Trainer Heather Main sang opera before her eyes on Royal Ascot glory

Trapeze artist gets in the swing for Ascot: Trainer Heather Main had a great career as a circus and opera singer – now she’s tuned up for Royal success

  • Heather Main was an opera singer with a circus background in her early career 
  • Now she is a successful horse trainer, with ambitions of Royal Ascot success 
  • Main is hoping to spring a shock with Zoulu Chief in Tuesday’s Coventry Stakes

To say Heather Main’s route to training racehorses was unconventional would be a significant understatement and not remotely close to describing the path that she has taken to potential Royal Ascot success this week.

It is safe to say that none of her fellow trainers will have sung in the Barbican while swinging from a trapeze as part of John Cage’s Musicircus.

You wouldn’t bet that many of Main’s colleagues have even heard of the avant-garde American composer.

But a career as a professional singer is only part of the story for the US-born trainer who is hoping to spring another surprise result with Zoulu Chief in Tuesday’s Coventry Stakes after his impressive 150-1 win at Newbury last month.

‘I’m just a cowgirl from Alabama,’ said Main, who was brought up riding Quarter Horses, famed for their speed over short distances, and barrel racing, a rodeo-style event in which competitors try to set the fastest time in a break-neck sprint around barrels set out in a clover leaf pattern.

Heather Main was an opera singer before finding success with horses like Zoulu Chief

She studied privately before taking up the opportunity to learn at the Trinity College of Music

‘There is barrel racing at rodeos but what I did was mainly at Quarter Horse shows. Me and my father shared the same horse and we went to the state and national championships. I won quite a few classes for the state of Alabama.’

Main’s journey into the world of music came after she moved to the University of Southampton to complete an English literature degree. ‘I sang in musicals in America and trained on piano from when I was a little girl but when I was at Southampton my voice got a lot stronger and I got into opera,’ said Main, 54.

‘I studied privately at first and then at the Trinity College of Music. I was a professional singer but never really made a lot of money out of it

‘I sang Mozart and Puccini operas and a lot of oratorios. At the Barbican I sang in John Cage’s Musicircus and I had a solo in a Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Then I started missing the horses.’

That yearning was fulfilled at first by joining the Honourable Artillery Company’s Saddle club when Main would ride in the Royal Mews. She also got to ride the horses of the King’s Troop on the Monday evening.

Main said: ‘It was great fun. We would ride the gun horses. They normally wouldn’t allow the girls to do it but they let my friend and I because we were such good riders. They taught us how to charge on a horse with a sword!’

But the lure of speed drew Main to thoroughbreds, first commuting from London to Newmarket when she got a horse with James Eustace and later riding out for trainers including Paul Cole and Stan Moore. It became her route into training.

Main, who has run her stable in Kingston Lisle close to Lambourn with vet husband James since 2009, said: ‘I always loved speed so I am not surprised I ended up in racing even though I don’t come from a racing background.

‘I became an amateur jockey. I am fascinated by the training and I would pick the trainer’s brains.

‘They probably got really fed up because I was drilling them every day. I picked what I liked best out of what everybody did and learned that way.’

Main joined the Honourable Artillery Company’s Saddle club, and would ride in the Royal Mews

Zoulu Chief’s 150-1 win at Newbury was not a surprise to Main who ‘always thought a lot’ of him

It was the speed that 27,000gn purchase Zoulu Chief showed that persuaded her and James to run the colt in the Coventry Stakes, booking top apprentice Billy Loughnane to ride.

Zoulu Chief’s shock 150-1 victory in a maiden at Newbury did not surprise Main.

Main, whose last two runners at Goodwood on Friday and York on Saturday have won, said: ‘We always thought a lot of Zoulu Chief. He was just green on his first run at Salisbury — most of ours are. When he won at 150-1 everyone said you must have been surprised but we weren’t.

‘I normally don’t back my horses because I am quite superstitious but when I saw his odds I thought they were crazy so I put £5 each way on him and so did my son and husband.

‘We had told a friend we liked the horse. He did a forecast with him and the Richard Hannon-trained (favourite and runner-up) Baheer and backed Zoulu Chief each way. He won £27,000 and took us to lunch!

‘It was so exhilarating. Zoulu Chief won nearly five lengths and Hannon rates his horse. That gives you some confidence going to Ascot.

‘We have had the opportunity to sell him but we didn’t take the offer because we really like him. It’s tough but these kinds of horses are hard to come by.’

Denman owner dies

Paul Barber, one of the best known owners in jumps racing who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Denman (2008) and See More Business (1999), has died aged 80.

Barber also owned dual King George VI Chase winner Clan Des Obeaux in partnership with Sir Alex Ferguson and Ged Mason. 

He was responsible for launching the training career of Paul Nicholls, acting as mentor as well as landlord to the 14-time champion trainer at his Somerset stable.

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