She was one of the most promising young trainers around when she started out in Newmarket nearly a decade ago. Ambitious, hard-working and resourceful, Amy Weaver was determined to prosper, and she tried many adventurous ways of making that happen. Alas, less than two years ago, despite some success, she gave up the unequal struggle and disappeared from the world of Thoroughbred racing. Weaver, though, has not been idle, and the now 35-year-old may be on the verge of a notable achievement in another area entirely. Here, she explains what she’s been up to.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was actually only a few years back that I was training racehorses in Newmarket, England. I actually held the somewhat ignominious title of Britain's youngest female racehorse trainer at one point, when I started out in 2008.
So much has happened since then that I can scarcely believe that my days were once filled with early mornings, shoveling manure and blasting up the gallops at 40 miles an hour, seven days a week, on the barely controllable ball of energy that is the racehorse.
My new friends can’t comprehend the picture of Newmarket that I describe, the cars patiently queuing to let the teams of highly strung horses cross the street, the herds of bluebloods that impatiently wait, pawing at the ground, stomping their hooves in anticipation, at the bottom of Warren Hill, each eager and bright-eyed to be allowed to stretch their legs and show off their prowess on the gallops.
Row upon row of neatly built stable blocks littered and hidden throughout the town, housing million-pound Thoroughbreds, a place steeped in history, stretching back to the kings and queens of our past, right through to the royalty of today.
You can hardly blame them, as my new friends come from the Philippines, Romania, Nepal and Indonesia. You see, today, I’m sitting on Deck 6 of my new home, a large cruise ship, anchored just off the south coast of France, near to the glitzy port of St. Tropez.
Working and living on a cruise ship is definitely not as glitzy and glamorous as it sounds, but then, compared to spending my days in a pair of dirty jodhpurs and muck-covered riding boots, I suppose it is.
In fact the only connection I have now with my former life is when the guests onboard ask where I’m from. The answer “Newmarket” always illicits the same response: “Oh, like the horses!”
Training racehorses - and trying to be competitive
After setting up training in Newmarket and getting off the mark to a fairly okay start, I found it hard to remain competitive. I had to diversify. My decision to export horses to the USA on a race-and-re-sale basis worked nicely, and we made the clients who joined us in the venture some good profits.
Despite the success that project showed, it was hard to attract new people into such an adventurous plan, most owners preferring to keep their horses in the UK and watch them race in person.
It seems funny compared with the U.S. patrons, but lots of British owners accept that owning racehorses is not a money-making venture and are purely in the sport for the love of the game, almost all expecting to make a loss. While exporting the horses to the U.S. was turning over decent profit, it was hard get people on board.
The move to France
Having previously worked in France as pupil assistant to the now retired Arc and Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Jonathan Pease, I made the decision to move my string to Chantilly in France, where the prize money is excellent and even small trainers can run a profitable business.
I really enjoyed my year in France. The gallops are excellent, there are races for horses at all levels, the transport is subsidized and the prize money pays down to fifth in every race.
Despite settling well into life there and having the horses run well, I felt my heart wasn’t really in it any longer, and training racehorses isn’t something you ought to do half-heartedly.
The early mornings, long journeys and phone calls to disappoint eager owners are a labor of love. Not getting any younger, the physical side of the job, mucking out, riding highly strung horses in all weathers, and heaving bales of hay about the place, weren’t exactly getting any more enjoyable either.
Never wanting to give anything less than my best, I decided to turn my hand to something else.
My 70-hour life at sea: it’s easier than running a stable
Having worked as a casino dealer in London in my earlier years, I decided that running away to sea to be a croupier on a cruise ship would be a good antidote to eight years of responsibility.
Since leaving the adrenaline-fueled world of horse racing, my world has turned around 180 degrees.
Now, for more than ten months of the year, I live ‘At Sea’, cruising virtually every corner of the globe. In the last 12 months alone, I’ve been to Alaska, Canada, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and even crossed the Atlantic on my floating home.
My new colleagues laughed that I found working seven days a week up to 16 hours a day, averaging 70 hours a week, easy. Compared with training horses, it is like a vacation!
Mostly my work revolves around the card, roulette and dice tables of the casino each night. But, similar to air stewards, we also have a responsibility for everybody’s safety and are highly trained in areas such as fire-fighting, first aid and lifeboat evacuation procedures.
Then there’s the smiling and customer service aspect. It’s certainly a culture shock from the colorful language often used around horses.
We have extra duties, including helping to embark the guests onto the ship on the first day of the cruise. Guiding the passengers around the facilities, pointing out highlights, like the buffet and the all-inclusive bar, and can even opt to escort tours and shore excursions, one of my favourites being the bicycle tours, which gets me out in the fresh air and at least back in a saddle of some sort for a few hours a couple of times a week.
By night I’m a casino dealer, shuffling cards and encouraging holidaymakers to “Place your bets please!” By day I have another life - a secret story.
A project to help a little girl with cerebral palsy
I met Pavel Komarov, a 41-year-old from Russia, on my very first day on the ship, at the port of Boston in the USA. He was signing back on after his vacation, an experienced crew member with over ten years at sea under his belt.
There was I, a green newbie lost in the maze of corridors and passageways that is the confusing jungle that’s hidden from the sight of the paying guests. As he also worked in the casino, we quickly became friends and soon found we had common interests. When he asked me to collaborate with him on a little project, I quickly agreed, never one to say no to a new challenge or turn down a request for help.
He wanted me to help him make a simple rudimentary toy, for a special friend who has Cerebral Palsy, to help her with her fine motor skills. So well received was the gift by the little girl and other admirers that we decided to look into producing them on a larger scale.
To be honest neither of us had much of clue about toys or manufacturing, and the fact that we work on the ship seven days a week, every single week for up to nine months at a time, wasn’t really in our favour either.
Nor was our ‘office’, which consists of two laptops and two cell phones. Hell, we have to pay by the megabyte for internet coverage and it’s anything by fast! In fact at certain times of the night and day it refuses to work at all.
But we both had that attitude that we could conquer all the obstacles in our way. So, when not holed up in the cabin, squashed on a bunk bed, drawing, designing and amending our sketches, templates and prototypes, we camped out in various cafés and bars in the ports that we visited, to teach ourselves everything that we were going to need to know.
We’re now well read on subjects ranging from Toy Safety Standards, to Import Taxes, to Getting The Best Out Of Social Media. We’re also experts at making a coffee or a hot chocolate last over an hour, to keep our ‘overheads’ low and, at the same time, not upsetting the café owners too much!
Learning aid toy now going into production
The project really took off and there has been much interest in Hippomottie, who is a large Space Hippo soft toy, covered in zips, clips, laces, buckles and buttons. It helps inquisitive youngsters of all abilities with their fine motor skills while teaching them to be independent dressers in a fun and playful way. It already has a huge following as a therapy tool for children on the Autism spectrum.
Just before Christmas last year, we selected a company to produce the toys in China, and earlier this year, while on annual shore leave, I made the trip from the Caribbean to China to sign off on our final prototypes, before flying back to Europe to meet our cruise ship home, which was by then back in the Med.
This summer we launched Hippomottie: Out Of This World Learn To Dress Toy on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter - to great acclaim. We enlisted some freelancers to help us produce and edit our promotional video, but the filming and the rest of the marketing has been done by us. We’re the ultimate two-man band, furiously tapping away on our computers in the dark, trying not to wake the sleeping roommate in the bunk above.
Hippomottie has now been successfully funded on Kickstarter, and our campaign is 120 percent funded.
While we manufacture and get the toys ready, we’ve decided to still offer the opportunity to order on this page on Indiegogo InDemand, a continuation crowd-funding programme.
Currently we are beginning pre-manufacturing safety tests before full production can begin.
Keeping up with the challenge
Living, working and playing in such a confined space on a cruise ship definitely has its downside. There’s been some fairly heated arguments over simple things such as a font colour or size, especially as we got closer to the launch on Kickstarter, simply due to the fact that we can’t really escape from each other, or Hippomottie, our lovable Space Hippo.
There are also the weekly cabin inspections, when we’ve had to hide our designs and prototypes from prying eyes, while making sure our beds/office desk are neatly made, with our life jacket placed on top.
Personally, I always find lifeboat drill the low point of my week. I mean, what other business has to endure standing out in the heat trussed up in a fluorescent orange foam-filled life preserver for over an hour when they want to be getting on with the important tasks at hand. Still at least we’re prepared in the unlikely event that our ‘office’ ever sinks!
There are, though, a surprising number of pluses to our unusually small working area. The commute is non existent, we get ‘free’ hot food three times a day, if we fancy we can always take work outdoors as during the day there’s usually a beach or seafront café nearby, and of course there are very few day-to-day real-life issues to contend with - like supermarket shopping or household chores (God bless the room stewards!).
We’re confident we can make a real success of our business, and we’re getting a real kick out of watching it grow at the fledgling stages. We have immense pride in how far we’ve come, and where we’re heading. The challenge of our quirky address makes it all the more satisfying. We’re beating the odds - something that we’re trying to stop the players from doing in the casino each night - and hopefully spreading some goodwill around the world.
Five Hippomotties are already ‘sold’, having been nominated to be sent to our partner charity, the International Toy Library Association, an option that we’re offering on Kickstarter to people who’d like to sign up and support our project yet don’t have a need for the toy themselves.
We’re hoping to populate the globe with our Hippomotties, educating the children of today how to get dressed like the best, one cuddly Space Hippo at a time.
Staying in touch with racing
I still take a keen interest in racing. Two of my best friends, journalist and broadcaster Sally Ann Grassick and former jockey Hayley Turner, have major roles on the main ITV Racing TV coverage, so I get to see glimpses of them and some race replays via social media quite often.
When on shore leave recently, I went racing in England and Ireland and was back on riding horses during a two-week stay at a friend’s cattle ranch in Wyoming.