You’re driving down a country lane with the windows down when to your left, through a hedge, comes the sound of thundering hooves. You’re overtaken by galloping horses.
Surprised? Not here in Seaborough, a tiny village where horses outnumber humans, tucked away in the far northwestern corner of Dorset. It’s also where the next big name in British racing is building his reputation and his Cheltenham Festival campaign.
Harry Fry talks to Peter Smith about winners, lucky breaks and being the UK’s youngest licensed National Hunt trainer.
“I grew up with horses on my parents’ farm. I can’t remember not being on a horse,” Fry recalls, as we sit in his office overlooking a building housing a horse walker, sundry vehicles and a series of grass paddocks. Beyond lies a field containing an all-weather gallop and a collection of hurdles and fences.
“Every Christmas, Easter and half term I would be riding out every morning, and every spare moment I was home from school in Sherborne.”
But his dreams of being a jockey were shattered after breaking a leg in a fall on the schooling ground. He put on a stone and a half while recovering and struggled with his weight throughout the gap year which followed, when he helped out at Richard Barber’s Manor Farm base in Seaborough.
Three weeks before Fry was due to begin a degree course in international equine and business management, Barber alerted him to a vacancy as a pupil assistant to Sir Mark Prescott at Newmarket. When Fry failed to land the job, Barber tipped off the champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who had a similar vacancy.
Fry jumped at the chance to work for one of the biggest names in racing at Ditcheat, near Shepton Mallet in Somerset.
“I remember my first day and being totally in awe of the horses,” he says.
“They were the biggest names in racing: Kauto Star, Denman, Big Bucks, Master Minded, Neptune Collonges. Just to be a part of it, to see them working! Days I shall never forget. Paul Nicholls was a fantastic man to work for.”
To begin with, the appreciation wasn’t mutual. Nicholls says of Fry: “He started off as a dogsbody, as they all do, and worked his way up. In his first year he was a bit of a Calamity Jane. If there was a piece of ice in the yard he would slip on it.
“But he grew up a lot in his first year and did well. Harry was passionate, didn’t mind the long hours. He was very good with both people and horses.”
There wasn’t the opportunity for Fry to progress further with Nicholls at that time, but Nicholls came up with a plan. In 2010 he offered Fry the chance to take over his satellite operation in Seaborough from Richard Barber and assist with Barber’s point-to-pointers as well.
Fry returned to Seaborough at just the right time. He met not only the future champion hurdler Rock On Ruby as an unraced four-year-old but also Ciara O’Connor, later to become his fiancée, who had left Ireland looking to further her equine career in England. Just missing out on a job with Nicholls, she was offered a post at Seaborough.
“She’d sent in a CV to Ditcheat but there wasn’t a position there. We were setting up my Seaborough operation and I was looking for a ‘head person’ so the CV ended up on my desk. She’d been running a yard for a permit holder in Ireland and wanted to gain experience in England. Initially the post was for 12 months but, five years on, she’s still here.”
Ciara is now Fry’s assistant trainer and mother of their four-month-old daughter, appropriately named Ruby after the horse that broke them into the big league. She’s mainly responsible for looking after Rock On Ruby, who continues to be the flag-bearer for the yard.
In October 2012, at the age of 25, Fry became the UK’s youngest licensed National Hunt trainer when Nicholls detached the satellite yard from his own growing business. In that first solo season, from 20 initial horses he had 20 winners.
In 2013-14, his first full season, he achieved 34 firsts. Now, with 60 or so horses in his care, and a staff of more than 20, his thriving business has surpassed that total well before season’s end arrives at Sandown Park in late April.
Most of Fry’s runners are ridden by Noel Fehily. “He’s very experienced and makes a tremendous difference on race days. He’s also brought in many more contacts. I can pick his brains. He’s got more experience than I have,” says Fry.
Fehily will ride several runners at this year’s Cheltenham Festival where we could see the likes of Bitofapuzzle, Jolly’s Cracked It, Jollyallan, Thomas Brown, Fletcher’s Flyer and others, as well as Rock On Ruby. Such is Fry’s growing reputation that when he needed someone to deputise for Fehily in January, up stepped the champion jockey A.P. McCoy.
Fry and Nicholls regularly go head-to-head at meetings and at this year’s Cheltenham Festival (10-13 March) there are scores to settle. Nicholls trained Rock On Ruby to the 2012 Champion Hurdle success but, now in Fry’s care, 2015’s target is the World Hurdle. Should he win, the gelding will be the first to claim the double of two-mile and long distance championship races since 1962.
But while his former boss will also have runners, Nicholls admits: “If he wins I’ll be the first to shake his hand. He’s done very, very well, but he’s competition now.”
Fry is yet to have a festival winner in his own name but on 12 March, if Rock On Ruby leads the field home to a historic victory, an expected 50,000 crowd will raise the roof and, (misquoting Kaiser Chiefs’ song lyrics) “be calling his name… Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…”