Two young people, their promising careers as jockeys abruptly ended by injury after near-calamitous race-riding accidents, have joined forces in a bold and visually spectacular training project, writes Tony Stafford. Well Close Farm is on the A19, ten miles north of York racecourse and a couple of miles to the south of the picturesque market town of Easingwold, population 4,627 (and 51 Grade 2 Listed buildings).
Whoever spotted the potential of the 44-acre farm previously occupied by E Drury & Sons, self-promoted as “Europe’s leading distributor of industrial motors, gearboxes and drives”, and additionally of clear float laminated glass – nice diversity there! – take a bow.
His or her foresight led to the “sale by private treaty” being withdrawn last year and by November 30, PJM Racing was incorporated with two directors, Phillip Makin (incorrectly listed with one “l” on the article of incorporation), racehorse trainer, and Samantha Joanne Bell (Sammy Jo to me and you), assistant trainer.
Now the life and business partners are reconciled to their new dual roles: Makin was age 34 and presumably with at least a decade to go as a jockey when on August 25 last year, riding the Mrs Doreen Tabor-owned Eyecatcher for Simon Crisford, he appeared likely to win when the gelding fell and was fatally injured. Makin broke a bone in his neck in that incident and has not ridden since. His final tally of UK wins stands on 951.
Sammy Jo had already called time. The Northern Ireland native is one of many to have started out from Jim Bolger’s stables, more than a few of them - A P McCoy comes to mind – from the six counties. Her ten victories in Ireland were supplemented by 72 more in Britain, 51 of them for Richard Fahey. The two winners she rode in the 2015 Shergar Cup when still an apprentice illuminated her career, but a pelvic injury in the following season led to ten months’ absence.
There was a brief revival in 2017 but after a final winning ride on All My Love for Pam Sly in October of that year at Catterick, she finally retired. On Sunday morning in the kitchen of their refurbished stone farmhouse she said: “But I hope I will get a ride for Richard Fahey in the Legends’ race on Wednesday at Doncaster”. We’ll know later today when the declarations are finalised.
Neither Makin nor Bell, particularly the ever-active Bell, seems any larger than jockey size. Makin said: “When you ride horses for a living, you think you are busy enough. When you train it’s altogether different, always something to do and it takes over your life.”
The development of this impressive training centre, totally private, is going on apace. There is a four-furlong all-weather (waxed sand) circuit and a seven and a half furlong gallop that joins the circuit and is visible from the trainer’s office on the upper floor of a converted barn. “But when the indoor ride is completed that view will be obscured, so we’ll need to build a new viewing platform to watch the work”, he says.
There are 50 boxes already in place in large converted barns with another ten to come. A feature of the farm while operating as an industrial business was the quality of the grassland and there are around 25 small turn-out paddocks designed to keep the horses fresh.
Makin and Bell have the support of a number of local businessmen and the 30 horses in training have recently been bolstered by the arrival of seven yearlings. No doubt Ascot sales tomorrow, the next spot on the talent-seeking treadmill will provide one or two more. “We’ve a potential owner who’s looking for a ‘cheapie’ and I told him we might find one there,” said Makin.
It was not until early this year that Makin announced his plans to train and the first winner came just over a month into the new season when Galloway Hills won at Redcar. The tally is up to seven now and when we went to York races later in the afternoon, Fennaan, once with John Gosden, was fancied to run a big race. Unfortunately it seems that his questionable wind continues to hamper his progress.
There are two planned runners at Doncaster on Wednesday, but the trainer is looking further ahead to Ayr. His candidate is Lahore, originally with Roger Varian, when racing in the colours of Invincible Spirit’s owner-breeder Prince Faisal. The five-year-old was a 99-rated horse when acquired for just 11k at the autumn sales last year, a price that suggested some problems. Makin’s team has clearly sorted them out and Lahore has been running well all year. A Ripon win early last month was followed by a short-head second of 16 to Bielsa at Thirsk, a run which led to his rating going back up from 93 to 97.
Makin’s hope that Lahore might squeeze into the Gold Cup’s top 25 seems destined to disappointment as he’s number 61 in the list, but that should easily ensure his place in the Silver Cup. “He loves soft ground and we’ll be running 4lb well in so I have to like his chance.”
Whatever happens, the young man who made something of a habit of riding Raymond Tooth winners at Carlisle, “I remember Rainbow Zest for Wilf Storey and I Say for William Haggas”, he says – so do I – has all the cards in place to make a big splash.
It doesn’t hurt that he has recently added Lee Enstone to the team. Lee rode 140 winners in the UK, 47 of them for the late Patrick Haslam, but it’s amazingly ten years since he last rode in public. The Chester native had been working at Michael Owen’s stables for Tom Dascombe, but as he told Rachel, queen of the owners’ badges at the top northern tracks for the past 23 years, “I’m back!”
Enstone was given a fair compliment a little earlier as Fennaan toured around the pre-parade ring, by David Easterby, son and assistant to the venerable Michael. Easterby junior, presumably fully refuelled by the excellent owners’ room roast beef lunch – no I didn’t have one! – told Makin: “Lee came along at the same time as Paul <Mulrennan, who was riding Fennaan> and probably had more talent.”
A little research showed both careers started in 2000, Mulrennan with no wins and Enstone four. “But Paul”, he added, “was much more determined”. Speaking to Enstone later, it was clear he is taking his new job as a major opportunity. “There are some nice horses, including later-developing two-year-olds and a great work atmosphere. I can’t wait to get going,” he said.
The small team of stable staff will no doubt need to grow but with Well Close Farm’s facilities and several local owners prepared to spend money to buy success, PJM Racing should have a bright future.
One week I’ll have the space to write up properly the continuing success story of the Alan Spence horses. Last week Revolutionise won a little handicap at Kempton to follow Positive’s Solario Stakes at Sandown. This Saturday it was Salute The Soldier, owned in partnership with Mr and Mrs Hargreaves, that made all, showing great resolution, under a big weight in the valuable seven-furlong Cunard Handicap at Ascot – which Ray Tooth won with Dutch Art three years ago.
Salute The Soldier, bred by Spence and the Hargreaves’, was running off 101, so even a small rise, maybe 3lb, will concentrate the attention of talent-seekers for Hong Kong or the Middle East. When I asked Alan whether the offers had been flying in, his “not yet” was delivered in the quizzical sort of way that suggested: “but they will!”
Thence to Doncaster and his Golden Horn filly, West End Girl, who goes for Group 2 honours in the May Hill Stakes. Airport duties – Mrs home from hols in Mexico – might hamper my trip north that day but, as Alan says: “What will she be worth, a first crop Group 2 winner by Golden Horn?” He’s always known the value of a pound note has Spencie!