Harry Whittington’s two Cheltenham Festival stars Simply The Betts and Saint Calvados benefited from race-day tutorials with the same woman – international event rider Laura Collett.
Simply The Betts, winner of the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase, and Ryanair Chase runner-up Saint Calvados both took a Cotswolds detour to the Festival for some last-minute fine-tuning of their technique.
On their arrival from Whittington’s Oxfordshire yard at Collett’s base in Salperton, she schooled them over show jumps on the morning of their races – before handing the reins back to jockey Gavin Sheehan.
Saint Calvados went on to finish a gallant second in his Grade One venture, having started at 16-1, and Simply The Betts provided Whittington with his first Festival winner.
Collett, 30, has represented Great Britain at the highest level in three-day eventing and takes in racehorses for schooling as well as competing with her own string of horses.
The winner of nine international eventing medals, seven of them gold, Collett developed an interest in racing through Yogi Breisner – former chef d’equipe to the British team, who coaches jump jockeys and helps to school racehorses.
Initially riding the horses sent to Breisner for schooling, she eventually struck out on her own – with the support of trainers such as Whittington.
“People used to send them to Yogi Briesner, and I would end up riding them,” said Collett.
“Originally Harry sent his horses to Yogi, but then he ended up sending them to me directly. Now he just rings me directly – and we go from there.”
Having worked with Simply The Betts before he graduated to chasing, Collett was again called upon as the seven-year-old was prepared for his winning performance in the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham in January.
“I started schooling Simply The Betts about three years ago – before his run in the (2018) Supreme (Novices’ Hurdle) at the Cheltenham Festival,” she said.
“He didn’t run much the following year, and I didn’t see him until he ran in a couple of chases.
“Harry got in touch after Kempton on Boxing Day to say he didn’t jump very well, so I started working with him again before Trials Day, when he won.
“So we stuck with that plan for the Festival – I don’t think anyone else has jumped him or schooled him apart from me, and Gavin (Sheehan) in his races, since then.”
Having helped Simply The Betts, Collett was then enlisted to remedy the occasionally errant jumping of Saint Calvados.
“Harry had been watching his races back and thought he was losing ground when he got in deep to a fence, so that’s how he came to me,” she said.
“What I do with them varies with each horse. Simply The Betts is actually a very good jumper. He’d maybe lost a bit of confidence and was jumping a bit to his left, but when he came the first time around it didn’t take much.
“We were just trotting into a very small fence and then three canter strides into an oxer (railed fence).
“It was teaching him to keep drawing into the fences, because he was slowing down quite a bit before the fence where he was maybe backing off a bit.
“We mainly do it because it actually just gets him really jolly and sweetens him up – his work isn’t really about his jumping technique.
“He’s got a very good jumping technique. He just seems to thrive off it, so he’s quite different to Saint Calvados – who I did a lot of grid work with and a lot of pole work.
“That was to get him to learn to drop his head lower and lift his shoulder – he needed to use himself because he had the typical French-style in his jumping. He’d just keep blundering his way through and he never really paid much attention to what was in front of him.”
With both horses running on the Thursday of the Festival, Collett was able to take a day away from her yard to watch them.
“I wasn’t meant to go, but I rode them in the morning when they came to me on the way to the races,” she added.
“‘Betts’ particularly, who is one of my favourites, just felt on fire – and I thought ‘there’s no way I can’t be there if he runs a big race’. So I went to watch them both.
“The owner, Andrew Brooks, was lovely and let me go in the paddock with them and be a real part of it – and it was just an unbelievable experience.”
Brooks owns both horses with his wife Kate, and came agonisingly close to leading in a Festival winner when Saint Calvados was denied by a mere neck by Willie Mullins’ Min in the Ryanair.
Collett was hugely proud to see him battling up the hill to challenge Min after a round of fluent and consistent jumping.
“I couldn’t quite believe it – I was thinking ‘he could win this!’,” she said.
“It was such a shame he didn’t quite have the run to the last fence and he got a bit cut up. He ran a massive race – and to be honest, watching them, I was just so proud of how they jumped, particularly Calvados, knowing what he’d been like three weeks ago.
“For me it was a big achievement that he’d done it on the track as well. He had a serious crash course in learning how to jump properly!
“It just shows what an amazing guy Harry is to deal with as well, because two weeks out I rang him and asked if he was planning to school Calvados over fences at home, and he wasn’t going to.
“I had a bit of panic on and I was saying ‘I really think you should. We’ve changed him a lot in a very short space of time, will you just check he still jumps a chase fence?’.
“So Gavin schooled him, and he said he was electric, so I could breathe again, but it’s nice that he listens and he trusts what I say.”
Collett, who was in the process of retraining two-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Kauto Star before he died in a freak accident in 2015, plans to continue lending her expert hand in working alongside trainers to fine-tune their horses.
“I’ve done it for years, and these seem to be the two most high-profile horses that I’ve had,” she said.
“Some horses come and stay at my yard for a week or 10 days, however long it takes really. With others, they just bring them in for the day.
“I really enjoy doing it – because I like to make a difference – and with the racehorses, you really do feel like you can make a big difference in a very small space of time.
“I love it, I get a real buzz out of watching them produce it on the track.”