Head Girl at Cheltenham: Gail Carlisle, National Hunt Groom

Who is the woman leading in all those winners for Irish jump racing trainer Willie Mullins?

Gail Carlisle, head girl for Irish trainer Willie Mullins, is groom for champion National Hunt racehorse Hurricane Fly

“The ferry leaves at 5 a.m. I’m not packed.”

The voice at the other end of the line sounded pretty calm, considering. But she’s done this before. She knows how much time she needs.

Head girls don’t get rattled, not even when asked about how rough the ferry ride might be. “They say it’s a bit breezy.” Her nonchalant response in her lilting Irish accent stretched out those e’s in breeeeeezy.

She didn’t sound concerned about being in charge of 12 valuable, high-strung racehorses in a van on a pitching ferry crossing the Irish Sea in the pre-dawn dark on a cold winter morning. No, not at all.

This is no ordinary head girl, this is Gail Carlisle, a woman who has been there, done that, and made sure everything was tidy for the long trip home. She’s Willie Mullins’ head girl, which puts her in the good new/bad news situation of being accountable for almost 50 runners for the top Irish trainer in this year’s Cheltenham Festival for National Hunt (steeplechasing or jump, to American readers) racing in England.

Neither Willie Mullins’ nor Gail Carlisle’s names or faces would turn any heads in the United States, but in Ireland this week, Willie Mullins is the field marshal. Gail Carlisle is his aide-de-camp. Their cavalry of rangy bays and grays charged into England this weekend with the goal of bringing home the trophies, the prize money and the glory from the world’s premiere series of jump races. Racing news reports suggest they can do it…odds on the bookies’ board indicate the public agrees.

Meet head girl Gail Carlisle in this short video, made in 2013 by Bluesilk Productions:

The Willie Mullins horse box would soon be crossing the Irish Sea from Dublin to Holyhead on the northwest tip of Wales. From Holyhead, the truck will drive east across the top of Wales and then head south on the M5 toward Gloucestershire, carrying a precious load of super-fit runners trained by Mullins, Ireland’s leading National Hunt trainer for the last seven years in a row, and cared for by Carlisle, the smiling head girl so often photographed leading a sweaty, exhausted winner to the prize stand.

Three and half hours later–much longer if there is traffic–each load of horses will step onto the famed turf of Cheltenham Racecourse. It will have arrived, in more ways than one. This is where you want to be, if you’re a National Hunt runner. This is where you make your mark in the sport. This is the place you’ve been running toward, all this time.

You have arrived.

The Cheltenham Festival opens on Tuesday, and for National Hunt fans, that means time stops. More than 230,000 people are expected to make their way to Cheltenham. For the rest, the television, smart phones and iPads will connect racing’s faithful to a slate of races designed to test the best, ordain new stars, crown the legends, and give a thrill a minute to all who follow the sport.

This week, that’s just about everyone.

Hurricane Fly’s not the favorite in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham this year, but his stablemate, Faugheen is. Here’s Faugheen being worked in Willie Mullins’ low-tech aqua therapy unit: a rushing stream helps cool the legs, the old-fashioned way. Tote Ireland photo.

It might be cold, cloudy, rainy. It might freeze, snow or flood. But that won’t stop anyone from having the time of their lives, and it won’t stop Gail Carlisle from doing her job, or realizing the ability of the horses in her care to do theirs.

As head girl, Gail Carlisle is responsible for a long list of racehorses and the work of many grooms. She spends her days brushing coats, checking legs, bandaging, walking and exercising her own personal 10-horse string. She takes direct care of five, and two are special stars.

Douvan is the up-and-coming young talent; he’s the likely favorite at Cheltenham in the 2 1/16 mile Supreme Novices Hurdle. He looks tall and gangly when he stands still, but when he starts to move, it all comes together. “And he’s my baby,” Gail confides.

Here’s Gail this morning working Douvan on the gallops at Cheltenham, via GettyImages.com:

View image | gettyimages.com

The other horse is one that everyone knows. His name is not only in the record books, it’s at the top of the list. This is Gail’s sixth trip to the Festival, out of eight years of working as a groom in Willie Mullins’ training yard in Closutton, County Carlow. And for five of those trips to Gloucestershire, she brought a horse with her named Hurricane Fly. They know the way now.

Gail and Hurricane Fly also know the way to the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham. “Fly” has won the Cheltenham Champion Hurdles twice. He’s also lost it twice. He’s back to win it this year.

He’s 11 now. He’s won more Grade 1 races than any horse in history–passing Black Caviar, John Henry, Goldikova, Zenyatta and all the rest. He’s the hero horse of Ireland. Cheltenham Racecourse is expecting 235,000 people to show up this week, and a lot of them admit they want to see him win, even if they bet against him because of his age.

Watch Hurricane Fly win the Irish Champion Hurdles for the fifth time back in January, defeating several of the horses he’ll face on Tuesday at Cheltenham, including 2014 winner Jezki.

Top jockey A.P. (Tony) McCoy was quoted this weekend as picking Hurricane Fly as the best horse entered in the Festival. In spite of his age, he’s at the top of his game. Bred to be a flat racer, he is by Montjeu, the same sire as Coolmore’s Camelot and other top Thoroughbreds. When his flat career didn’t work out, he was sent to the jumps…and the rest is history.

When you watch him race, he seems to run on heart and instinct. You can never count him out; he’s known to cover ground at the end of the race and fly by horses half his age. “Over the last” is something some jump racers struggle to do. “Over the last” is sometimes when Hurricane Fly turns it on, depending on the length of the homestretch ahead.

And he has Gail taking care of him, just as she has been for all these years. He’s had the same trainer, the same training yard, the same grooms, and perhaps even the same horse van carrying him across the Irish Sea on the ferry. Whatever the magic is in that formula, it has worked before and Gail, Mullins, and many thousands of loyal fans are counting on it working again.

But this year, Hurricane Fly is not at short odds. The role of the favorite goes to his stablemate, Faugheen. Fly takes a backseat in the betting, but not in the hearts of racing fans.

How to become a groom to champions

As a teenager or even as a college student, Gail Carlisle could never have predicted that she would be put in charge of the world’s record-holding racehorse for Grade One race wins, or any of the other champions she rubs and wraps and rides. It just worked out that way for both horse and groom. He worked his way up to become a champion among champions. She worked her way up to head girl in a business traditionally dominated by “the lads”.

Grooms are a bit like farriers. No two are alike and each one has a story of how they reached the level of success they enjoy. Education and structure in the profession are loose; you make your own way, with the help or hindrance of luck and fate.

These stories usually take a while. They’re best told over caffeine or alcohol, but Gail went through her employment history on the phone. In under a minute. It didn’t take long, because working for Willie Mullins is the first permanent job she’s had. And the one she wanted. It’s the place she stayed.

Career planning is a challenge in the horse business. Few people end up where they think they will; Gail Carlisle never gave much thought to what she’d do after she graduated with a university degree in animal science. She had grown up in Ballynahinch, County Down, in Northern Ireland. Her father foxhunted and owned a point-to-point racer, so she started hanging around the training stable and helping out. She worked for a trainer part-time while she was in college, and went full-time after graduating. But she soon spotted an ad to spend a year working at the famed Coolmore Stud in Australia; it tempted her to leave Ireland and see a bit of the world. The thought of working with Thoroughbred stallions like Galileo and Rock of Gibraltar attracted her, too.

Hail, Quevega! Willie Mullins trained the mare who won the Cheltenham Mare Hurdle six years in a row. But 2014 was her last; she is now retired. Note the well-groomed tail, tight legs and quarter marks. It’s not a horse show, it’s a race! Dan Heap photo.

When she returned to Ireland, she said she still didn’t have a plan. “I just stick with what I enjoy,” she said, in spite of the long hours and hard work of a race groom. When Willie Mullins had a job open, that seemed like something she should try. And after eight years, she has certainly stopped counting the victories, though she seems to enjoy them just as much as ever.

When Gail won the Irish Stud and Stable Staff Champion Award in 2013, she gave Hurricane Fly the credit. “People keep saying to me that I have to realize I’m part of history,” Carlisle told a reporter from the Racing Post. “He went into the record books (that) year and the thing is, he takes it all so easily. He’s a superstar.”

Gail has a forged number of ties to Hurricane Fly over the years. Of no small coincidence is that one of the great horse’s owners, Rose Boyd, lives in her hometown of Ballynahinch. Mrs. Boyd’s daughter, Fiona Boyd-Armstrong, has launched a unique gin distillery on the family’s Rademon Estate there. You’ll see ShortcrossGin.com emblazoned on the silks of Hurricane Fly’s jockey, Paul Townend.

Bars at Cheltenham Racecourse are predicted to serve over 200,000 pints of Guinness this week, but you can probably find a ShortCross gin and tonic, too.

Fiona was enthusiastic about this article, and endorsed Gail’s work by email: “Gail is a tremendous lady and truly is one in a million; her family live just around the road from our family home in County Down. Gail performs a fabulous job ensuring that a horse of such a feisty character as Hurricane Fly turns out immaculately for each race.”

Grooming for racehorses hasn’t changed much since the days when the raceyards were the exclusive domain of Irish men dressed in tweed. Women are taking their places in the hierarchy now, although Gail said she sees women dominating the care of National Hunt horses in England much more than in Ireland. 

Gail works with one other woman in her group of horses, and said that there are a dozen or so on the Mullins yard, but that the majority of grooms by far are still men in Ireland. Even at Willie Mullins’ yard, the horses are split. “There’s a head lad, too,” she said. “It’s split up.”

Gail spends each day at Cheltenham with the Mullins horses, from about six in the morning until eight in the evening. Mullins’ crew stays at the Hunters Lodge at the top of the hill overlooking the racecourse.

Cheltenham Racecourse is vast, by US standards. One race is even four miles long. Binoculars are not an option, they’re a necessity. So is an eye to the weather: frost, snow and floods have cancelled racing over the years. (Flickr photo courtesy of Kate)

For Gail, being at Cheltenham is the test of tests for the horses in her care, but the time away from the yard, and the nights spent with friends at the Hunters Lodge make it a special time. “There’s a great social aspect of being there,” she remarked. “I don’t even bother to go to town much, maybe just for dinner. I have 12 to 15 staff under me, so we tend to place a mega-pizza order, and it gives us a chance to get together with the staffs from other yards. You see people at the races all the time, but you don’t get to know them. Cheltenham is great for that.”

Head girls don’t get much time off when they are home, either. Racehorses need a lot of care, and sometimes–especially when they are hauled long distances, and stabled away from home–they need just as much psychological grooming as physical grooming.

Looking at the horses’ form, 2015 could be the most successful year yet for Willie Mullins. One horse missing from the group is Quevega, the now-retired Mullins-trainee who won the Champion Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham a record six years in a row.

Above: A Getty Images sharable image of Hurricane Fly on the gallops at Cheltenham.

Gail didn’t have any direct advice for anyone out there who’d like to be a head girl in a top Irish yard. Once again, she said that she based her decision on what felt right, more than by planning. Obviously, skills with horses and some degree of people skills are paramount. “There’s a race school at Kildare, but I didn’t go,” she explained. “And in England they have them at Newmarket and Doncaster.

According the Irish school’s website, the stable management program was cancelled for 2015. The program also offered a qualification in equine transport. Irish men and women who aspire to a position like Gail’s will be on their own, or forced to go abroad for training.

Sixteen shades of gray: for a Christmas press day promotion, the stable staff at Willie Mullins’ yard saddle up 16 gray National Hunt racers and covered their helmets with Santa hats. (Tote Ireland photo)

People follow in Gail’s footsteps just by showing up, she said. “On weekends, we’ll have a few young kids coming in on Saturdays. A lot of the riders started as grooms. Paul Nichols and Jonjo O’Neil’s yards in England are almost all girls now.”

Gail Carlisle doesn’t know what’s next; her job doesn’t give her a lot of time to contemplate. Even in the summer, Ireland now has jump racing, and the races are in the evening, so the days are very long. The best winter horses take their holiday after the Punchestown meet, and when the staff starts to take their holidays in the summer months, that puts some pressure on the head girl.

But pressure seems to be something she can handle, and that’s one of the qualities that will get you to head girl, and to the winner’s enclosure with a champion you know from head to tail, year after year after year.

View image | gettyimages.com

Thanks to Gail Carlisle, Willie Mullins, Graeme Carlisle, Neil Boyo, Fiona Boyd-Armstrong, Getty Images, Dan Heap, Kate, Florian Christoph, BlueSilk Productions and everyone who believes in Hurricane Fly for assistance, images, and inspiration for this article.

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