JO MOTION, matriarch of an equestrian dynasty, Middleburg proprietor, was the “lad” of the 1951 winner of Grand National, Nickel Coin.
By Laura W. Smith
Just before the World War II, on a beach in England on the South Coast outside the town of Wittering, a seven year old girl took a ride on a donkey that would change the course of her life. Her passion for horses was sparked and kindled by local stable owner Elizabeth Ferrand and the Surrey Union Hunt Pony Club. By 14, young Jo Wells (aka Jo Motion) competed in many gymkhanas (games on horseback) and was the amateur whippers in for the Surrey Union Hunt. She began riding thoroughbred horses and became enamored by their speed, agility and intelligence.
“I was personally very happy on a Thoroughbred. It was like driving a fancy powerful car,” commented Motion.
Before long, Jo left school and began working for steeplechase trainer Jack O’Donoghue as a “lad” in his racing “yard” including a former show jumping mare named Nickel Coin. For three years young Jo worked the mare over fences and galloped to keep her fit, often hunting her. Hacking out near the White Cliffs of Dover to Epsom Downs for a workout was a regular event. She cleaned up after her and groomed, bathed and cared for her every need along with two other horses in the yard.
Motion explained that in England, when working in a racing stable “You do your three” which means that a lad (or lass) is responsible for three horses—grooming, tacking, mucking, riding, bathing, wrapping, feeding, handwalking—whatever needs done. (This differs from typical racing stables in the U.S where each duty is performed by a different employee—exercise rider, groom, hot walker, etc.)
Initially purchased by the Royles to carry their son around local point to point races—Nickel Coin proved to be a phenomenal jumper —but not terribly fast by racing standards. In 1951, after winning many qualifying steeplechases, Nickel Coin and Jo Wells traveled to Aintree Race Course in Liverpool, England to face their ultimate challenge, the greatest horse race in the world, The Grand National. Young Jo rode Nickel Coin to stretch her legs around the grounds of Aintree and looked at the obstacles on the infamous course—some with a five foot hedge that was three feet wide with a five foot ditch in front.
She telephoned her mother that she had second thoughts about the race told her “I’d rather wished we hadn’t come.” She further explained, “You go with the idea of winning …but don’t think you can.”
The crowd at Aintree included over 250,000 people, and while initial odds had Nickel Coin at 40-1, she had been bet down to 10-1. The footing was soft for the course of 32 fences over 4 miles. The race began and the 36 horses approached the first fence—many fell. The announcer named them as best he could—and Nickel Coin was among them. Jo gathered up her grooming kit, halter and supplies and ventured out after the horse—but stopped when she heard a call that the mare was up and running—and did not fall after all. It was a gruesome race that is not for the faint of heart—35 of the 36 horses did fall that day, the yielding turf contributed to the spills but thankfully all of the horses returned unscathed. Twice around the course they traveled having to leap the infamous Beecher’s Brook, an enormous fence with a drop on the other side. After the first revolution of the course was complete, the field narrowed to four. Nickel Coin jumped flawlessly while others tumbled around her. Loose horses galloped along side until they realized that jumping was indeed optional without a jockey. Nickel Coin and jockey John Bullock managed to safely navigate the course and win the race. Jo met them and escorted the horse to winner’s circle to celebrate the victory and assess the condition of the horse.
Jo resists comparisons to National Velvet, the 1944 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney depicting a horse-crazy teenage girl winning the Grand National—“It is a delightful story but complete fiction,’”—but her story is not. When asked about being a female in the “yard” or “on the backside” (as they would say in the U.S.) she insists that she was treated equally and paid the same as the other “lads”. “While there were few girls working in racing stables in those days (1950’s), the work was equal and so was the pay. I never had any difficulty working in a man’s world,” explained Motion.
The equestrian world is really the only place where men and women compete and treated the same. Incidentally, the first woman to win the Grand National was Geraldine Rees in 1982—and the first woman to ride in the legendary race was Charlotte Brew in 1977. As for female trainers in the Grand National, Venetron Williams saddled the winner in 2009, Jenny Pittman was the first to train a winner. In 1951, Jo Motion may have the distinction as the first female “lad” or more appropriately called the first “lass” to win the Grand National.
It seems like only yesterday to Middleburg proprietor Jo Motion who owns the Middleburg Tack Exchange. Motion first came to Middleburg in the 1950’s after the Grand National making the trip across the pond and working for the Adams family as an assistant trainer at Belmont Park. The jumper string traveled south and Jo with them. She took lodging at the Red Fox Inn and dined across the street at what used to be the Pharmacy, because it had a lunch counter with reasonably priced food. Her training operation was head-quartered at Burrland (what is now Hickory Tree Farm) off The Plains Road. She returned to England to marry her childhood sweetheart and pony club comrade, Mike Motion in 1956 They raised their children and many horses, cows and pigs at their Herringswell Farm outside of Cambridge. Later they returned to the United States and had two daughters and after stints in New York and Kentucky, settled in Middleburg for good in 1986.
In 1992, Jo opened the Middleburg Tack Exchange and in just a year’s time, it outgrew its space. The store features consignment saddles, bridles, attire and equipment needed to ride/hunt/compete successfully. It’s the place to shop for boots that are already broken in—(makes you look like you have been at it awhile, even if it is your first time–hunting or showing).
Jo Motion is the matriarch of an equestrian dynasty. Her husband Mike has served as bloodstock agent for many fine thoroughbreds for a lifetime career and their son Andrew continues in that tradition right here in Middleburg. Andrew’s daughter Mary is pursuing a career in racing. Their son H. Graham Motion learned his trade from Jonathan Sheppard and has won some great races, including the Kentucky Derby along with several Breeder’s Cup races and the Dubai World Cup. Grand-daughter Lillibet competes in show jumping.
Beware parents—all it takes is a pony ride…and you are off to the races!