A former stable lass who worked in racing for more than 40 years has been honoured with a Lifetime in Racing award.
Alma Wigmore, who was just 15 when she began her first job in a racing yard in 1958, was presented with the Racing Welfare award by Newmarket Trainers’ Federation chairman Mark Tompkins during a ceremony at Great Yarmouth races on Thursday to mark her dedication to the racing industry.
Now 72, Alma was born in Hampshire and brought up in Staffordshire by her Uncle Bill who was, she said, ‘racing mad’.
“He used to tell me about my Irish grandmother who was also a great racing fan and never missed a meeting at Punchestown which was her favourite track.
“So you don’t have to look far to see where the love of racing came from,” said Alma.
She started work at trainer Bob Ward’s yard at nearby Hednesford, where she had already learned to ride as a weekend lass and two years later made the move to Newmarket, joining the staff at Jack Waugh’s Heath House.
After a year, she moved to Phantom House where she worked for Ryan Jarvis until the late 1960s before travelling to South Australia to take up the job of head lass at Colin Hayes’ stables which had just moved to the wine-producing area in the Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide where the trainer was setting up what was to become one of the world’s great racing and breeding centres.
Alma said some of the best memories of her career are from her time in Australia where among the horses she rode out regularly was Fans who finished third in the 1968 Melbourne Cup.
“I rode a lot of winners at what we called picnic meetings. It wasn’t like any race meeting here - there would be three gallons of wine and a barbecue and you’d ride the same horse three times in races over two or three furlongs.
“It was a lot of hard work there, but a good life,” she said.
Returning to Newmarket in 1974, Alma went to work for Henry Cecil and his first wife Julie at Warren Place which she described as “not like a job but being part of a big family”.
In her 16 years there, she looked after a number of top-class horses, singling out the filly Chalon, winner among other races, of the Nell Gwynn and the Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket and the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot.
So good was Chalon that her trainer once said it was one of the greatest regrets of his illustrious career that he had not entered the filly for the One Thousand Guineas which, he said, she would have won “in a canter”.
When the Cecils separated in 1990, Alma went with Julie who set up as a trainer in her own right at Southgate Stables in Hamilton Road and, after Julie gave up her licence eight years later and went as assistant to William Jarvis, Alma went too until finally retiring in 2001.
“When I’d worked for Ryan Jarvis all those years ago, I’d sometimes babysit for William. So where I’d started was also where I’d ended up,” she said.
Alma lost her partner and husband, starting stalls handler Malcolm Wigmore in 1996 after more than 20 years together and, she said, some more dark days followed after her retirement.
Racing Welfare first suggested that she should receive the Lifetime in Racing Award a couple of years ago.
“I wasn’t in a good place then. Friends had died and things were sometimes very black so I told them I would rather not,” said Alma.
“Since then, I’ve got my act together. I meet up with a load of old racing boys at the Astley Club most days and sit there with them. It’s like being in the tackroom with the boys in the old days and it’s got me laughing again.”