Some mysteries will never be solved, like why planes and boats disappear in the Bermuda Triangle, cats always land on their feet and why Mrs Oakley can always find a parking space plumb outside a restaurant when I am lucky to squeeze in 400 yards away. Add one more conundrum: why are there only 12 horses in the successful racing stable run by Mark and Sara Bradstock?
Since 1994 they have trained in Captain Tim Forster’s old yard opposite the church in Letcombe Bassett. On the skyline above their glorious gallops are tree clumps planted by the Captain to celebrate his Grand National successes. Their home is in a row of converted boxes where the great Golden Miller was once trained and where an irrepressible terrier shares the breakfast table with your coffee. It is an operation in which animals come first in every sense.
Horses have not always been good to the Bradstocks, a couple who share a passion and who talk as a pair, filling in each other’s dependent clauses. One reared over and broke Mark’s pelvis in three places. Sara holds her throat to speak after bad falls damaged her respiratory nerves, daughter Lily spent four years in and out of hospital after a paralysing kick from a pony but has still followed her brother Alfie as an international eventer and showjumper. Mark learned his trade through 12 years with Fulke Walwyn, Sara is the daughter of the late and beloved Lord John Oaksey, amateur rider, racing journalist supreme and co-founder of the Injured Jockeys Fund.
Spending £15,000 or £20,000 maximum, they regularly produce horses capable of taking on the £200,000 purchases in the top yards, like their Cheltenham Festival winner King Harald. Their best have been the progeny of Plaid Maid, a mare whom they found in a field in Ireland to give John Oaksey some breeding fun in his declining years.
Plaid Maid bore little Carruthers, the gutsy Hennessy Gold Cup winner. Mark and Sara cured his dodgy legs by standing him in the local cress beds and he still happily competes. Says Sara, ‘He was a tiny foal, never a good worker. He had flat feet and kissing spines but the key is that he loves being a racehorse. Mind you, he’s an appalling hypochondriac. If he treads on a stone he goes so lame that you jump off thinking he’s broken a leg at least.’
Two more of Plaid Maid’s progeny are earning plaudits. Carruthers’s bigger, more athletic brother Coneygree returned from a 22-month layoff to win a novice chase in November. On Boxing Day at Kempton he ran away with the Kauto Star Novices Chase, winning by 40 lengths. Two days after I visited the yard, keeping well clear of back legs he doesn’t hesitate to use as a weapon, ‘Max’ went back to Newbury and left racing mouths agape by thumping established stars in the three-mile Betfair Denman Chase, leading all the way and getting into a superb rhythm for Richard Johnson. That victory has left the Bradstocks with a dilemma: do they aim for the RSA novice chase at the Cheltenham Festival or head right to the top in only his fourth race over fences and contest the Gold Cup? Said Richard Johnson, ‘The Bradstocks have done a tremendous job to have given him such confidence. They have put all the work in. I was very impressed. My advice is to leave the options open as long as they can.’
Flintham, sadly the last of Plaid Maid’s progeny because she died giving birth to him, has also won impressively this season at Chepstow and Ascot. Known in the yard as ‘Rasher’, he was fostered by a gypsy cob and was laid-back enough at Chepstow to look for a pick of grass at the start.
After Newbury the Bradstocks should have had screaming headlines for their achievement with Coneygree. Sadly, because the legendary Tony McCoy chose that day to announce his end-of-season retirement the media were otherwise occupied.
So why aren’t more owners crowding to fill another 20 Bradstock boxes? OK, the yard wouldn’t win prizes for its paintwork. In the Newbury winner’s enclosure Sara was not in furry hat and tweeds but a baggy jumper and trainers. As jockey Hadden Frost observed the day I was there, ‘It’s not quite like this at Aidan O’Brien’s,’ but the Bradstocks’ priorities are the horses, the horses and the horses.
It may just be that good connections have had the wrong effect. Says Sara of John Oaksey, ‘Dad always prefaced anything he was proud of by saying, “Non swanks, but…”. He would have been fiercely proud of what we have done but he wouldn’t really tell anyone.’ Adds Mark, ‘There’s the assumption, too, that anybody with a lord in the family is a squillionaire. In fact, we haven’t had a holiday for five years.’ What they both are proud to insist, though, is, ‘No horse has ever left here and done better for another trainer.’ It is easy to see why.
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