Vintage O’Ryan: on old boss Peter Easterby and memorable riding days

Tom O'Ryan: rode Alverton to two victories

PICTURE: Getty Images Vintage O'Ryan: Alverton was that good he even carried me to victory By Tom O'Ryan FIRST PUBLISHED 5 AUG 2009

The award-winning journalist celebrating the 80th birthday of another Yorkshire legend

IT'S milestone stuff today for one of Yorkshire's finest, a self-made man, who, having started out with a mere handful of modest horses in 1950, became a champion, a training icon, a giant of the turf, a man whose heady achievements have withstood the searching test of time.

Peter Easterby is 80 today. That he has made an indelible mark on British racing is beyond any doubt. It may have been the mid-1990s that he stood down – the initials over the door at Habton Grange changing from MH (Miles Henry) to TD (Timothy David) – but, even now, the man everyone knows as Peter Easterby still holds two major training records.

Incredibly, he remains the only trainer in Britain to have saddled more than 1,000 winners under both codes – Flat and jumps – plus, he remains the only trainer to win the Champion Hurdle five times.

The headstrong Saucy Kit, in 1967, was the first of those Champion Hurdle heroes. Such were the achievements of the other two, great rivals as well as stablemates, that they are fittingly and poignantly buried side by side at Habton Grange.

Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse, remarkably, won more than 70 races between them and were, as the inscribed plaque near their graves says, 'Legends in their lifetime'.

Both won two Champion Hurdles.

Sea Pigeon also won the Ebor, two Chester Cups and three Vaux Gold Tankards. As for Night Nurse, he was so dominant in his heyday that he went 21 months and ten races without a single defeat. He was twice National Hunt Horse of the Year and, in 1981, he was beaten a mere length and a half in the Cheltenham Gold Cup when bidding to become the first horse to complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double.

The party-pooper? That was another stablemate, Little Owl, likewise trained by 'MH Easterby, Great Habton'. A Gold Cup 1-2 in the same year that Sea Pigeon won his second Champion Hurdle. For good measure, Yorkshire's finest coach also won the Arkle Trophy at that year's Cheltenham Festival with Clayside.

Thirteen Cheltenham Festival winners he trained, a tally further enhanced by his other Gold Cup hero, the remarkable Alverton. Remarkable, because he'd broken down previously on both tendons. But what a horse he was. He also won the Arkle Trophy and, prior to that, he was such a talented Flat horse that he finished second in an Ebor Handicap. In fact, he was that good a horse that he even carried me to victory, both at York and in the Bogside Cup at Ayr.

Those were the days when I was impersonating a jockey. Part of that period was the privilege of working at Habton Grange during some golden years for a man who was champion National Hunt trainer three seasons on the bounce and who also had a formidable team of Flat horses. His was a no-frills operation, successfully welded together by routine and plain speaking.

It was the education of a lifetime. It wasn't, though, roses all the way. One April day at Haydock – I'm going back more than 30 years – we took our best two-year-old, New Lane, to make his debut. Stable jockey Mark Birch was on board and he was heavily backed down to favouritism. We ran two in the race. I rode the other, a horse called Vascar, who started at 251. Strange things happen on heavy ground. Well, that's my excuse anyway. When New Lane, with the race seemingly in the bag, stopped to a crawl at the head of the field 75 yards from the line, who came through late and fast and nailed him? Yeah, you've guessed right.

I was ashen-faced with embarrassment when I returned to the unsaddling enclosure to meet the boss, who, a man of few words, muttered only two as I dismounted. "Just smile," he said, which is not, as I recall, what he said when we were going home in the car.

It was on one of those journeys home from the races one day that he asked me out of the blue: "Are you courting?" "Erm, no, guvnor, I'm not." "You wanna keep away from those dolly birds, you know, they're no good to you." "Erm, okay guvnor," I agreed, thinking the chance of one would be a fine thing.

He used to smoke a pipe in those days. He lit it again, took a couple of hefty pulls and picked up once more on the same subject. "Aye," he said. "What you need is a good Yorkshire lass – preferably one who can milk a cow." That piece of advice narrowed my options for a good few years.

Easterby, who also farmed thousands of acres, could never be accused of narrowing his options. His greatest talent, throughout 45 years, was training anything on four legs. Gold Cups and Champion Hurdles are one thing, but, as a reminder that he was one of the greatest dual-purpose trainers, he also won two Lincolns (Old Tom and Bronze Hill), three Ayr Gold Cups (Pollys Brother, Able Albert and Final Shot), the Gimcrack (Sonnen Gold), the King's Stand Stakes (Goldhill); the list goes on and on, to such an extent that in decades to come, his achievements will still be in the record books, for all to admire.

His 80 years on this planet haven't been a rehearsal. Peter Easterby has lived life to the full, achieved more – much, much more – than most people can ever dream about, and continues to be a towering presence in Yorkshire racing as the best-qualified assistant trainer this game has ever known.

Congratulations to him on this special day.

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