A horse, a human, some fences, a finishing post, a big gold cup. It all looks pretty simple. But a large network of people and steps are involved in getting a horse to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and there are fallers at every obstacle.
Take Tea For Two, Lizzie Kelly’s mount. From a legendary stallion through a foster home to a nervous wreck over hurdles to the Cheltenham start line via a yard who spotted his individual strengths and quirks, it has been quite a journey.
Co-owner Jane Williams says of the team that now look after him: “There’s about 10 of us in the yard – 14 if you count children and dogs the team.”
Indeed, the fan may think of racing as the superpowers of Mullins, Ricci, McManus et al, but many of these horses arrive here the products of numerous small businesses, cottage industries, dedicated one-or-two man bands dreaming big.
The Williams’s yard manager, Suzie Young, typifies the bespoke approach: “Tea For Two needs his routine and his massage blanket. He lets things upset him. Pheasants are his pet hate. They fly out of the hedgerows in north Devon and he gets startled by that.”
Friday will be all about keeping him calm and then handing him over to Lizzie Kelly, the first woman jockey to ride in the Gold Cup for 33 years.
“He’s quite buzzy,” said Kelly. “He’s an enthusiastic racehorse and he loves his job. He’s just one of those horses that likes to get on with it.”
Although Tea for Two came from equine royalty, his progress has not been stately. His sire, Kayf Tara, stands at the Overbury Stud just up the road.
Overbury’s Simon Sweeting estimates the Sheikh Mohammed star has covered maybe 2,000 mares in 17 years, and describes the stallion’s approach to his second career as “straightforward.”
The miracle of life came about for Tea For Two in no-nonsense fashion. “It was 26th May, 2008, in the afternoon. The mare, One For Me, was a walk-in.
It was all over in 30 seconds. Job done. Then she was straight back into the horse box and home to Wiltshire.”
From Wiltshire, to Yorkshire. Foaled on May 8th 2009 at Nick Lewin’s farm, Tea For Two’s first human owner died. Fortunately, there was a horse man next door: Colin Tinkler Jnr.
“It was the last horse Nick bred, and when he died my wife, Heidi, bought a half share in Tea For Two with Nick’s widow. We reared him here. I wouldn’t say he was a beautiful foal but he had a good action.”
He was also a business proposition. Soon, he was under the care of consigner Sara Thorman, and on his way to Doncaster to be sold.
“He was a lovely three-year-old, very athletic. Kayf Tara wasn’t super sexy then like he is now, he was just one of many. Tea for Two was sold for £23,000.”
A modest fee for a Gold Cup horse, but co-owner and trainer Jane Williams has an eye.
“We fell in love with his head. He looked brave, scopey, elegant. An athlete. We bid against David Pipe who’d had Tea For Two’s half-brother,” she said.
On the racecard, husband Nick is listed as the trainer. “Oh, you’ll have to speak to my wife about Tea For Two,” he smiled, when I asked him about their Gold Cup chance yesterday. “This one is definitely Jane’s.”
The relationship between trainer and pupil has been far from smooth, however.
“He was big, but he was backward,” said Jane. “He was too immature to take a lot of racing. I thought he was going to be a long-distance hurdler. I sold a bit of him to Len Jakeman, one of the owners in the yard: a friend.
“At six, I took him to Haydock in November and he just fell apart. He had temperament problems.
“In desperation, I started schooling him over fences at home and he just got it. Suddenly, I knew we were on to something.
“So by accident he went from being this backward hurdler, a slow starter, into a really special horse.”
He promptly won a novice chase at Exeter, and then the Kauto Star Chase on Boxing Day at Kempton, literally days after he first schooled at the jumps.
Last Dec 26th, he ran well behind Thistlecrack in the King George and was only half a length worse than Cue Card, who he now opposes on the biggest stage of all.
Could he yet write himself into history by partnering a female jockey to the Gold Cup? Owner-trainer Jane Williams summed up potentially the biggest story of the week:
“Lizzie rolls her eyes at ‘the whole girl thing’ but we have a chance to make history and it is good for our sport to get her mug in the paper and on the telly. And it’s good to see Tea For Two’s as well.” And good for all the people who have played their part on this journey.