Lalor and Kayley ready for their date with destiny
EVERY year Cheltenham throws up incredible stories, but if Lalor was to win tomorrow’s Racing Post Arkle the heart strings won’t be pulled harder all week.
His trainer Kayley Woollacott has endured the most difficult 14 months anyone could ever imagine.
In January 2018, her husband Richard took his own life after a long battle with depression.
There have been plenty of dark days since then, but Kayley has tried her best to come through it with the help of her family and, in particular, the couple’s three-year-old daughter Bella.
On the eve of the Festival, she goes into the biggest meeting of the year with the favourite in the race named after the greatest National Hunt horse of all time.
“To my life, personally, professionally, every aspect, Lalor has changed the last 12 months. Things would have been massively different without him around,” says the 32-year-old.
“I think everyone around here appreciates that, whether it be me, my family, or all the guys in the yard who have worked really hard on days when I’ve probably not been much use to them, particularly early on last year.
“He's kept everybody going, he’s given everybody a purpose, he’s just a light. He’s something to look forward to, he’s moved everything forward.”
It was a difficult decision for Kayley to carry on after Richard, but she was adamant that she had a job to do.
She said: “I knew directly after it happened that I wanted to see out the list of commitments that were already there.
“Beer Goggles was due to go for the Cleeve and Lalor was going for the Betfair. We had a lot of entries that were already made. I was pretty convinced that I’d see that through and then make a decision.
“In all honesty, I’d probably decided that by the time I got to Aintree I probably wouldn’t continue with my licence, which was due to run out at the end of April.”
At Aintree, Lalor and Richard Johnson came home 2½ lengths clear to win the Grade One Betway Top Novices’ Hurdle, proving he was the horse Richard and Kayley always thought he might be.
“Aintree was really instrumental in convincing me to carry on,” says Kayley. “And the owners said you can’t give that up now. It definitely gave me the confidence and the enthusiasm to keep going.”
So that was that. The summer followed and Kayley and her team were busy getting everything ready to kick things off again in the autumn.
Lalor, always seen as a future chaser, was due to have his first start over fences at Exeter in October. Then the ground was too quick and plans had to be shelved.
He was reluctantly diverted to the Arkle Trial at Cheltenham’s November meeting for his chasing debut – and pulverised the opposition by seven lengths.
“Cheltenham was great, but he had the ground and the lovely weather leading into it. His whole demeanour, he seems to be a better horse in the sunshine.
“Perhaps that was why he was in such good form going into Cheltenham in November because we’d had such uncharacteristically dry weather. It was a lovely sunny day and he was in great shape.”
A quick reappearance in the Henry VIII Chase at Sandown in early December didn’t go to plan, but connections were happy to put that down to the very soft ground and the short gap between races.
The next stop on the road to Cheltenham was the Lightning Chase at Doncaster in late January, although this time conditions had gone the other way and they were lightning quick.
So the decision was made to go straight for the Arkle and he turns up tomorrow with his “big ears and kind face” as the 4/1 favourite. How would she feel if he could do it?
“It would be unreal. I’m trying not to imagine it too much. We’ve had chats about it riding out, it does excite everybody. If it happened, it would be amazing.”
Kayley and Lalor’s story has understandably captured the attention of the racing and social media world, helped in no small part by her charismatic daughter Bella, also known as the ‘Small Trainer’.
“Bella’s a big part of everything. She gets involved, she knows all their names,” says Kayley.
“Lalor’s definitely her favourite, which he has been for a long time, to be fair. He’s a gentle giant, he’s very good to her and spends a lot of time with her.”
Mental health is hugely important to Kayley, which is clear from all the posters in her office with different positive messages. But how is the wider world of racing dealing with this modern day crisis?
“I think people are talking more. It’s one of those industries where you’re required to be on top form all the time. I think it’s got a lot better. There are some key people out there who say ‘it affects me’.”
On that note, her sister Steph – office manager, work rider, babysitter, rock – is embarking on a trek to Machu Picchu in Peru in October, alongside Richard Johnson’s wife Fiona, to raise money for the mental health charity Mind.
“She’s amazing,” says Kayley. “She does crazy things and to have Fiona on board as well is brilliant.”
After what’s been an incredibly difficult time for Kayley and her family, we’ll all be cheering their pride and joy on at 2.10pm tomorrow.
Kayley Woollacott is a brand ambassador for Betway who are giving money back as a free bet if you lose on the first and last race every day at Cheltenham (min stake £2, max free bet £10, full terms apply)