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Winners for Alabama rodeo queen are sweet music to ears of her owners; Steve Dennis talks to a trainer who finds time to serenade her supporters in between churning out winners.

Byline: Steve Dennis

IT'S the little extras that count for owners, those little perks that take the sting out of paying the monthly training fees. Perhaps Sir Michael Stoute's patrons get a little pick-up game of French cricket now and then, maybe owners with Tom Dascombe can count on a spot of three-and-in with his business partner Michael Owen. Heather Main's owners, on the other hand, get a night at the opera - starring their trainer.

Main has made a promising start to a training career that was in its infancy when her vet husband, James, hit the headlines after being struck off by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons for his involvement in the 'Moonlit Path affair', that led to Nicky Henderson's three-month training ban.

She is a professional-standard opera singer, who has sung for royalty in France. It could have been her career but horses came first; now she is getting the best of both worlds and her horses are still coming first.

"I'm holding a concert next month, just for my owners. I can sing, so I may as well sing to them," says Main. "We renovated a 300-year-old stone barn at the yard, turning it into a music room and an office.

"The acoustics are lovely and it's right next to the stables. There's a grand piano in there and we have concerts two or three times a year. I'd normally just sing opera, but I think I might throw in a bit of Bohemian Rhapsody as well."

This leads, naturally, to the aspect that headline-writers have found irresistible since Alabama-born Main started training at Kingston Lisle, near Wantage, two years ago. At this point Main's sunny smile is replaced by a rather rueful grin.

"Oh no, that 'singing cowgirl' tag. Do we have to mention it?" she says, her southern accent now pitched somewhere in mid-Atlantic. "I should never have let the cat out of the bag. I'm more other things."

Even cowgirls get the blues, apparently, and this must be why. To dwell for too long on the subject would be like badgering David Bowie about his Laughing Gnome days, or reflecting on Rupert Murdoch's boyhood paper round, but now we've started ... "Yes, I was a teenage cowgirl," she says. "When I was at school, at weekends my father and I used to go to quarter-horse shows all over the US.

"He was a barrel-racing champion as a boy and I did barrel racing too. Three barrels are laid out in a clover-leaf pattern and your horse has to race around each one, turning on a dime, leaning over like a motorbike.

"If there'd been racehorses in Alabama at that time I would have got involved with racing; I always wanted to be in racing.

"And yes, you'll probably read that I was crowned rodeo queen of Alabama, and I was, but I never rode any bucking broncos, just did barrel racing. Perhaps I should have ridden a few broncos, it would have been good practice for breaking in some of my yearlings."

Main left Alabama for Southampton to complete her degree in English Literature - "I left the south looking for adventure and came to England on my own, which was quite scary" - but the books were superseded by the impact of the voice that had manifested itself during her senior year at high school. She secured a post-graduate degree in performance from Trinity College of Music, studied privately for eight or nine years and could have made a life as a globetrotting diva.

But the pull of horses was too strong. She drove from a pre-dawn London to Newmarket to ride out, asked James Eustace a million questions, then realised she wanted to be a trainer. Along the way she won a couple of races as an amateur on the Paul Cole-trained Cool Temper, started a pre-training business, bought horses at the breeze-ups and sold them on.

In her first year with a licence Main, 42, drew a blank; last year she won two races, this year she has ten under her belt after winning an appeal against the disqualification of Islesman at Kempton last month. It's going well.

"I wouldn't use the word 'surprised'," she says. "But I'm very, very pleased, and it's a huge relief that we're clearly going about things the right way.

"I'm very ambitious and when I started out, this is what I aimed for. A lot of our recent success is not only down to the horses we've bought but to our facilities.

"We're completely self-contained here - we even grow our own feed hay - and last summer we put in a six-furlong all-weather Safetrack strip that is very forgiving to the horses.

"We have 92 acres, with plenty of room to turn the horses out in individual paddocks. My horses are very relaxed, it's very quiet where we are and we can do roadwork without worrying about the traffic. It's a fantastic set-up."

Sweet home Kingston Lisle for the 16 horses - three of them jumpers - in Main's care. The results prove it, and visitors to her work-in-progress website will soon be able to watch them on the gallops against the background of music she wrote and performed herself.

THERE are no superstars in the stable - her highestrated horse is Islesman, with a Racing Post Rating of 85 - but seven of the nine horses to have run this season have won, with the only horse as yet unplaced the twice-raced two-year-old Wrapped Up. She has an intriguing cache of late-season juveniles, including Cockney Rhyme, a filly by Cockney Rebel, and as-yet-unnamed sons of Big Brown, Marquetry and Silver Deputy, and is looking forward to increasing her numbers at the yearling sales.

"I find the sales fascinating, all-consuming - sometimes I forget to eat. I even spent my honeymoon at Keeneland sales," she says, drawing a sheepish look from James.

"I spend a huge amount of time looking at potential purchases and one of the reasons our horses have been doing so well is because we put in the groundwork at the sales. We don't spend a fortune; the average price of our current two-year-olds was pounds 16,000.

"Pedigree is very important and a horse doesn't have to be a perfect specimen to be a racehorse. If a horse has a minor fault the bloodstock agents might cross it off their lists, but we'd have no problems with it.

"With all his experience, James can see whether any minor faults might turn into a problem somewhere down the line or whether the horse will stand up to training."

Recalling the storm that surrounded James's part in the Moonlit Path controversy, the strain is evident in her voice. "It was hell," she admits. "The mental stress was absolutely horrendous."

James takes over the story. "In January I can reapply to the RCVS and in March I'll know whether I'm to be re-registered," he says. "I'm still a partner at the [O'Gorman Slater Main and Partners] practice and do three days a week of non-clinical work.

"Probably the biggest difficulty for Heather at the moment is that she's got me around the place too much! But we're renovating the house, so that keeps me pretty busy."

They have moved on and the conversation refocuses on next month's concert, just one of the ways in which Main makes ownership a more inclusive experience.

"One of the parts of training I enjoy most is my involvement with my owners," she says. "A big part of owning a horse is to be able to come and see it as often as possible, not just turn up at the races.

"I want to make ownership a social experience, and my owners know that they can come along any morning they like to visit their horses, see them work and see how they are progressing stage by stage."

They must be pleased with what they see and with what they hear. "I have this voice and I need to use it," adds Main.

Some trainers only sing when they're winning; not this one.


James Main: his veterinary experience makes him a big help
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Geographic Code:1U6AL
Date:Jul 18, 2011
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