Unsung equestrian heroes champing at the bit after virus lockdown
For every jockey who wins the Cheltenham Gold Cup or showjumper crowned champion, there are unsung heroes taking care of the horses that carry the riders to glory.
The coronavirus pandemic brought equestrian sport to a juddering halt and while horses could still be exercised and groomed, it has been a frustrating time for those in the industry.
AFP Sport spoke to two people at the top of their trade.
Adrian Bolger, one of four joint head lads to leading Irish trainer Jessica Harrington, has had to oversee the daily care of 50 horses and keep up the levels of morale among his staff during the lockdown.
Racing in Ireland has been suspended since March but will resume behind closed doors on June 8.
Bolger admitted it had been a difficult time.
"It has been tough with weeks and months when you had no date or goal to aim for," he told AFP.
"I would say kind of halfway through it hit me -- 'this is really soul-destroying, like there is no end game'."
Bolger, who has been with Harrington for 11 years, said nothing much in the daily routine had changed, from mucking out to feeding the horses.
But staff have had to take care they do not overwork the animals "as then their seasons will be over before they have even begun".
"I have been saying to the lads 'we just have to carry on and when we come out of this we will have a strong team of horses'," said Bolger.
The 32-year-old bachelor -- "because I am married to the horses" -- cannot wait for the stable to taste victory again.
"Literally thinking about it I get goosebumps, I cannot wait for it," he said.
"The sense of achievement is unbelievable. Everyone sees what is on TV, the jockey going out onto the course and the walk around the paddock.
"However, for stable staff it is a 365-days-a-year operation 24/7 and staying late."
Groomed for success
Sean Vard had been looking forward to his four-year spell as groom to Switzerland's European showjumping champion Martin Fuchs climaxing with the Olympics in Tokyo.
The Irishman, who left home and his family's stables nine years ago after falling in love with continental Europe, said he had got over the disappointment that there will be no Games this year but the lack of regular competition had got to him.
"The struggle is real for a groom at the moment I can tell you," he said. "It is very tough and challenging."
Vard, who worked in the Netherlands and Norway before joining Fuchs after the Rio Olympics, said there had been compensations.
"You can learn just as much at home," he said. "I have maybe taken it for granted and never really seen them (the horses) in their own habitat.
"Now that I have seen how they relax at home and relax at shows I can compare the differences."
Vard usually spends much of his time on the road, driving horses through the night across Europe for different events -- he did an unbroken 17-week stint last year -- and says he cannot wait to resume that routine.
His job description is that of a manager -- he plans the routes, organises the stables the horses stay in and the vet certificates.
"It is so rewarding when you are driving away from winning a Rolex event," Vard said, referring to Fuchs's victory in his home "major" in Geneva in December.
"So satisfying all those hard hours have worked out."
For the moment, though, it is small things that give him the most job satisfaction.
"I have just washed my power tractor which I have been meaning to do for a while," he said.
"Despite being covered from head to toe in muck I am delighted I got the job done."
© 2020 AFP