The perfect scenario unfolded on June 14th 2012, as her first runner, Big Wave, landed Division II of the Magners Handicap at Nottingham, beating Errigal Lad by a length under Neil Callan at Nottingham.
Thanks to the exploits of her first string of Big Wave, Mucky Molly and of course Strike Force, that first six months of training yielded three victories and eight placed efforts from just 25 races.
In 2013, her first full year of training, Alison’s figures rose to six wins and 20 placed efforts from 50 runs, with Strike Force and Big Wave both winning twice and Mucky Molly and Iceman George also gaining victories.
Last year once again saw Alison’s totals on the increase, as 2014 yielded eight victories and 21 placed efforts from 49 races. Very sadly Mucky Molly was lost, a real blow as she was a much-loved and valuable member of the small team. Royal Marskell proved a real star winning no fewer than five times, while Vodka Chaser, known at home as the sometimes grumpy Jenny, was successful twice. Another new addition to the team was Cascadia, a little filly who has absolutely thrived in her new environment and won once in 2014. Strike Force meanwhile, had earned a well earned and happy retirement.
The big challenge for Alison is attracting new owners who understand the nuances of training and that horses are trained to run on their merits when happy and fit – and not to suit gambles. Whilst Newmarket is a wonderful place to train, it also heightens competition for owners, as she explains:
“I found it very difficult to find new owners who understand that horses take time and that we only run them when we believe they are ready and can run well. I hate running useless horses that have no chance of winning and our method here is to be patient with them. As a small team we cannot afford to stable horses if the owner cannot pay on time and in Newmarket of course, we are competing with lots of other stables in the same boat.”
After Royal Marskell’s terrific performance in 2014, he aggravated an off-fore joint at Chelmsford and has been off the track for some time. Once again, patience is the key to getting him back on the track when he is absolutely ready to do himself justice. Alison says that he is ready to start back soon.
Vodka Chaser might have her own mind, but her sheer bloody mindedness proved a tremendous virtue last year as she won twice and was only out of the money twice in 13 runs during 2014.
“She has very good form and is rated 75 at the moment. She had a set-back but has had a three months break and that has done her the world of good. We have high hopes for her and will look to Listed races at some point to try to earn her some black type,” says Alison.
The likelihood is that Jenny will have her opportunity when Alison can find the right type of race on the fast ground that she enjoys, where the field size is likely to be smaller.
Alison is very shrewd at identifying such openings and says they are vital for the success of the yard:
“It is hard winning good races but you have to establish targets and for people like me, without the horse power, you have to grasp opportunities, especially if there are small field sizes.
“I feel that by having a smaller team, I can concentrate fully on each of my horses and better understand what they like. For example, Vodka Chaser (Jenny) is fine with larger sized fields but we quickly learned that Cascadia much prefers smaller fields of runners.”
The 4 year old filly Cascadia has been the latest star to arrive at Exeter Stables, although her rising stock has very much been a result of Alison’s special attention.
“Cascadia was really trial and error when she arrived and she was very sick and had ring worm when she first came here. She was so skinny and when I rode her out she never had lots of speed and I felt she had been racing over the wrong trip.
“She is thriving now and has really grown physically into a much bigger filly. She has won once already this year (along with Royal Marskell) and we have gradually stepped her up in trip. When Richard Kingscote rode her recently to be second at Southwell, he suggested afterwards that she could be suited by two miles on the turf.
“She is currently having a nice break after a busy winter although she loves her exercise – and we will try her over two miles later in the year.”
The latest addition to Alison’s team arrived at the beginning of May, when she purchased the very promising three year old filly Safira Menina. This daughter of Paco Boy was unraced as a juvenile but quickly had half a dozen runs on the all-weather. With one or two niggles, she is having a nice rest and is settling in well to her new environment, as Alison looks for one or two investors to hopefully invest in her latest work in progress:
“I had watched her race a few times and was looking to get in a younger horse for the year. She had been withdrawn from the February sales which made me think her previous connections thought something of her and when she was available again I liked her pedigree and went to see her the day before the sale.
“She had no back shoes and a bad back and I sensed the opportunity to improve her as she had also never run on grass. That meant we had something to play with and she is now starting to wear shoes.
“She will spend two or three weeks on the walker here and will be turned out before we start to ride her and we will then keep tipping away. She probably wants a mile and a quarter and she could be a nice filly, so hopefully we can attract some interest from prospective owners.
“She took 48 hours to fully settle down but is showing great maturity now and I like to have a little project to work on, whereas other yards might just be too busy and not have the time.”
With the third anniversary coming up since Alison became an official trainer, she says that there are so many minute details to take note of in her role:
“You really do take note of everything and learn from them every single day. You have to be on the ball and trust your instincts and if I sense they are not quite 100 per cent I simply don’t risk them. My philosophy is to feed them well and give them plenty of exercise whilst imparting common sense.
“In Australia they use sand pits and I am a great believer in giving horses freedom and turning them out. It makes such a big difference for them not to be restricted and it just chills them out and gets the freshness out of them.”
With Newmarket on her doorstep, there are a myriad of options for galloping her string of horses but Alison is very selective on where she takes her charges:
“We have plenty of bridle ways to hack along around Exning and I tend to stick to Bury Hills simply because the surface is good and relatively quiet. It helps to switch them off. We also use Long Hill a couple of times a week, where they have re-surfaced and that is riding well again. If you can quicken from the four to the seven pole and still be galloping at the seven, your horse is pretty fit.
“However, when my horses are in full training I am not one for over-galloping them as it is easy to mentally over-do things. If they are mentally happy and race fit, they rarely gallop as they don’t need it.”
Alison does much of the training and riding out herself, with help from the vastly experienced Vinny, who worked with horses such as Silver Hawk in his younger days. Jockey feedback proves invaluable and Alison is always very grateful for comments from the likes of Tom Eaves and Robert Havlin.
After twelve career victories, Strike Force has earned his honourable retirement but remains an important part of the team, serving as Jenny’s lead horse and exercising every day “as he would just get fat otherwise”!
Big Wave in the meantime has retired from racing and has developed into a beautiful broodmare.
The costs of training remain as prohibitive as always however, with transport costs, training fees, gallops taxes, entries and jockey’s fees all to pay out on top of the daily upkeep of each horse.
“Our prize money is worse than 15 years ago although to be fair, they are now starting to pay down to sixth place which helps.
“I would like to upgrade to a new horse box at some point but at present it is simply not a viable option.”
Aside from acquiring a new horse box, Alison has ambitions to train Group 1 winners and her ultimate goal is to return to Australia with a horse good enough to win the Melbourne Cup. That would bring her full circle all those years after Dupain.
In the meantime, she maintains very realistic feet on the ground goals:
“It would be lovely to upgrade and target better races and it is everyone’s dream to have Group winners.
“We have had two winners already this year and have had a quiet spell with the horses recuperating. But we have a good string of horses this year and I am looking to reach double figures this year with winners.”
Certainly owners are treated to a warm welcome and down to earth atmosphere at Exeter Stables, where the sense of humans hard at work is combined with a sense of tranquil horses, who poke heads over stable doors in friendly curiosity at the sign of visitors.
“I think that there is a real fun element to owning racehorses and owners can come here any time they want, day or night.
“My horses only run when they are ready to and we invest enormous time and patience to make sure they are fit and happy beforehand. My thing is that we go to the races with the view that our horses have a chance to win and that each will do the best that it can.
“Any prospective owners can come here and learn about and love the horses and love the racing and have a nice day out.”
One of Alison’s greatest qualities is her attention to detail – and she says that training no more than eight horses at any time means she has the time and opportunity to sort out any problem horse:
“I am dedicated to the horses and if any owners have a quirky horse and are looking for a change of scene, Exeter Stables is the ideal place to send them. I can guarantee time and attention and that they are well cared for.”
With Vodka Chaser, Royal Marskell and Cascadia all returning to the track in the coming weeks – and the prospect of Safira Menina coming back stronger and happier than before, 2015 could well be a breakthrough season for Alison Hutchinson.
For more information on Alison’s facilities and ownership opportunities for Safira Menina and other horses, please contact her on: 07960 630204, email her at: Alison.firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: http://alisonhutchinsonhorseracing.weebly.com/