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The story of Gay Kelleway and Sprowston Boy at Royal Ascot

Gay Kelleway was the first woman to win at Royal Ascot, riding Norwich-owned Sprowston Boy. Now she has her own stables and the story is being told in a new play.  PICTURE; CHARLOTTE BOND
Gay Kelleway was the first woman to win at Royal Ascot, riding Norwich-owned Sprowston Boy. Now she has her own stables and the story is being told in a new play. PICTURE; CHARLOTTE BOND

A new play touring East Anglia tells the story of how Sprowston Boy, a horse described as more like a pit pony, and Gaye Kelleway, the first female jockey to win at Royal Ascot, made history.

‘I kicked early, a mile out. I thought any minute now one of the big jockeys is going to come by me. I looked round and I was seven lengths clear and I thought, ‘I’m going to win this! I’ve done this! I’ve achieved something no-one else has ever achieved!

‘It was just the most amazing feeling.’

Gay Kellaway was just 23 when she became the first female jockey to win at Royal Ascot.

Her horse, Sprowston Boy, was a 12/1 outsider owned by childhood best friends from Norwich.

Great British Life: Geoff Whiting with Sprowston Boy. Picture: supplied by The Whitings on the WallGeoff Whiting with Sprowston Boy. Picture: supplied by The Whitings on the Wall

For more than three decades Gay remained the only female jockey to have won at Royal Ascot. Today she runs her own racing stables at Exning, near Newmarket. Despite all the horses she has worked with since, Sprowston Boy still has a special place in her heart.

‘I adored him. He was a lovely ride, a gorgeous horse. He loved life, he loved his work. He was just an ordinary chestnut horse with a little white star and such a happy horse,’ said Gay.

She had always wanted to work with horses. Her father was a trainer and her mother had been an amateur jockey.

‘I loved race riding,’ said Gay. ‘I was an amateur champion and when I was 19 my dad said, ‘I need an apprentice you’d be ideal.’

‘I said, ‘Don’t be so ridiculous, how am I going to ride against men?’

‘If my father hadn’t been a trainer I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

Great British Life: The front page of the Evening News after Sprowston Boy won. Picture: NewsquestThe front page of the Evening News after Sprowston Boy won. Picture: Newsquest

‘Women weren’t thought much of in racing. I was told a job in racing wasn’t for a woman. But I thought I can do what they can do. Why should a woman be put down? I was so determined and so disciplined. I sacrificed quite a lot as a child. I didn’t really have a social life but I had this wonderful opportunity riding lovely horses.

‘My dad made me professional and a year later along came Sprowston Boy.

Now the partnership between horse and jockey has been turned into a play – by the granddaughter of one of Sprowston Boy’s owners.

Katie-anna Whiting pieced Horse Play together from family pictures, diaries, press cuttings and interviews.

It will tour across Norfolk and Suffolk this month.

‘Growing up I had a vague idea about it but I never really followed horse racing, so didn't understand its significance until I started researching it,’ said Katie-anna. As soon as I discovered he won Ascot, jockeyed by the first female to do so, I was hooked!

Great British Life: Katie-anna Whiting with her grandfather's scrapbook. Supplied by The Whitings on the WallKatie-anna Whiting with her grandfather's scrapbook. Supplied by The Whitings on the Wall

‘I'm so proud of my grandad for his role in such an important part of sporting history.

‘The more I found out about it, the more I realised there's just so much to it! We could have made several plays with the information we gathered!

‘I think making a show that celebrates a major achievement of women in sport is as needed now as it ever was.

‘That and the fact that my grandad and Kenny were just two local lads, quite unlike the usual racehorse owners of the time, and Sprowston Boy was described as looking more like a pit pony than a thoroughbred. They were all up against it.’

Sixth generation Norwich coal merchant Kenny Blanch and his childhood best friend Geoff Whiting, an insurance salesman, clubbed together to buy Sprowston Boy, naming him after the street where they grew up.

‘My grandad always had a love of horses,’ said Katie-anna. ‘I found out recently he ran away from home aged 14, answering an ad in the paper looking for a stable hand in Newmarket.

‘He wanted to work his way up and be a jockey. But his dad cottoned on, headed out to Newmarket and took him straight home. He told him to get a proper job! So Grandad became a baker's boy, delivering loaves of bread off the back of a horse and cart.’

Great British Life: Geoff Whiting with his Sprowston Boy scrapbook. Picture: NewsquestGeoff Whiting with his Sprowston Boy scrapbook. Picture: Newsquest

Geoff’s love of horses deepened when he served with the Royal Norfolk Regiment in Rangoon during the Second World War. ‘He wrote in his war diaries, which are used in the show, ‘The mules were the real heroes.’’ said Katie-anna. ‘I believe that he came away from the things he experienced even more determined to live out his dreams.

‘Kenny was much quieter. He didn't like the spotlight, so I think for him it was more about supporting his friend. On the front page of the Norwich Evening News the day after the race there's a picture of Kenny back in his coal yard on Sprowston Road saying ‘I have never missed a day's work!’

Gay is thrilled about the play. ‘I think it’s a fantastic idea. I can’t wait to see it. It’s a unique story, when you think about how long it took for another woman to ride a winner at Royal Ascot. And the owners were lovely owners.

‘I can remember it like yesterday. I heard the bell ringing and I rode against father’s orders. It was really soft, heavy going, so I decided to play to his advantage, because he was a very fit horse and I knew he could just keep going.

Great British Life: Gay Kelleway was the first woman to win at Royal Ascot,riding Norwich-owned Sprowston Boy. Now she has her own stables and the story is being told in a new play. PICTURE; CHARLOTTE BONDGay Kelleway was the first woman to win at Royal Ascot,riding Norwich-owned Sprowston Boy. Now she has her own stables and the story is being told in a new play. PICTURE; CHARLOTTE BOND

‘Coming in with my mum and dad there. I was so proud.

And it opened a lot of doors to me. It was pretty awesome. I met Princess Diana, Maureen Lipman, so many famous people.’

Gay, who was champion professional female rider three years in a row, now runs Gay Kelleway Racing at her Queen Alexandra Stables (named after her win at Royal Ascot in the Queen Alexandra Stakes).

Inspired to become a trainer by her father, she also learned from his mistakes. ‘My dad was a brilliant trainer. I learned a lot from him and that’s why I became a trainer, but he didn’t want me to. He said it was too hard. He died penniless. In racing, you have a wonderful lifestyle but you don’t actually make that much money.’

Sprowston Boy retired a decade after his big Royal Ascot win. Hugely popular on home ground, he won three times at Fakenham, including at his final appearance there in 1996.

Katie-anna remembers riding him around the garden of her childhood home in Cawston, near Aylsham. ‘I remember my grandad bringing Sprowston Boy, he must have been retired by this point, down Marriott's way and plonking me and my sister on him in the garden.

‘It wasn't a massive garden, it was just the sort of thing my grandad did! My dad says growing up, they always had animals. There was a pot-bellied pig who would lie on the sofa in the house!’

Sprowston Boy spent his final three years at stables in Felmingham, near North Walsham dying, aged 27, in 2010.

Both Geoff and Kenny died the following year. They had been in their 60s by the time they bought Sprowston Boy. ‘They had a few unsuccessful ones first!’ said Katie-anna.

Kenny had continued working in the family coal yard into his mid 80s and Geoff died a day after his 90th birthday. ‘He always said he would make it to 90,’ said Katie-anna. ‘He was a kind, funny, loving and determined spirit; when he set his sights on something, he made it happen.’

She set up her theatre company, The Whiting’s On The Wall, when she returned to Norfolk after almost 15 years away. ‘I fell in love with Norfolk anew and wanted to start making theatre about Norfolk and Norfolk people, celebrating the accent of my region and giving a platform to the type of stories you don’t often see in professional theatre,’ she said.

Horse Play, with music by Norwich-based Skinny Boy Tunes (featured on BBC Introducing and BBC Radio 6), was developed with The Garage and Norwich-based All-In Productions, supported by Arts Council England and the National Horse Racing Museum.

It combines projection, puppetry, live performance and 80s nostalgia. And how will the horse be depicted? 'Our shows are funny and poignant and have an element of surprise. Our Sprowston Boy is all of these things!’ said Katie-anna.

See Horse Play at:

The Garage, Norwich, November 3 (including British Sign Language interpreter.)

Wells Maltings, November 4.

John Peel Centre, Stowmarket, November 7.

The Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft, November 9.

Lakes End Village Hall, near Welney, November 10.

Aylsham Town Hall, November 11.

Westacre Theatre, November 16.

Old Buckenham Village Hall, November 17.

Sedgeford Village Hall, November 18.

Diss Corn Hall, November 23.

Sheringham Little Theatre, November 24.

National Horse Racing Museum, November 25.

thewhitingsonthewall.com



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