Stories From Des Leadon, Part 5

Don't Be Last
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Thoroughbred racehorse rider body

Five pounds lighter, 50 quid poorer, and a totally unappreciated "ride of my life." It had been quite a day!

“I would like you to ride my one in the Amateurs race at Doncaster next week” he said. My flat mate had taken the call in the hallway of our shared flat and passed the phone with a smile. Not half as big as the one that spread from ear to ear across my face. Fame at last, a trainer who I had never met had sought me out to ride for him. Wow! 

Dreams of an upward curve in my riding career, were—it seemed—just around the corner. 

Sniggers greeted my return to the lounge where my assistant trainer flats mates were sprawled. “Him," said one. "Its got no chance," said the other. “We shall see," I replied stoically, trying hard to contain my by now bubbling excitement. 

“I’m going up there to ride work on it on Saturday morning." 

And so I arose at 4 a.m. on my only day off and headed north to the once-famous training establishment that housed both the trainer and the now rather limited number of horses that were in his care. Three hours later I arrived, slick and span in my jodhpurs and the boots that I had polished so diligently the previous evening in my efforts to impress.

The stables were hugely impressive. Red-bricked Victorian with a frontage that would have graced a London hotel in its glory days but now sadly a shadow of is former self, with weeds where there once would have been roses and peeling paint everywhere. 

“Here he is. I’ll give you a leg up in a moment,” greeted the trainer. The moment let me look at my impending racecourse companion. He was big and black and perhaps a little overgrown and a bit weak, but he seemed sensible enough. 

We joined the small string and headed out to the historic gallops, famous for some great horses and masterly coups in times gone by. We walked, then trotted and catered in the time honored tradition. Then my new-found equine pal and I were sent home because our intended work companion had suddenly gone lame with a stone bruise. 

My “Lester Piggott” riding style impression was going to have to wait for another day. 

Breakfast in racing stable trainers' houses is often very generous in recognition of a lifestyle of early rising and very long days spent driving to and from far distant racecourses, which often included evening racing at this time of year. The absence of breakfast-time hospitality and even the absence of an offer of a cup of tea did not dampen my enthusiasm for the upcoming visit to Doncaster races on the following Wednesday evening. 

Doncaster, the historic home of the St. Leger, the stayers classic. Oh boy, what a thrill! 

My enthusiasm was uncontainable, and over the course of the next few days no one was spared from it or allowed to be unaware of it. There was however, work to be done as the partners in the august Newmarket equine practice where I then worked, pointed out very pointedly. 

The days were stretched already because prior to going in to the practice in the morning, I had, without fail, in hail rain or snow, ridden out first lot. As the most junior member of the veterinary team it also fell to me to finish my equine working day by doing the small animal work for the citizens of the town. The great and the good, the less good and he more ordinary mortals all brought their dogs and cats in late afternoon. 

By rushing, it was going to be just possible—by driving the elderly heap that the practice supplied at its maximum speed—to get to Doncaster after completion of the day's work in time to ride in the Amateurs race. Making an effort had been instilled since childhood, so this little effort was not going to be an obstacle.

A much bigger obstacle was going to be doing the weight. My equine accomplice in this adventure had been given the minimum weight allowed for these events, and it was just about within my compass, because I was unusually light framed for a member of the veterinary profession. My flatmates harshly claimed that this was the only reason I had been offered the ride in the first place! 

Determined to prove them wrong, I set out to not only do the weight comfortably, but by also giving this horse the ride of my life.

I needed to shed five pounds from my then already sparse frame. Diet was adjusted to coffee for breakfast and for lunch and a Minute steak and salad for supper. Sadly this proved insufficient to remove the stubborn five pounds that needed to be lost. The sauna in nearby Bury St. Edmunds was the only option. I had never been to one before and had no idea what to expect. No sauna novice could be prepared for this sight that greeted on opening the very hot steam room door. 

Little and large? Yes, epitomized by the combination of Sumo-like, all-in wrestlers and ‘sylph-like' jockeys that side-by-side filled its benches almost to capacity. 

It was hot; so bloody hot that even before entering this inferno, it had been a relief to note the plunge pool located immediately outside the steam room door. I squeezed myself in somehow and was glad for the advice received to bring a good book to while away the time spent shedding the weight. 

Bringing the book was a very good idea because conversation was non-existent. Everyone was concentrating or had attained stupor. It was not enjoyable and consternation furrowed the brow as the binding of my novel began to melt! 

Worse was to come as the largest of the Sumo persons arose from the bench and shook himself prior to exiting. The steam room door slammed shut with an almighty bang and there was an incredible hissing sound—I thought "he’s so hot he’s evaporated the water in the plunge pool." 

My alarm proved unfounded, when a moment or two later, unable to bear it any longer, I exited the steam room and was relieved when I saw him under the shower, whose force and enormous-sized showerheads were responsible for the almighty hissing sound.

The recalcitrant five pounds were shed and the eagerly awaited day arrived. Busy as a bee throughout the day, it really was a rush to get through the work and head north for Doncaster’s evening meeting, which was well advanced by the time I arrived. 

The trainer was waiting impatiently in the parade ring as his beamingly happy rider scurried in. “Don’t be last” he commanded “He’s owned by a Hong Kong Chinese, and they think that’s unlucky.”

With that, I was hurled into the saddle and was the last to leave the parade ring after a totally unexpected and protracted rodeo display by my mount that failed to cement our partnership. It was more by luck than skill that I stayed aboard, and I was very grateful that the restraining hand of his groom did not part from the reins. 

That particular parade ring had a chute that led down to the racetrack proper. As we headed down, the rest of the field, all 24 of them, who had filed past the stewards and catered down the furlong pole and then turned to canter to the start, were bearing down on my point of entry to the track, line abreast, in a manner oddly akin to the charge of the light brigade! 

“Let him go!” I yelled at the lad who was manfully holding on to my bucking bronco. “Let him go or we are both going to get killed when that lot hit us. Let go, NOW!”

To his great credit, he did and we swung right and plunged our way down to the start fractionally ahead of the hotly pursuing posse that made up the rest of the field. 

The horse's plunging continued at the start and continued when the brave handlers heaved him into the starting stalls. The gates flew open and we were away! Trying to curb his wild excitement by settling him in behind the other runners seemed like a good idea. Like many another of same, thinking it was one thing and achieving it was quite another. This horse was hell bent on running headlong into the hindquarters of those in front of him and was pulling my arms out.

Clipping their heels would have brought he and I to the ground in a very painful microsecond and was to be avoided at all costs. 

His headstrong, headlong charge continued all the way down the back straight. We swung around the bend and he faltered. Stopping pulling, he was stopping running. The trainer's warning rang loud in my ears. Cajoled, kidded, kicked and pushed, we somehow managed to pass three others in the final furlong and so avoiding a seemingly inevitable last place. My chest filled with pride at what had undoubtedly been the ride of my life.

I was keen to share my thoughts and advice for the future with the trainer and was devastated to learn that he had already left. Dejected and pulling off my race riding boots, It came as a surprise to hear my name called over the public address with an instruction to come to the Stewards room, which was accompanied with a tap on the shoulder to reinforce it.

The Senior Steward for the evening was a large lady with a booming voice. ”Stand on the mat," she commanded. “Mr. Leadon, are you familiar with the rules of racing?’ she asked.

“Bedside reading” was my sotte voce response. 

“You are aware that you are supposed to parade past the stewards on your way to the start,” she said. 

“But ... but ... but … ” I protested, "both myself and the horse would have been killed by the rest of that lot, as we hit the track, if we had not done as we did.”

“No excuse!” she roared. “Fined 50 pounds!”

Five pounds lighter, 50 quid poorer, and a totally unappreciated "ride of my life." It had been quite a day!

About Dr. Des Leadon

Desmond (Des) Patrick Leadon, FRCVS, has worked in equine practice in Ireland, England, Australia and Spain. He has provided consultation services in Russia, China, Italy, France and many other countries, and he has been involved in equine clinical research for more than 30 years.

Leadon graduated as a veterinarian from Trinity College Dublin in 1975. He returned there and was awarded his Master of Science degree by thesis. He subsequently joined the world-famous equine specialist practice of Rossdale and Partners in Newmarket and was awarded the degree of Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, London, by thesis, in 1982. He returned to equine practice in County Meath, Ireland, before joining the then newly established Irish Equine Centre in 1984. The Irish Equine Centre is Ireland’s independent equine diagnostic and research laboratory.

About Dr. Des Leadon

Desmond (Des) Patrick Leadon, FRCVS, has worked in equine practice in Ireland, England, Australia and Spain. He has provided consultation services in Russia, China, Italy, France and many other countries, and he has been involved in equine clinical research for more than 30 years.

Leadon graduated as a veterinarian from Trinity College Dublin in 1975. He returned there and was awarded his Master of Science degree by thesis. He subsequently joined the world-famous equine specialist practice of Rossdale and Partners in Newmarket and was awarded the degree of Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, London, by thesis, in 1982. He returned to equine practice in County Meath, Ireland, before joining the then newly established Irish Equine Centre in 1984. The Irish Equine Centre is Ireland’s independent equine diagnostic and research laboratory.

Leadon is Head of Clinical Pathology at the Centre and a member of its Management Committee. He is an external lecturer for the Equine Science course at the University of Limerick and is an Honorary Faculty Member of the Veterinary Sciences School at University College Dublin. He is both a European College and Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Registered Consultant/Specialist in Equine Medicine.

He served as president of both the British Equine Veterinary Association (1993-1994) and the World Equine Veterinary Association (2001-2006). He continues to serve on the Past Presidents Advisory Committee of the World Equine Veterinary Association (2006 to date). He is a Founding Diplomate and former Vice President of the European College of Equine Internal Medicine (2002 to 2008). He served an initial term as the International Director of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (2009 to 2011) and was invited to serve a second term (2011 to 2012).

He has published 74 reports in equine scientific literature, in text books, and in lay publications, and he has made more than 200 presentations at national and international equine scientific meetings. His special interest areas include the problems inherent in transporting horses long distances by air, the spread of infectious disease, and Rhodococcus equi. He has received research funding grants from organizations that include the International League for the Protection of Horses, The International Equestrian Federation, The Hong Kong Jockey Club, Ireland’s National Development Plan and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

Leadon is a pre-race inspector for the International Racing Bureau (for the Hong Kong International Races) and acts as an Advisor and as an Arbiter in insurance disputes for Lloyds Underwriters. He is a Veterinary Advisor to the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association (ITBA), Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Committee of the European Thoroughbred Breeders Association (EFTBA) and Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Committee of the International Thoroughbred Breeders Federation (ITBF). He was appointed to both the Equine Liaison Group of the Department of Agriculture and the Veterinary Medicines Committee of the Irish Medicines Board in January 2011.

Leadon was presented the “Outstanding Contribution To The Industry Award” by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association in January 2014.

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