An equestrian life

At sixty-nine years of age Dennis McDermott has seen much of the equine world. From the age of thirteen he was determined to be a racing jockey just like his grandfather before him. Just across the Prestbury border in Kerridge, Dennis now spends 365 days a year training ex-racehorses to show jump, breaking bones in his body he probably first broke in his school days. Taking a break from the saddle, he found time to talk to Thomas Castle.

Reflecting on a lifestyle he is as passionate about today as he ever was, Dennis explained: “I began my career at Captain Elsey’s yard in Malton,Yorkshire.  It was tough; we worked seven days a week from 6am until 6pm and there were no such things as Bank holidays. The only time off we had was a week at Christmas. At the time we had the top yard in the country in terms of winning prize money, and we had more than 100 flat horses in training.”

“We won the 1959 St Leger with a three year old mare, Cantelo, that belonged to the bookmaker William Hill.  Part of her preparation was to run in the Park Hill Stakes three days earlier.  She had finished second in that race but ended up setting a new course record in the St Leger when Edward Hide rode her. Some people were bemused with the sudden transformation in her form, but that’s racing.”

The racing fraternity is well known for its many characters and personalities, and Dennis was lucky enough to meet some of these people during his training days.

“Two of our main owners then were William Hill and Phil Bull, the founder of Timeform. All the lads in the yard looked forward to Mr Bull’s visits when he would spend the morning observing his horses on the gallops. He was a man with a brilliant mind and he would always arrive with a woman on his arm.

He used to name some of his horses after Greek gods and goddesses. One year, one of his fillies called Be Careful won the Gimcrack atYork. We all thought she was a good thing and the head lad shouted over before the race for Phil to start writing his winning speech. She duly obliged and returned winning at 100/8.”

Dennis has had his share of ‘learning the hard way’ when it comes to a horse’s temperament. “One of the first people I met when I entered the industry was a little old man in his late sixties. He started when he was fourteen but, within two months, he had been savaged by a racehorse and never worked as a jockey again”.

“Something similar happened to me one time during evening stables. I was in the stable on my own when a horse just attacked me. Luckily I was rescued by the head lad but it gave me hands-on experience of just how dangerous horses could be. I once spent three months in traction after a fall and I still feel the damage to this day.”

Dennis understands the role of racehorse owner can be full of trepidation and it is surprising how many horses there are in training that never manage a racecourse appearance. Having ridden in more than 180 races in theUK,AmericaandCanada. he had to hone his skills and patience. He rode 22 winners as a flat jockey until deciding to step down from the saddle at the age of 30 to concentrate on training.

“It is a hard business, training them right. Racehorse’s have a certain mind set. When I bought Anne’s Flyer atDoncaster sales she had been with five professional trainers prior to me who had all had difficulty with her. She had picked up a racing injury so could not perform on the course anymore, so I bought her to turn into a show jumper. I have had her for six years now and she is still not 100 % focused on jumping.”

“Racehorses make good jumpers as they are speedy; when they jump they are against the clock as well as the obstacles. Anne’s Flyer is a typical example of her still having a racing brain, she still arrives thinking she is in the 2:30 at Kempton and that can affect her concentration. It takes years to perfect them in show jumping and she is only really half way there – however show jumpers are at their prime when they are older and she will be sixteen by the time she peaks.”

There is still a lot of work to do with her and it will be a couple of years before we can consider entering her in major money events but that is a very real prospect. For now we are concentrating on success at the indoor and outdoor events across the country.

I have two other horses, Seren Sinciere who won the North West show jumping event in 2008 and Chester who won it in 2010.  Anne’s Flyer finished second this year which I am hoping to improve on in 2013.”

Dennis believes a good horseman has the ability to transfer confidence to the animal.

“A horse will know when you are nervous and they pick up on that and let it affect them. Jockey’s today ride hundreds of horses throughout the season and they obviously cannot know every one of them intimately. It is their ability to get on and be confident with the animal that makes them so successful.

My hero was Lester Piggott, I met him a few times at meetings around the country and he came to the yard a few times. He had unbelievable knowledge and could read a race, and know what the horse was capable of, so allowing him to time a race to perfection.”

It is vital to inject confidence and calm into horses, in order to gain the best from them. “I talk to my horses like they are people, but very gently. They need to hear your voice and recognise when you are around, they all have their own personalities but they know who is boss too.”

Indeed at the recent Adlington show they responded to Dennis’s calming voice and his whistling as though a switch had been turned on. He presented two of his horses at the show ridden by Louisa and Olivia Grimsley who recorded success in the speed classes. The horses’ jumping and concentration improved dramatically under his watchful gaze.

A firm believer in making the industry more accessible for the next generation of horse enthusiasts, Dennis is keen on promoting horse riding to younger people.

“If I had one wish in life it would be that every child had at least the chance to learn to ride. I think many of them would get a lot more out of riding and being around horses than a mobile phone.  Teaching children to ride is something I will continue doing so as long as I am able.”

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