By Daragh Ó Conchúir
The inverted snobs that see racing as cigars, champagne and prawn cocktails could do with spending some time in a training yard.
Gordon Elliott’s travelling head girl, Camilla Sharples, has spent more than a decade in the industry, working with Ferdy Murphy and Donald McCain in her native England before accepting the job offer at Cullentra House in 2015.
Last night, she drove a lorry containing Grand National hero Tiger Roll and Bless The Wings, who finished third to his stablemate and regular travel partner last April, from their base just outside Longwood to the Dublin ferry bound for Holyhead, to have them in Cheltenham for their seasonal debuts tomorrow.
“When we are leaving the country, we always have them there the day before they race,” explained Sharples prior to departure.
“We’ll get off the boat about midnight, half-past midnight. We’ll go straight to Cheltenham, which should take about four hours. We’ll pull in about half-four. We’ll leave them off for a few hours, then we’ll ride them out late morning.
“We always get a bit of sleep on the boat and then a couple of hours when we get there, but after they’re ridden out and they’re all settled, we will have the rest of the day to chill.”
She almost makes it sound like a holiday camp but this is a way of life, not a profession.
“You have to love the game, otherwise you couldn’t do it. You don’t get weekends off, I don’t get to go home very often. You have to be very driven to do it. That’s why it’s so hard to get people to come into racing. It’s tough. The best staff are the older staff because they stuck it out and they know what it’s about.”
Growing up the youngest of five in Lancashire travelling to the various pony club shows with her mother and siblings, her dreams would not have centred on driving large lorries around the back roads of Ireland.
“It doesn’t sound too glamorous when you put it like that! I love the big days though.”
She was there when Pallasator won at Royal Ascot during the summer, and for each of the record-equalling eight winners at Cheltenham in March. The National topped the lot though.
“Cheltenham is the most important meeting of the year but the Grand National is a race that stops the world. I had family all over the world that backed Bless The Wings ‘cos of me, and Tiger Roll because I work for Gordon.
“To win that race, where people that aren’t even in racing would watch; to be associated with the winner, that’s something I will never, ever forget. The world stops for the Grand National and we won it. That’s mad! So far, that’s probably the highlight of everything.”
Sharples added another string to her bow as an equine speculator, buying Andy Dufresne as a store for €30,000 and selling him seven months later for £330,000 to JP McManus at Cheltenham after he had won his four-year-old point-to-point maiden at Borris House by six lengths under Jamie Codd.
She has reinvested to a sensible degree on a Court Cave gelding that is being broken at present, before returning to Cullentra to be prepped for pointing.
“I took a bit of a gamble and bought Andy Dufresne with a bit of spare money I had. I don’t bet or anything like that. I don’t know how to make money to be honest. People would tell you I was mad but it was quite successful.
“So I had to try again. I didn’t spend mega money. Hopefully he’ll be lucky but if he’s not, I’ve hit the jackpot already.”
She also owns another point-to-pointer for the open races. Kruzhlinin, trained by Elliott, was steered to victory by Lisa O’Neill at the beginning of the month and is back out again on Sunday in Tinahely.
“Things like that makes me wanna stay here ‘cos Gordon looks after me. I get a few perks with the job. It’s not glamorous all the time but when I have the likes of the stores, and my own horse, it’s great fun.”
Being part of a successful team is a significant attraction too. In effect, Sharples is in charge of everything to do with race day.
“It is a great team. Everyone loves the horses. People love going racing with them and when they win, it’s great.
“For instance, I lead up Shattered Love at the races. If she wins, everyone is delighted and say ‘well done’ to me but it’s a team effort. I don’t ride her out, or brush her and feed her or clean out her box. I do her at the races and love her to bits. Everyone is there for each other. We all want success at the end of the day and for the horses to come home safe and sound.”
Tiger Roll is a three-time winner at the Cheltenham Festival. He and Bless The Wings have been to Prestbury Park so often they could probably have made their own way this week. Bless The Wings, who has also been a close second in the Irish Grand National, is Sharples’ favourite.
“He’s back in, and though he’ll be turning 14 in a couple of months, he still loves it. He’ll tell us when the time is right to retire him. He normally needs the first run of the season and hopefully he’ll enjoy it. He’s a legend.”
And Tiger Roll?
“We took the two of them away to a small cross-country place in Summerhill (on Tuesday) and he was absolutely bouncing.
“He’s a real cheeky character. He’s got a great little personality. When you’re trying to saddle him at the races or even to go galloping, he’s always moving around, kicking and bucking and trying to bite you. He won’t stop. He’s a messer but there’s no harm in him at all. He does it all for good fun. He’s a loveable rogue.”
Samcro makes his second appearance of the season in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday, having suffered a shock defeat in Down Royal a fortnight ago. The Champion Hurdle contender has been in good form since.
“Samcro’s flying. It’s unfortunate what happened the last day. It was a bit disappointing but he ran well. It happens, doesn’t it? It’s a long old season and the main aim for him and a lot of our horses is Cheltenham and we’re only warming up for that.”
The Punchestown card will end with the Up The Yard Challenge, a race for stable and stud staff to prepare for on Sunday, and Sharples will be taking part.
“I’d love to win but I just want to enjoy it. I’ve been going to the gym, trying to get fit and lose weight so I just hope it pays off in the end and my legs don’t turn to jelly when I get off the horse!”
Either way, they will have to recover quickly. Her lorry won’t drive itself home.