Wednesday 23 October 2019

Human spirit at its indomitable best would be rewarded by Lalor and Paisley Park double

Trainer Kayley Woollacott poses with Lalor. Photo: Harry Trump/Getty Images
Trainer Kayley Woollacott poses with Lalor. Photo: Harry Trump/Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

No-one deserves a Cheltenham winner more than Kayley Woollacott. Thirteen months ago her husband Richard committed suicide at his training yard in Devon. He was 40 years old and left behind a 31-year-old widow and a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Bella.

Richard Woollacott had struggled with depression for years.

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"It was there when I met him," his wife told the Western Morning News shortly after the funeral. "He told me after a few months of being together that he got very up and down and had been to the doctor's about it. I always just thought we would manage it."

But in the months before his suicide things had gotten worse for the trainer, with the death of a close friend adding to his difficulties. Kayley recalled: "I was aware that he was worse and had made him a doctor's appointment for the Wednesday of that week, so we were due to go. I had sat him down the week before and said that things had got a lot worse and he needed to go to the doctor's. He was very normal the last few days. Whether that was a cover he had put up purposely I don't know. I don't know what was going through his mind."

Her initial response to the tragedy was to speak out about the importance of tackling the issue of suicide among young men. Then she walked all 15 Welsh mountains over 3,000 feet high in four days to raise money for the charity Mind and got on with her life in the knowledge that "Richard didn't do it to imprison us in guilt and in sadness. All we can do now is forgive him and ourselves."

She faced a tough task carrying on from her husband. Shortly after his death the owners of their most successful horse withdrew it from the stables. But the owner of a promising novice hurdler named Lalor, David Staddon, kept it under Kayley's tutelage.

"She knows how to train a horse," said Staddon.

In April, Lalor won the Group One Top Novices Hurdle at Aintree as a 14/1 shot. And in November a seven-length win on his chasing debut in the Arkle Trophy Trial Chase at Cheltenham saw him installed as favourite for the Arkle proper. Despite a surprising reverse in the Henry VIII Chase at Sandown in December, where he finished third behind Dynamite Dollars, who'd been among his victims at Cheltenham, Lalor remains favourite.

Should he win it would be an extraordinary victory, not just for a very gutsy woman, but also for Staddon, an 82-year-old retired insurance broker who has turned down big-money offers for a horse which initially cost just €16,000.

Young Bella Woollacott is also playing her part; a clip posted by her mother on Twitter of the little girl helping lead Lalor out of the stable is one of the most heart-warming things you'll ever see.

Lalor's main rivals in the second race on Tuesday should be Glen Forsa, trained by the former footballer Mick Channon, Willie Mullins' Duc Des Genievres and the JP McManus-owned Defi Du Seuil.

If he wins it will be an extremely emotional occasion.

"Richard had so much faith in that horse," says Kayley. "It's gutting that he couldn't wait for it because he'd be so, so proud."

Stayers Hurdle favourite Paisley Park is another one worth keeping an eye out for. Trained by Wiltshire-based Emma Lavelle, the horse is owned by a remarkable man named Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth and became interested in horse racing by listening to commentaries on the radio as a child.

By the time he was in the Royal National College for the Blind, Gemmell was sneaking out to put on bets in nearby Shrewsbury. In addition to having a share in 20 horses he has a season ticket at West Ham United and has travelled around the world to major sporting events.

He and Lavelle are something of an odd couple. The trainer is an avowed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, while Gemmell was a shop steward whose Westminster Council trade union branch was twinned with one from the National Union of Mineworkers. The Irish duo of Faugheen and Supasundae pose the biggest threat to a fairytale ending for both of them on Thursday.

In their separate ways, Woollacott and Gemmell show the human spirit at its indomitable best. So when their horses run I'll be taking off the green jersey and cheering them on. Lalor and Paisley Park would be a double to cherish. Right now they're both looking good.

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