WINNERS are prized possessions at racing yards and Jessica Bell guards hers like they are her children.
“She had two but I have given her about five,” says Norton trainer Brian Ellison when I ask the teenager how many victories she had enjoyed when holding the fort while the veteran trainer was away.
“He tried to take a couple off me when he got back but I’m sure he was jetlagged for a few days,” retorts Bell, the 19-year-old who held the keys to the Spring Cottage castle for two months when Ellison jetted off to Australia last October.
He, and wife Claire, went on a seven-week trip to supervise their two runners, Ebor winner Moyenne Corniche and Saptapadi, in the Melbourne Cup and it was to his stepdaughter that he turned to keep things ticking over at home during his absence.
Think back to what you were doing at 19.
It probably wasn’t looking after more than 70 horses and trying to plot winners for a yard that has been on the up and up for the last couple of years.
Bell kept such a steady hand on the tiller that she has been highlighted in a huge national awards scheme – one of ten on the shortlist for the prize of High Achiever at the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards – up against employees from the massive Paul Nicholls, Mark Johnston and Philip Hobbs yards among others.
That ten will be whittled down to three by a panel of judges including Ian Balding, Pat Eddery and chaired by Brough Scott. An awards ceremony at the plush Jumeirah Carlton Tower Hotel, in London’s Knightsbridge next month, awaits that selected trio but Bell is merely happy her hard work has been noticed.
“I think it’s an honour to be nominated but there’s people in this category that are really respected in racing, and have been doing it a lot longer than me, so it is just nice to know that people would nominate me for it,” she says. “I’m just happy to be in it.”
“It was stressful,” Bell reflects of her time in charge, which lasted from early October until mid-November last year. “I had already been assisting Brian before that and I would be in charge when he was away. I’d make sure the yard ran smoothly for him, even when he was here but, obviously, this was without him being here.
“There was the time difference over there so it was difficult to ring him if I needed him, if I had a query. I just stuck to what he has taught me. I am the youngest person in the yard as well. But I had a lot of support from everyone in the yard and from the vets, I could ring them 24 hours a day if I needed them, from owners, and I had a lot of help.”
Bell used to ride ponies on her grandfather’s farm in Lanchester, near Consett, in County Durham, before her mum met, and later married, Ellison. “I used to ride his horses around the block,” she remembers. “Many times you would see my mum running out of the kitchen because Brian had left me alone on one.”
Interested originally in horse physio, she fell into training – at school three days a week and gaining practical experience at the yard for the other two – and has been Ellison’s assistant for a year.
That involves putting the work board together on a morning, organising the staff, and keeping the trainer’s stress levels to a minimum. “Dealing with 70-odd horses is a lot for just one person,” Bell says.
The atmosphere of the races, and the joy of welcoming in a winner, was once a big draw but, as she begins to take a more hands on role, Bell is now as keen to stay in the yard, looking and learning.
“I like seeing horses come into the yard, with no form, and I like seeing how they improve and then seeing them run,” she explains.
“It was nice to have the winners (while Ellison was away) because I had Brian on the phone.
“I would have to ring him, or text him, in the middle of the night and tell him how they had got on. I wouldn’t have liked to have told him they hadn’t run well. I think most of them did run well. He’s an easy boss, really. You just have to keep him happy.
“I just like to learn and I can learn from anyone – the lads in the yard have got ten and 15 years more experience than me. I would like to be a trainer one day. If I could be as successful as Brian I would be doing all right.
“I used to go racing quite a lot but now I think I’ve only been racing twice in the last four or five months.
“I like the atmosphere of going to the races, especially when we have winners, and I also like going and representing the yard – but it has all got to get done here as well. You still have 70-odd horses back in the yard.
“If I could go round the yards, I’d like to speak to other people, and trainers, and learn. I think you need to learn at every opportunity.”
Defence of realm bites at Recession
RECESSION PROOF will not be defending his title in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury next month.
The six-year-old, trained by John Quinn at Norton, landed the Grade 3 event last year as a novice – when it was then known as the totesport Trophy – beating off town colleague Brian Ellison’s Bothy.
Recession Proof, who had recorded three other victories before taking Newbury honours, then went to the Cheltenham Festival and finished fifth behind Al Ferof in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
He hasn’t run since then, missing Aintree the following month because of a setback, and it had been hoped the horse, who is entered in the World Hurdle at the Festival this year, would use the Betfair Hurdle as a tune up before going on to Prestbury Park in March.
But Sean Quinn, son of the trainer, tweeted: “Last year’s winner Recession Proof will miss the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. The race will come just a bit too soon for him.”