Towards the end of last season Paul and I discussed me writing about my first year as Paul’s Assistant and you would think the summer break would be ideal to do this. However, in June I had the greatest day of my life: marrying my wonderful wife, meaning my attention was fully occupied. So here I am at the beginning of August writing about my brilliant first year.
I would like to begin with quickly introducing myself. My name is Charlie Davies, and I’m 27 years old. I’ve worked in horse racing for nearly 10 years, firstly, as a distinctly average jockey in the Cotswolds for Jonjo O’Neill and Charlie Longsdon; then in July 2019 I moved down to Ditcheat to take up the role as Pupil Assistant and 3 years later I became Paul’s Assistant – after Harry Derham left to start out on his own. Becoming Paul’s assistant has felt like a huge personal achievement. When I started out in horse racing I had no family connections to fall back on, so to get to such a prestigious position in this great sport means the world to me.
I have loved every minute of this past year, which has included some huge highs, including the amazing people I‘ve had the pleasure of meeting – although, and unfortunately as is the case with horses, there have also been a couple of lows. I’ve learned a huge amount from Paul, Clifford, and Dave, witnessing first-hand the immense amount of love that the staff and owners here at Ditcheat have for the horses, and the way the wonderful sport brings out emotions in people in such unexpected ways.
My day-to-day life is hugely varied and changes throughout the season. One guarantee, however, is that it always begins at 6.15am, when I meet Clifford in the office. We start to make a plan for the day: tweaking the riding out board, depending on what the day holds. Paul and Dave join us just after 6.30am and we go through each horse – all 150 of them. Something that I have found amazing is the attention to detail that’s given to every single horse. The impression of big yards being like machines couldn’t be further from the truth here at Ditcheat.
My day can then go a number of different ways: I could be off racing, usually with Paul or catching a lift with one of our jockeys. Or I could be helping with schooling or taking videos for our owners. Or… well there’s literally 100 other things. No day is ever the same. I might even dust off my riding boots – much to everyone’s amusement, as my bravery has definitely waned.
The 2022/23 season was hugely successful for Team Ditcheat with 163 winners and a strike rate of 27%. We had six Grade 1 winners, two of which were at Cheltenham Festival, and we broke Paul’s record prize money with a figure totalling £3,646,585 – beating the previous record by only £75, but a record is a record, none the less.
Of all our horses, Stage Star produced a couple of real highlights for me, the first being at Warwick when he won his first chase. Notably, this was because he’d somewhat lost his way towards the end of the previous season and to see him back to his best was incredibly satisfying for everyone. However, it was also the first time I did a TV interview, talking about one of Paul’s horses. To many this wouldn’t seem like a big deal, but to me who grew up watching his heroes do winning interviews, it was a truly special moment. Stage Star then created an even more special time for me with his win in the Turners Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham. As many of you know the Festival is our version of the Olympics, and with that comes a huge amount of pressure and expectation.
Paul hadn’t had a winner there in a couple of years and we all really wanted to remedy that. After we drew a blank over the first two days the pressure really cranked up, especially after a couple of the horses we really fancied underperformed. Going into Thursday, I’m not going to lie, I was feeling the stress more than ever, so when Stage Star and Harry made all the running to win in utterly brilliant fashion, I can honestly say I have never felt emotion like it on a racecourse. The sense of joy at having a winner at the greatest meeting of the year was something I’d never been a part of before and the release of all the pressure that I felt during those first two days was quite something.
To make it even better, walking in behind Stage Star, up that famous walkway with Ryan Bliss, who is a huge part of the running of Owners Group and one of my closest friends in racing, and seeing how much it meant to him made everything all the more incredible.
My second highlight was Bravemansgame’s win in the King George. This is the biggest race outside of the Cheltenham Festival and the highlight over the Christmas period. Paul has won the race an incredible 13 times, but I’d never been at Kempton on Boxing Day before. I was confident that Bravemansgame had all the ingredients of a King George winner, although when it rained and the ground became soft I was slightly worried. However, I shouldn’t have been, as he floated around Kempton and jumped brilliantly under a lovely ride from Harry, going on to win decisively and confirming all the faith that Paul and everyone in Ditcheat had in him – whilst putting many critics back in their box.
Holetown Hero and Knowsley Road are two of my favourites on the yard (despite the fact that I’m probably not supposed to have favourites; but when you ride them every day it’s hard not to.) Riding a horse daily means you build an even greater bond with them and, as much as I want every one of Paul’s horses to win, I have to say I wanted these two to win slightly more – I’m only human after all.
Both won twice last season which gave me a huge amount of joy and satisfaction. It’s easy to enjoy winners on big days with the amazing crowds creating a great atmosphere, but seeing horses win midweek for such brilliant and enthusiastic owners (who absolutely love both their horse and horse racing) makes this job feel so worthwhile. This is exactly the case with the Pelham Family who own Knowsley Road. They’re wonderful people and deserve all the success their horse gave them last year and hopefully will continue to do so.
Another group that provided me with quite a few highlights last year were our bumper horses. We had a very successful year with them, with 18 individual winners. I really enjoy seeing them progress throughout the year from young inexperienced horses to being ready to go to races and do themselves proud.
There were two particular highlights for me, the first being Fire Flyer winning at Ascot. Everyone knew I thought he was a very smart horse; from the day he came into the yard he just did everything so easily. So, to see him win so impressively was satisfyingly vindicating. It’s not often Paul and Clifford tell me I was right, but this was one of those few times.
Another highlight was a horse called Centara, who came to us a very big and green horse, barely knowing his feet were attached to his legs, or so it seemed. But under a lot of patient nurturing and attention from some of lads who rode him everyday he started to improve, and to see him win first time out at Taunton was brilliant. I would never have thought he was capable of that when he first arrived, which shows how much horses can improve over time with the right education and a bit of patience.
Yet with all these highs and amazing memories, there are hard parts to my job. The travelling is tough from October to May. I very often leave the house in the dark and don’t get back till it’s dark, spending hours behind the wheel of a car on my way to the races. I regularly miss social events and can work weeks without a day off. But hardest thing by far is when we lose a horse. As someone who got into racing because of his love of horses, I always find this particularly tough. No matter how many times it happens it’s still horrible. However even with these negatives I absolutely love what I do, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else in this world.
During the summer we lost a vital cog in Team Ditcheat. Mr Barber, Paul’s great friend and landlord passed away. Now I’m not going to pretend that I knew Mr Barber anywhere near as well as many of others in this great industry. But since taking over as Paul’s assistant, I’d got to know him over the year and saw how important a part he was within Team Ditcheat. He was a great man who was so liked and respected by everyone in racing, and you could see how much he loved his horses and this great sport. I always enjoyed our journeys to the races when he reminisced about his past stars, Denman and See More Business, while eating his favourite fruit and nut chocolate.
Working this past year so closely under Paul, I’ve got to see what makes him so successful. He works harder than anyone I’ve met; he is incredibly competitive and he drives himself and all of us to be better. Even though he was champion trainer for the 14th time this spring, he’s still thinking of ways we can improve next season. I’m hugely grateful to him for giving me this opportunity. He’s already taught me so much, and I’m know there’s so much more to come.
Overall, I’ve had an amazing year, loving every minute of all the ups and downs – meaning that the long days have all been worth it. I’d like to thank all the staff in Team Ditcheat for making this year so enjoyable and life considerably easier – helping me out, countless times. I also want to thank all the owners for making me feel so welcome and respected. And finally, I want to thank you the reader. I hope you’ve enjoyed my first blog and that I haven’t bored you too much. I hope that next season will be even more successful, and I’ll do my best to keep you updated along the way.
Till the next time…