“I had to teach myself – I was thrown in at the deep”
7th Dec 2015 | News
A DANK grey afternoon in South Wales lit up by the 4ft 11ins of phenomenon that is Jessica Fortt. In late February Jessica won the coveted stable employee of the year at the Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards, beating a veritable who’s who of talent from major yards and empires.
And after just a couple of minutes in her company you understand why the 12 judges could not resist her, with chairman Brough Scott describing her as “a magnificently refreshing character”.
Jessica is certainly that. Smiley, upbeat and brimming with energy, the 38-year-old is the beating heart of David Brace’s Dunraven Stud at Pyle, near Bridgend, where stallions Dr Massini and Mountain High stand and which is also home to a thriving and successful point-to-point yard.
Horse mad as a child, she left school at 16 and spotted an advert for the British Racing School in Newmarket and took her six-and-a-half-stone self off for an interview.
She says: “I was there for ten weeks and just fell in love with the whole thing. The sensation of riding a thoroughbred at speed was incredible and I got the bug straight away.
“The Racing School got me a placement with Bryn Palling and I was there for nearly five years. He gave me opportunities and, although I only had 25 rides, I rode against the likes of Pat Eddery, Kieren Fallon and Frankie Dettori.
“I had just got the first couple of outside rides when I had the accident.”
Jessica was leading a colt when he reared up and came down with both front feet landing on her face.
She says: “I fractured my jaw in three places and it had to be pinned and wired. I also dislocated my jaw on both sides so that my chin just flopped down almost to my chest.
“They managed to do all the operation inside my mouth so I only have one small scar but I lost a lot of feeling in my face. On cold days it can be sore – very sore.”
Someone suggested she meet David Brace, a bulldog of a proud Welshman with a Labrador’s temperament and a genuinely remarkable man who began his working life down the pit alongside father Evan.
But he built up an impressive business empire comprising Dunraven Windows and a builder’s merchants and is a major local employer. Chairman of Prostate Cymru and a legend in south Wales, he was awarded an OBE in 2013 for services to business and charities and is deep in the weave of Welsh point-to-pointing.
He holds the Jim Mahon Award which is the most prestigious gong in point-to-pointing.
Jessica says: “I was sad to leave Bryn’s but I liked David immediately and have worked for him for 16 years.
“We have 14 pointers on the place and six mares which he has upgraded down the years. I missed the speed of Flat horses and was at first shocked by
the sheer power of jumpers, but I fell in love with them.
“We were forever dashing over to Ireland to get mares covered so David took the plunge and decided to stand a stallion. I had to teach myself really and to a degree I was thrown in at the deep end – there aren’t many stallion girls, they are all stallion men.”
The likes of Needle Gun, Bach, Leger victor Brian Boru and Vinnie Roe have stood at Dunraven, but it is the 22-year-old Dr Massini who has been the stud stalwart and has been joined this year by Mountain High, yet another Coolmore-sourced stallion.
The old boy, restricted to two mares a day now, looks magnificent for a horse of his age and Jessica clearly loves him.
She says: “He’ll nip me and does like to hold on a bit! He hates rain and will holler to be put back inside, but he’s a gentleman with his mares and has so much respect with them.
“Some stallions are very aggressive and can come roaring in like some Jack the lad back from the pub on a Saturday night. Then the mare will shoot off and you can’t get the stallion up on her and that’s when you have to sedate them.
“You have to build a relationship with stallions and respect them as animals. I take him out for walks, but they have to know who is in charge and perhaps my only drawback is that being under 5ft I can’t really get my shoulder into them.”
But there is nothing else she cannot do and her dedication to duty would make your average Sandhurst sergeant major look like Solly the Shirker.
She can read the pregnancy scans and more than once when a young vet has declared a mare not in foal Jessica has made them go back and spotted that she is.
Local vets now ring Jessica up to get her to talk to mare owners who may have problems. She is the equine Claire Rayner of South Wales.
THE crucial thing with foals is to get the mare’s colostrum – a thick yellow sticky substance produced by the mare on the point of foaling – into the new-born within six hours. It is the elixir of life for them.
Jessica says: “It’s crucial you get them to suck. And maiden mares for whom it is all totally new can get very sensitive udders and sometimes won’t let the foal near them and kick out at them.
“David had a mare called Moon Catcher who he claimed from Martin Pipe and who won at Cheltenham and Aintree. But she could be a right cow and we had to foster her first foal out which broke my heart.
“For a month before foaling I very gently tickle the mare’s udder with a feather duster and, when she has accepted that, I nudge the udder with my hands to imitate the action of a foal.
“But Moon Catcher wouldn’t even let you near her tummy so I put her in the stocks and, looking down on her back, moved my hands underneath her. In time she got used to it and when her second foal was born there was no problem.”
It is all about living the job 24 hours a day. Married for seven years to Matthew, a chartered surveyor, she doesn’t even sleep in the same room as him in the foaling season from February to June.
“It wouldn’t be fair,” she says. “I set the alarm through the night to check to the CCTV in the house and he’d never get a wink. So I have a blow-up bed in the lounge. I don’t really leave the stud for those months but if I nip out to the supermarket the cameras are linked to my phone so I can still check what’s going on.”
Jessica had no clue she was even entered for the Stud and Stable Staff Awards because Bracey – as he is widely known – hadn’t told her he had nominated her.
She says: “I opened a letter one day and it said I was in the final of something I had never heard of.
“David is kind of like my Dad and it’s wonderful that he thought enough of me to nominate me.
“I had never been to London before so it was all an adventure. David, his wife Jean and my husband Matt all came and I had to buy a new dress!
“On the day you have a 30-minute interview with the judges and I’m a little shy so that was nerve-racking. I didn’t think I had the slightest chance of winning even my stud category against top men from Cheveley Park and Shadwell. It was an honour to be against them.
“I got back to my table and everyone was ecstatic and I allowed myself a first glass of champagne.
“We all thought Philip Hobbs’s right-hand man Johnson White would win the main award – I may have fallen a little bit in love with him! It never crossed my mind I had the slightest chance.
“When my name was announced I just burst into tears. All that work, all that dedication and my passion for it recognised and our tiny little stud in Wales on top.”
This time round Jessica is one of the judges, and the man who nominated her says: “With Jess I know everything will be done perfectly. There would be no stallions here without her.
“We had a ball at the awards and my wife Jean doesn’t mind a glass of champagne and celebrated hard. In fact we had to carry her out down the stairs!”
Big thank to The Racing Post for supplying us with this interview and also to Huw Evans Picture Agency for the use of the photos.