The turf

The trainer who sings opera to her racehorses

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

Wetumpka Racing? When your yard is running at a handsome strike rate of 40 per cent wins to runs you can perhaps afford to name your racing partnership after a natural disaster. After all, it was 85 million years ago when a massive meteorite smashed into Alabama at Wetumpka. Trainer Heather Main, based in 90 acres of rural idyll at Kingston Lisle, near Lambourn, explains that Wetumpka is in fact an Indian word describing the bubbling waters of the river that resulted, and you have to agree that ‘Wetumpka Racing’ has a greater impact than something more traditional like H. Main Racing.

Located around a grand wisteria-clad 1718 farmhouse with ancient yew sentinels, the yard, which Heather runs with her popular vet husband James, has lately been among the winners. Island Brave scooped a handsome Ascot handicap prize, Mostawaa won impressively at Haydock, Island Nation took a mile and a half race at Kempton and Island Warrior scored over six furlongs after a 369-day break. Three victories over seven furlongs for Colonel Whitehead and stable apprentice Ellie Mackenzie will have given his trainer particular pleasure. ‘Because he was stocky and strong-minded,’ he was named after Heather’s grandfather, US Air Force Colonel Chauncey ‘Chuck’ Whitehead, who not only flew 4,000 hours training Superfortress B-29 pilots in the second world war but was also an accomplished artist whose paintings fill Heather’s home.

With enough land to grow their own hay and an uphill polytrack gallop behind the house (soon to be supplemented by another in a facing field), it is a quintessentially English scene but significantly the welcoming committee in this friendly yard includes not just three Jack Russells but a woolly-haired Chesapeake Bay retriever. Heather was raised in Alabama where she partnered well-muscled quarter horses, those power-packed track-scorchers: ‘It does teach you horsemanship and a good seat.’ Performing in rodeo events such as barrel racing, she was once a junior rodeo queen. ‘It’s a bit like dressage in a western saddle with a beauty pageant attached — I had to learn to wave like the Queen.’

Acquiring the travel bug at college, she switched to Britain to read English literature at Southampton and spent years training her voice to become an opera and concert hall singer, graduating from Trinity College of Music. She has performed at venues such as Barbican and her favourite, St John’s Smith Square — ‘Such great acoustics; it really pulls the sound out of you’ — and her solos are a feature of the annual Injured Jockeys Fund carol concert. The purpose-built hub of the Kingston Common Farm operation contains not just the racing office and James’s veterinary base but also a grand piano and seating for recital audiences. Heather doesn’t just sing for human audiences; she sings to her horses too, reckoning that it relaxes them. Academic studies confirm this, including one which found that equines appreciate country and western. Does she select appropriate arias — pacy Mozart for the sprinters, perhaps, some heavier Wagner for the stayers? ‘Well, the lazy ones do tend to get a bit of Rossini. A little coloratura helps.’ She can tell from the flicking of their ears and their body language when they are listening. There is even one horse, the grey Polar Cloud, who tries to join in.

Kingston Common Farm is a relaxing place anyway. As we strode up from the airy converted cow barn that is currently home to about 25 horses (they hope to add another 20 boxes) to the gallops vantage point behind the house, Heather pointed out dozing mares and foals in the surrounding fields. There are high hopes of a Caravaggio filly and a Mastercraftsman colt. They have done well with home-breds, winning with virtually all of them, and have brood mares currently bred to Cracksman, Acclaim and Outstrip. Although Heather and James focus more on the Flat at present, there may be a few more jumpers in evidence soon. The six-year-old Numitor dwarfed the others on the horse walker. A big foal bred by Telescope is probably destined for a jumping career and Al Kout’s next run may be over hurdles. Heather says of Polar Cloud: ‘He’s smarter than most people,’ and she thinks that he, too, will enjoy jumping.

Through her days as an amateur rider Heather bombarded trainers with how-to- do-it questions and she took out a training licence in 2009. She has clearly learned on the job that she so evidently enjoys. ‘The rewards are never immediate,’ she reflects. ‘But with experience you learn to do less. You have to work them hard to get horses fit, but you don’t want to grind them.’ The yard’s excellent success rate is testament to that philosophy: at Kingston Lisle they have the welcoming informality of a small family yard but a clear ambition. When the Covid menace eventually retreats, I am willing to bet that Wetumpka Racing will be one of the survivors ready to advance.

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