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Generation X

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It's been a great spring for Irish horseracing, the record 19 wins at the Cheltenham Festival having been followed within a matter of weeks by Aidan O'Brien's double in the Newmarket Guineas. But, believe it or not, there is a branch of the sport in which Britain is in the ascendancy while Ireland seems in dangerous decline, and this is pony racing, an unheralded but vital part of racing's grassroots and an excellent source of hard-working, talented riders.   Listening to people talk about the storied history of pony racing in Ireland, one would imagine it would be secure forever. "Practically every top jockey in the country has gone through pony racing at one stage or another," I was told by Denis Egan, The Turf Club's chief executive. But neither The Turf Club nor any other authority has responsibility for nurturing the health of pony racing, which is falling on hard times with a consequent loss of fixtures and equine talent.   Meantime, the sport, having long been popular in other European countries, is finally taking hold in Britain, where it was all but unknown 15 years ago. "I can't speak highly enough about it and the people who organise it," says Paul Nicholls, the 10-times champion jumps trainer, who regrets that no such introduction to jockeyship was available when he was a lad.   His daughter, Megan, and his nephew, Harry Derham, are among a swelling list of British jockeys who cut their teeth in pony racing. Others include Sam Twiston-Davies, Sean Bowen, Lizzie Kelly, Tom Marquand, and Hollie Doyle. The Pony Racing Authority (PRA) reckons that more than 100 of its graduates now hold a jockey’s licence of some kind.   That's a powerful statement of worth from an organisation that was set up just a decade ago. Until 2004, Britain bumbled along without pony racing, but the need for it was recognised that year by a review of jump racing chaired by Edward Gillespie, then manager of Cheltenham racecourse.   "There was a realisation that in Britain there was a heavy reliance on a seemingly neverending supply of jockeys from Ireland," Gillespie recalls. "The feeling was that the time had come to do something about it ourselves, to take that into our own hands."   Setting up some pony racing was hardly original thinking, Gillespie readily acknowledges. "It was based on what was happening elsewhere, especially in Ireland, where we found some young jockeys had had 150 winners in pony racing. You'd say: '150!' and they'd reply, 'Yes, I had 800 rides.' And it was big in France as well, and the Scandinavian countries."   Frequent advice was sought from Irish sources while the PRA was being set up, and Gillespie recalls that particular stress was laid on the need for stringent regulation. "In Ireland, they found that some of the rogues who could no longer make a living from horseracing would then find their way into pony racing. We had to be careful about protecting the reputation of British racing as well as developing young careers.   "Now, we've got it so well legislated and authorised and official. We're a bit the envy of the Irish because it's still very much ad hoc in Ireland and we've got ours so well nailed down."   "We do it in a very English way," says Clarissa Daly, chief executive of the PRA. "We are regulated to the hilt." Ponies are registered, children are registered and must produce the signatures of those who say they are qualified to take part. The Joint Measurement Board must certify that each pony is no taller than 148cm, or about 14.2 hands high. Random blood tests are taken from the ponies.   While some pony races are organised by Point-to-Points or pony clubs, conforming to PRA rules, the PRA also runs a series of races at proper, grown-up racecourses like Ascot, Newbury, and Newmarket. The experience these contests provide is as close as can be to actually being a jockey; the children are overseen by a chief steward and guided by a jockey coach, who walks the course with them beforehand and chews over the action with them afterwards.   "You have to weigh in, weigh out, go out to the paddock," says Tom Marquand, a fully fledged jockey now and the champion apprentice of 2015, having worked his way up through pony racing. Complying with officialdom at the track was not even half of what Marquand learned through the junior sport; with only limited financial support from his parents, who wanted to see him prove his enthusiasm for the game, Marquand had to save his own pennies to pay for the ponies and he trained them himself.   "I kept them 10 minutes down the road at a little yard and I'd go down before school, after school, ride them out. It was good, learning that side of it myself without anyone telling me what to do. Obviously, I had people helping me but it was a good experience to find out what stable staff have to do on a day-to-day basis. And just to get horses to the races sound and ready to run.   "I never had more than two at a time. They were never spectacular sorts. They wouldn't buy me a pony, they made me wait until I could afford one myself. I sold that one for more, bought another one and sold that one for more, bought another one... We ended up with some nice ponies and they were all right, they won races."   In Daly's memory, Marquand was an infrequent winner. "He never had the best pony. But he was always obviously good." The experience he acquired and the ability he showed eventually led him through the gates at Richard Hannon's Wiltshire yard on his way to greater success.   Not content with drawing in 'horsey' kids from rural areas, the PRA is making an effort to take the game to people who might otherwise never come near it. Each year, it funds 12-week courses for children with no access to their own pony at riding centres in Brixton, Teddington, Gloucester, and Croxteth in Liverpool.   "They learn different things about pony racing," Daly says, "about ponies and fitness and riding skills. Most of these kids will only ever have ridden in a school. For them to be riding in a race with others around them within 12 weeks is a big ask. It's intensive training and the kids seem to be loving it."   One way and another, Daly says that "a lot of people are getting involved in racing who might not have touched it before. The sport is doing a bit more than perhaps it set out to do, bringing racing to a wider audience, and we're pretty proud of the jockeys we have produced."   The PRA is facing a £20,000 gap in its annual budget in coming years when a flow of cash from the Racing Foundation, distributing proceeds from the Tote sale, runs out. Daly and Gillespie will have a strong case to present to the senior sport when they explain the need for additional funds.   Funding is still more of a pressing concern in Ireland, according to Jerry Daly (no relation to Clarissa), a stalwart of the game, having, at various stages over the years, coordinated race meetings, provided commentaries, and written it all up for the press. Three years ago, he part-owned Coola Boola, winner of the Dingle Derby under Jack Kennedy.   "The big worry at the moment is, Irish pony racing is dying on its feet," Daly says. "It's all coming down to money. The committees have to collect all the money and to run an ordinary day's racing, you'd need 6,000 - 7,000 euros.   "Dublin and Cork might be flying but in rural Ireland, the towns and villages are on their knees. I used to go into Newmarket town [in County Cork] five or six years ago and you'd easily get donations from restaurants and there would be companies looking to sponsor the races."   With money now harder to come by, Ireland stages fewer pony racing fixtures. "There always used to be about 25 a year in the Midlands. It'll be nine or 10 this year at best. It was 20-to-25 in the southern region in the good times but we're back to 13, 14, or 15 this year.   "The standard of horse has probably got better, so the top two or three are pulling away from the rest, a bit like Gigginstown and Mullins; the good owners and trainers sweep everything and make it so much harder for everyone else. It's quite an expensive sport, you have to travel so much." Some of the best ponies are now sold to compete in England, he adds.   It's distressing to hear about such difficulties being suffered by the game that produced Charlie Swan, Adrian Maguire, Paul Townend, Noel Fehily, Jack Kennedy, and many others over the decades, up to Pat Taaffe, grandson of Arkle's jockey, who is building his own reputation this summer. But there is no easy way forward, since control of Irish pony racing is splintered among regional organisers and there is no Clarissa Daly at the middle of the web to formulate a single business plan and give confidence to potential backers.   "They're not aligned in any way, is my understanding," says Egan, whose Turf Club keeps a respectable distance from pony racing. "I'm not sure there's any one person who could speak for pony racing in Ireland. On different occasions, different groups have met us, representing their own area rather than the country as a whole. They need to speak as a united voice before anyone would take them seriously."   Jerry Daly recognises that need. "I'd love to see it being streamlined and run on a proper basis. But the older generation are very anti-The Turf Club, I suppose because they've been seen as the bad boys of racing for years. When that generation will go ... well, hopefully pony racing won't be gone before then. The lads that are coming up now probably would be delighted to see a proper approach."   The involvement of children generally means that a visible effort at providing safe conditions is made by those staging pony racing, though that didn't save a young John Egan from sustaining a broken arm in County Clare some decades ago. His was the only pony that failed to take evasive action when the field rounded a corner to be confronted by an ambulance that had failed to get off the course after attending a rider unseated on the first circuit.   While that hopefully won't happen again anywhere, ambulances are presumably in regular use at French pony races, which can take place over hurdles and even cross-country fences. "I know a lot of kids in England that would love it," says Geoffroy de la Sayette, a Frenchman who married and settled down in Cambridgeshire, where he now runs pony racing for the local Point-to-Points and trains ponies for his son.   "When I say to the French, ‘They don't jump in English pony racing,’ they never understand. Because, to the French, English racing is the home of jumping; you have the Grand National and Cheltenham."   De La Sayette believes he may have helped pony racing across the Channel, having taken the now-familiar Andrews sisters, Gina and Bridget, over to compete in France when they were in their early teenage years. They returned in evangelist mood, he recalls, determined to spread the word.   "The pony races in France is quite a big thing," he says, mentioning Olivier Peslier and Maxime Guyon among the notable jockeys who came from that direction. "Those kids would start at the age of nine, doing races in which they are not allowed to go faster than a trot, with maybe 16 runners. Then, when they're 11, they're allowed to do cross-country."   Unusually, children are allowed to carry whips in France, though the local steward may specify particular whip rules on each day. Also unusually, French pony racing does not admit thoroughbreds, so their ponies tend to be smaller and France may be at a disadvantage if international competition ever takes off.   De la Sayette remembers an experimental race at Deauville that included ponies from England, France, Belgium, and Germany, on a day when there was Group 1 action at the Normandy track. That, for him, is the way forward for pony racing, a way of providing highlight moments that might attract a wider audience, though he foresees problems in agreeing a single set of rules for all countries. "Kids aged 13 can go and do rugby or football or tennis for their country, so why not pony racing?"

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It's been a great spring for Irish horseracing, the record 19 wins at the Cheltenham Festival having been followed within a matter of weeks by Aidan O'Brien's double in the Newmarket Guineas. 

But, believe it or not, there is a branch of the sport in which Britain is in the ascendancy while Ireland seems in dangerous decline, and this is pony racing, an unheralded but vital part of racing's grassroots and an excellent source of hard-working, talented riders.

Listening to people talk about the storied history of pony racing in Ireland, one would imagine it would be secure forever. "Practically every top jockey in the country has gone through pony racing at one stage or another," I was told by Denis Egan, The Turf Club's chief executive. But neither The Turf Club nor any other authority has responsibility for nurturing the health of pony racing, which is falling on hard times with a consequent loss of fixtures and equine talent.

Meantime, the sport, having long been popular in other European countries, is finally taking hold in Britain, where it was all but unknown 15 years ago. "I can't speak highly enough about it and the people who organize it," says Paul Nicholls, the 10-times champion jumps trainer, who regrets that no such introduction to jockeyship was available when he was a lad.

His daughter, Megan, and his nephew, Harry Derham, are among a swelling list of British jockeys who cut their teeth in pony racing. Others include Sam Twiston-Davies, Sean Bowen, Lizzie Kelly, Tom Marquand, and Hollie Doyle. The Pony Racing Authority (PRA) reckons that more than 100 of its graduates now hold a jockey’s license of some kind.

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