With the well-publicised Mayfair Speculators difficulties, PE trainer Tara Laing is facing some big changes in 2018, but as ever, our Scottish lass is meeting the challenge head on.
While not dwelling on the obvious, the repercussions of training only for Mayfair Speculators are bound to be pretty significant. “I’m 45 and am basically having to start my whole life over again,” says Tara in her usual frank manner. “But what can you do? You’ve just got to make it work. I’ve got a brilliant team behind me. My partner Gavin walks every step of the way with me, I’ve got my son Ewan for support as well as my mother Janette, her husband David and my father Ray for moral support. We’re just focussing forward and getting on with the job at hand.”
The ‘job at hand’ is transitioning from being a private trainer to opening up the yard to new clients. Tara has a formidable strike rate, closing the 2016 season on 12.7% and is currently on 18.9%, so the stats speak for themselves. However, the festive season is a notoriously slow time of year, resulting in a frustrating time for someone who does not live life at pedestrian pace. “People are away and it’s generally the time not to think about horses for those who don’t have to. I have had a lot of enquiries. A lot of people have just been inquisitive, but Mario Ferreira has sent me a horse, Gavin and Dr Parker have bought one back from me, Etienne Braun has bought three and Braam van Huyssteen has a baby on the farm – it’s a start,” she says brightly.
Tara started her professional equestrian life as a show-jumper. “We were originally living in the Transvaal and then my parents moved to Natal and that’s when I got involved in racing. A couple of jockeys asked me to come and ride work at Summerveld one morning and that was it – I was hooked.”
She joined Tessa and Johnny Dawson at Summerveld, alongside Julie Dittman, stable jockey Nick Shearer and apprentice Justin Henson and never looked back. “I started off as a groom and over the years I worked my way up the ladder.”
When her parents moved back to Joburg, she went along – with her jockey fiancé at the time. “I’ve had a wonderful story-telling life,” she smiles. “I worked at Randjes for many years and then left racing and went back to show-jumping to work for Errol Wucherpfennig. Then I met my ex-husband and we got married and he said let’s move to PE as it would be a better environment to start a family. Ewan was born, I divorced and shortly afterwards Justin Snaith phoned and said I want you to run my yard and I said that’s fine,” she recounts matter-of-factly.
Tara spent 10 years running the Snaith’s satellite operation in PE before deciding she needed a change. “I’ve always wanted to work for as many people as I could. Everyone trains differently, everyone has different methods and everyone has their two cents’ worth. In a racing yard, you learn something new every day.” She saw an ad for an assistant to run a satellite operation for the late Sean Miller. “Peter had all the Mayfair horses in PE at Fairview. When Peter passed away, his son took over in Kimberley, so I was employed to train the Mayfair horses at Fairview. The next phone call I got was ‘you’d better take out your license, you’re now a trainer!” That was back in 2012 and she’s been holding her own ever since.
Has she enjoyed it? “I love it,” she enthuses in her Scottish brogue. “You meet so many people in different walks of life. It’s like a box of smarties – each to their own.”
Five years as a private trainer has offered some unique learning opportunities. “Getting horses that other people have given up on, turning them around and winning with them again showed me I can get into a horse’s head and change its attitude completely – if the horse will allow me to. Look at Normanz and his history. Drill Sergeant came to me as a 1-time winner and ended up winning 14 races. I like my older horses. As I say, horses never lose their ability, they only lose their form, so if a horse has had brilliant form earlier in its career, there’s still something there. It’s up to me to get it back to where it belongs. I really have to say a big thank you to Derek Brugman who trusted me completely in this regard and allowed me to make all horse-related decisions at all times.”
“Not every horse is going to win a race. Not every horse can run – they are horses at the end of the day – but when you’re standing in the winner’s box, you know you’ve done your job and it’s very rewarding.
Have there been any special favourites over the years? “So many. Where does one start? Parceval, Vauclair, Sir Duke, Crown Of Gold, Drill Sergeant – they gave endless amounts of pleasure – on and off the racecourse.”
Onwards and upwards
Tara has 56 boxes and is gradually phasing in new client horses. She’s also got a solid team behind her, including grooms and work riders who have been with her for over a decade. “And you’ve got to mention Gavin Venter. We’ve been together 14 years and he’s basically my right hand man. He does so much work in the yard, rides work and gives me positive feedback in the morning, I’ve got a brilliant bunch of grooms, most of them are related and my head guy is phenomenal. My work riders would hold their own in any of the bigger stables in the country – they are fantastic.”
“The open space in PE seems to suit horses really well. “PE somehow has a really good feel to it for the horses. You always get that really difficult horse, but once they’ve settled into their surroundings, they see goats and cows that roam around and it makes them feel like a horse again.”
One of the challenges Tara is most looking forward to is being able to select and produce young horses from scratch. “I’d say 98% of the horses I’ve had were all older horses or had some mileage on them. I’m going to the CTS sales in January. I think a lot of people are expecting me to hide under a rock, but that’s not me. Instead of getting 5yo’s to try and rejuvenate, I’m looking forward to working with some babies and watching them progress through the ranks and who knows, maybe even campaign in other centres.”
PE has certainly done itself proud in that regard, not only producing Bold Silvano, but also raiding other centres successfully over the years. “There is a really good calibre of horses in PE. I started with the Snaiths in 2003 and the quality of horses then to now has improved tenfold. It’s not easy. PE is very competitive, trainers are very competitive and to me, if you can train a horse in PE and win, you can train anywhere in the country.”
The focus going forward is “to do the best we can and train horses to the best of our ability. If you produce the goods on the racecourse, then you know you’ve done your job at home. To me, you do your homework at home and you write your test at the racecourse. If you fail, you need to do more homework.”
“I’ve been in racing for so long. I wasn’t handed anything on a plate, I worked hard, met wonderful people and owners in the game and am hoping my no-nonsense approach and work ethic will help draw owners to the yard,” says Tara. “There are no airs and graces or hidden agendas and with me a spade’s a spade. I don’t know whether that’s always a good thing, but there it is.”
However, the change is bringing new challenges. “I’m at my PC screen trying to draft an invoice for my first clients and scratching my head. I’ve never done books. I deal with clients telephonically – my communication’s always been top notch, but this is a completely different ball game. It’s like going back to school!” But it’s all part and parcel of moving forward and Tara is looking forward to the challenge. “It takes a lot to put out the Scottish flame!”