From stable lass to assistant trainer, Gemma Hogg has written a memoir about her life devoted to working with racehorses. Tom Richmond talked to her.
TO GEMMA Hogg, days don’t come any better than this. She’s at the wheels of the sturdy horse box on her way to a sun-soaked afternoon at the races.
Even better, there’s no manure secreted in her riding boots as she presses her foot against the accelerator.
She laughs as memories of this embarrassing episode, recounted in her memoir Stable Lass: Riding out and mucking in, come flooding back.
“It’s not happened for a while now,” she tells The Yorkshire Post. “No one has been brave enough.
“As I get older, and further up the pecking order, the pranks become less frequent.”
Today Hogg, 36, is assistant trainer at the Middleham yard of former jockey Micky Hammond and oversees a string of 60 Flat and National Hunt racehorses.
It’s far cry from two decades ago when she left school in Leeds to devote her life to working with racehorses.
By her own admission, she was susceptible to some of racing’s oldest tricks in the book – like the occasion she was first sent to the races.
Her giddy excitement soon turned to panic as a strange smell started wafting from her travel bag. The brand new white blouse – “Dorothy Perkins’ finest” – she’d intended to wear to lead up the horse was covered in manure that had been deposited by a prankster.
There was a happy ending. Her colleagues found a spare top. And the horse, Stash The Cash, won.
Hogg, crowned employee of the year at the 2016 Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards, has nice lines in self-deprecation.
The book was suggested by her brother-in-law James, who is a writer, and quickly dismissed by Yorkshire’s latest author. “I doubt anybody will be interested in anything I have to say,” she told him.
Not for the first time she surprised herself. It’s also a tribute to her late father Norman Smith, an electrician and former rugby coach, and her mother Moira.
Yet Hogg was not born to be a writer. She struggled academically at Horsforth School – and was daunted by the paperwork that had to be completed when she started going to the races.
“I’m a better story-teller than a writer,” says Hogg who became obsessed with horses from the moment she spent an afternoon with family friends and was taken to see their pony.
She only went because her parents couldn’t get a babysitter. That afternoon, when she sat on a cream- coloured pony with black legs called Candy, was to change her life.
From then on, every spare hour was spent helping out at the stables before some character-building work experience at the Hammond yard and a stint at Doncaster’s Northern Racing College.
It was an eye-opener for a teenager who had spent an idyllic childhood cosseted by their parents. Just operating a washing machine was a trial by ordeal and Hogg recounts her father’s words when she informed him that she wanted to become a stable lass.
“You bloody well will not, young lady!” he said. “Once you start having to pay your own way, you’ll realise that there’s more to life than horses.”
She took no notice – she’s always had a stubborn streak – and looks back with pride when her parents told their friends ‘Isn’t our Gemma being brave becoming a stable lass?’ before an emotional journey from Leeds to Middleham – it felt like another world – to begin a new life.
Her father’s words after a 20-minute awkward silence will resonate with any parent as their children leave home: “We’ve got to leave you, I’m afraid, Gem. You’re on your own now, love.”
She was. Her shared B&B in Castle House, Middleham, had, to be polite, seen better days. In her pristine riding boots, nothing could have prepared her for the task of mucking out four stables before breakfast after arriving 15 minutes late.
Hogg recounts these anecdotes, and her traumatic first mornings trying to ride thoroughbreds on the gallops, to show to stable staff that punctuality, patience and persistence can pay off.
She also feels racing and, in turn, the wider public don’t truly appreciate the long hours, and lifetime of sacrifice, given by 6,000 stable staff who are responsible for 14,000 horses.
An inquisitive mind certainly helps – and Hammond’s staff, like Jedd O’Keeffe and Andy Crook who are now trainers, never grew weary of their eager new recruit’s many questions.
“If you don’t ask any questions, you don’t learn,” she says. “The way to learn was to ask questions and to do things rather than sit back and watch.
“They’d probably say ‘I’m a bit of a nag’ and that’s fair. I’ve been assistant trainer for nine years now so have more responsibilities.
“The best thing is when you have winners because you know how much hard work has gone in. The worst is when you lose a horse and coming back with an empty box. You never get over it.
“But I hope the book shows that there’s great camaraderie. Maybe there are not so many pranks. It’s a lot stricter now, the rules, but the high jinx on the nights out still goes on.”
Work hard – and party harder – is a familiar motto in racing. Yet Hogg does not shun away from the sport’s darker side and how the bullying that she endured from another stable lass brought about a debilitating bout of glandular fever.
She does so because she believes racing stables are far quicker to respond to such occurrences and adopt a zero tolerance approach. “We’re very strict on it,” says Hogg. “Everybody has got to get along.”
It began when Hogg was admonished by a female colleague for putting two rugs on a horse that was feeling the cold. “She started by trying to get me into trouble and making me look stupid,” she recounts.
Hogg refused to succumb, suffering in silence, before her tormentor was eventually found out and left.
The darker days, as she points out, are made more bearable by the lighter-hearted moments. Such as the wrong horse being taken to the races – or the morning a randomly-behaved horse called Norman Conquest ran straight into the middle of a pool of water and refused to budge.
The indignant stable lad on the stubborn steed was the aforementioned O’Keeffe, who has captivated racing in the past year with his successful struggle with cancer and exploits of his Grade One-horse Sam Spinner.
It’s why racing is my life, says Hogg. She met her husband Tim, now assistant to O’Keeffe, in Middleham and their racing friends are, to them, family.
As she pointed out to a former jockey, loyalty to the Hammond yard does not constitute a lack of ambition. These days she still rides out. She books jockeys, liaises with owners, supervises the welfare of horses and purchasing horses at the sales. She says she’s the lucky one living, and working, in the most beautiful, and contented, part of Yorkshire.
“I’ve lost count of the people who’ve stopped me at the races and said they really enjoyed the book,” she adds. “One thing with social media, a lot of people have been in touch and said they had similar experiences in racing, polo and showjumping yards and can relate to a lot of the things in the book.”
To complete the story, Becky The Thatcher – the horse Hogg drove to the races at Carlisle on Monday – sprinted to clear to win.
As Gemma Hogg says, every day in racing is a good one – “there’s never a quiet minute” – and she wouldn’t want it any other way.
The idea of being a jockey might sound an attractive proposition to some people, but Gemma Hogg says most folk wouldn’t give a second glance to any job advert for stable staff.
Hours: 40 hours a week over six days.
Pay: Starts at £157 a week.
Risk of injury: High!
Early mornings: Infinite!
Weekends off: Not many!
Out in all weathers: Yes.
Miserable boss: Definitely (apart from Micky Hammond).
Career prospects: Minimal.
But, as she says, the personal rewards are priceless. In a profession where females are now respected as equals, she insists nothing can beat the pride of leading up a horse at the races and, better still, winning.
Stable Lass: Riding out and mucking in. Tales from a Yorkshire racing yard, by Gemma Hogg, is published by Sedgwick & Jackson, price £16.99.