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Catherine Wills, racehorse proprietor and breeder, dies aged 71

  • Caroline Wills, the racehorse owner and breeder, and founder of the Martin Wills Writing Awards, died on 29 July aged 71, from cancer.

    Born in November 1950, Dr Wills was the eldest daughter of Eva and Sir David Wills, the founder of the privately funded charity the Ditchley Foundation.

    Dr Wills grew up in Sandford St Martin, Oxfordshire. She had an interest in horses from an early age, and went on to compete in three-day eventing. She had a love of retired racehorses and competed Spyglass, formerly trained by David Nicholson, to advanced level. Her other horses included former racehorses Askinfarney and Snapshot.

    She studied for a BA and later a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, completing a doctoral thesis on the Scottish portrait painter Sir Francis Grant. She went on to work full-time for the Ditchley Foundation and was passionate about continuing her father’s vision.

    Following the death of her younger brother Martin, an amateur jockey and journalist who died in 1992 from a brain tumour aged 39, Dr Wills and her mother founded the Martin Wills Writing Awards for aspiring writers with an interest in racing. Dr Wills continued to help judge the entries until the awards ran for a final time in 2017.

    In 1999 Dr Wills inherited her father’s racehorse breeding operation. She went on to breed the 2005 Dubai World Cup winner Dynever, the 2007 Gimcrack Stakes winner Sir Gerry, and winner of the 2021 Group One Sydney Cup, Selino. She enjoyed success with trainer Sir Henry Cecil, and at the time of her death still had horses in training with James Fanshawe. She also continued to have broodmares and retired racehorses.

    Liz Howe, who helped care for Dr Wills’ horses, described her friend of more than 30 years as “very kind and very generous”. Dr Wills was very supportive of Liz’s daughter Ginny Howe’s eventing career.

    “She was very thoughtful, and she always asked after other people before herself,” said Mrs Howe. “She was very passionate about rehoming retired racehorses. Even in her later years when a nice quiet hunter would have suited her, we could never persuade her. She said, ‘I’ll have racehorses.’”

    A spokesman for James Fanshawe Racing said the team were “very sad” to hear of the passing of Dr Wills.

    “She was an extremely kind lady who put a lot into the sport. Her colours have been seen globally and she enjoyed Group One success with Invermark,” he said.

    “She was an extremely loyal supporter and will be missed at Pegasus Stables.”

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