A Very Risky Venture with a Best Friend
By Alan Russell
A few years ago my wife bought me a taster course at the British Racing School based at Newmarket. I still believe that this was a highly veiled attempt on her part to commit mariticide.
During this five-day course I was introduced to the basics of race riding. The training was brutal and there was no easing into learning to ride short. Knees over the withers started on day one and continued for the rest of the week. The first horse I was allocated was an elderly gelding named ‘Millers Tale’. Not much bigger than a pony with a heart of gold and a perfect gentleman at all times. What they refer to in racing as 'a Christian'. I cannot remember the names of the others I rode but there was one other horse I did not ride whose name is seared into my memory; Risky Venture.
Now, Risky Venture had a little quirk that cost him a career on the flat and over jumps.
Every time he went out for exercise he would walk across the gravelled yard, along the drive and then as soon as he had four feet on the turf………………………………..
“You bastard” would rent through the still morning air from his rider.
“For Christ’s sake Peter, JUMP…he’ll roll on you” from the instructor.
And sure enough there would be Risky Venture on his back, all four legs thrashing the morning air. He would get up, shake himself off and then stand patiently waiting while his tack was put back on. Once he had done this and only once each day he went out he would be a perfect ride doing everything that was asked of him.
He would do this behind the starting stalls on the racecourse causing delays and risk to those around so he got banned and was transferred to national hunt racing where they do not use starting stalls. He got banned from national hunt as well as he would roll just before the start of the race and this is why he ended up at the British Racing School.
Two years after I did the national hunt taster my wife tried to fulfil her mariticidal ambitions and sent me away to go through a flat race training taster course.
The evening before the course started the four of us attending for the three days were having a coffee and a chat about the days ahead. During this chat I felt it only fair to give them all a heads up about Risky Venture.
At sunrise the next morning we all went down to the main yard. Outside the office was a list of horses and the names of the riders allocated to them for first lot. Hannah had my old favourite ‘Millers Tale’. Anne had ‘Shiny Copper’. John had another horse whose name I cannot remember. And there at the end of the list was ‘Risky Venture’ with ‘Alan Russell’.
I lead him out of his stable and into the main courtyard where we walked around a couple of times while they were being checked for soundness. During those two circuits I had one of the most serious conversations I had ever had in my life with ‘Risky’. I wasn’t sure if he was a good listener or not. Only time would tell.
At the mounting block I was met by Mick. A seasoned and weather beaten retired Irish jockey who had seen it all before.
‘Morning sir, I see you’ve got good old Risky’ he said.
‘Morning’ I replied and continued ‘ Does he still roll every time he goes out?’
‘That he does sir, put three apprentices into Addenbrooks last week, even had the air ambulance out to pick one up’ Mick answered as checked my girth and stirrups.
‘You are joking?’ I asked.
‘No sir, even had your instructor off yesterday in front of all the apprentices……you’ll be fine, just keep him moving’ Mick reassured me.
The four of us headed out across the gravel courtyard and on to the drive way. All the time I whispered to ‘Risky’ to look after me and at the same time I kept scratching his withers just in front of the saddle.
Robert walked beside and asked if I remembered Risky’s little habit and told me to be ready to jump as soon as I felt him going. He told me exactly what Mick had told me a few minutes earlier about Risky rolling yesterday in front of his apprentices.
We left the driveway and started walking across the turf to the two furlong oval all weather gallop. It’s going to happen any minute now. I have never had a horse roll with me on board. It’s going to happen any second now….and then we were in the fenced in area where the oval gallop was. Everyone did their exercises singly doing about twelve furlongs at a hack canter in bursts of three or four furlongs. In between each we would walk around on a small circular all weather surface keeping the horses moving and their muscles warm.
With our instructor his teaching method was that as long as he was silent apart from giving instructions you were doing good.
Exercise over and we returned to the main yard. Not a word from the instructor.
Mick met me.
‘Your instructor just told me Risky behaved, can’t believe it sir’ he said ‘well done.’
‘No, nor can I. I did what you told me and kept him busy and chatted to him all the time’ I replied.
I was actually on cloud nine with a sense of achievement but for anyone involved with horses we all know those moments can be stolen in a flash and I was waiting for the downer that was sure to follow.
The next day was stalls day. At the yard we checked the horse allocations. Hannah on Millers Tale, Anne on Shiny Copper, John on the horse whose name I can’t remember and Alan on, yes, Risky Venture. I muttered something when I saw this and didn’t realise our instructor was behind me.
‘Let’s see what you can do today. Come on amateurs, pull ‘em out” he called out.
We followed the same routine as yesterday. Mick met me in the courtyard and helped me mount up.
‘You’ll be fine sir, I think Risky likes you’ Mick said ‘I’m helping with the stalls today so I’ll keep an eye on you.’
‘Thanks Mick’ I replied.
Across the gravelly courtyard, on to the driveway. What a fabulous sunrise. Oh look, there's the train going off to Cambridge. Way up in the clear sky a jet was making a vapour trail. I wonder where they are going? Can they see us down here? Are they even looking? All the time I kept chatting to Risky and scratching him on his withers. Here we go. Off of the driveway and on to the turf. No. Any minute now, any second and then we were off.
We had to trot the horses for about twenty minutes to warm them up. Then back on to main gallops and there they were; a set of starting stalls where Risky’s behaviour cost him his career.
Just like on a real racecourse and before a real race we had to walk behind the stalls where we walked around until we were called in for loading. All the time I kept my one sided conversation with Risky going while I scratched his withers.
‘Mr Russell and Risky Venture’ was the signal for us to be lead in.
We were last and I am sure the instructor did this on purpose to see if Risky would roll. We waited for the gates to open. While we did so Risky stood perfectly still while I chatted to him and scratched his withers. The others pawed the ground or barged against the steel of the stalls.
‘Jockeys!’ was called from the rostrum and then the gates flew open.
In front of us was an open green swathe of turf that seemed to stretch across the horizon. All was still and hushed for a millionth of a second that felt like a life time and then the horses jumped out. We were told to start pulling up after a furlong and be able to turn around at the two marker which we all did. We then returned to behind the stalls and did the whole exercise about three more times.
During that time Risky became my best friend and at the end of the session I would have taken him out for a beer if I could have. After all, he knew all my deepest secrets, fears, anxieties and had looked after me. That is what best friends do, isn’t it as well as giving you one of the biggest thrills of your life?