‘The louder people cheer, the faster they go. It gets faster and faster all week – or my nerves get worse!’
Christmas will truly have come when 11 tinsel-bedecked Shetland ponies belt around the Grand National course at Olympia, The London International Horse Show, next week. Coordinator Vera Akehurst reveals: ‘The louder people cheer, the faster they go. It gets faster and faster all week – or my nerves get worse!’
She cheered her own son, Joe, on for 15 years. His pony, Ulverscroft Drambuie, ‘wee Dram’, also carried Sam and Willie Twiston-Davies (later professional jockeys), some of many top riders who began their careers this way. There are 52 Shetlands on the circuit; the top 11 go to Olympia: ‘Temperament is most important. The atmosphere is electric with 10,000 people.’
Mrs Akehurst brings a foal as a mascot, although, this year, miniature Shetland Bonnie (pictured) will go again. ‘She is so good. My granddaughter of 20 months can lead her in from the field.’ Bonnie fits in the lift to reach the charity boxes: ‘Last year, we went to one for disabled adults and children, who had amazing wheelchairs. They all wanted a picture with Bonnie and she never batted an eyelid.’
‘Some are shy and some bolshy, but they love it’
Mascots no longer visit Great Ormond Street Hospital, due to health-and-safety restrictions, but the young jockeys still raise huge amounts for charity, now the Bob Champion Cancer Trust. True professionals, the ponies have been on the Jeremy Vine show and This Morning with Rocco Dettori, Frankie’s son. ‘Touch wood, we’ve never had an accident.’
Bonnie is ‘a poppet’, but Mrs Akehurst, who usually works with Thoroughbreds and has five standard Shetlands, plus two miniatures, points out they are not the ‘fluffy pets’ people expect. ‘They have a brain – that’s the problem. They will work things out and, frankly, they take the mick!’ Slow to mature, they start racing aged five and may go on until they’re 20. ‘Some are shy and some bolshy, but they love it.’
The Queen is an admirer of the diminutive Grand National and awarded Joe the honour of wearing her silks in his last race, in 2011. ‘It was quite something to have a scruffy little Shetland in her colours!’
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Olympia runs from December 16–22 (www.olympiahorseshow.com)