Inspiration

The Muhammad Ali of racing

Peter Easterby is the unrivalled hero of UK horse race trainers, Claude Duval went to find out more about this little-known Yorkshire legend.

His name is not immediately recognisable to most. If you’re not a racing fan, chances are you’ve never heard of him. But to riders, fans and industry insiders, Peter Easterby is racing royalty. Revered and inspiring awe across the horse world, trainers nod sagely at his name, muttering ‘Sea Pigeon’, ‘Saucy Kit’ and ‘Night Nurse’ among others. He is to race training what Muhammad Ali is to boxing. Unlike that sporting legend however, Easterby hides his light under a bushel, preferring to stay out of the limelight. He’s made an exception today to talk to me. Easterby is the only horse trainer in history to send out over 1,000 winners both on the flat and over jumps. From his base at Great Habton stables, near Malton, North Yorkshire, he surveys his kingdom. ‘Grand day,’ he says. ‘Bit fresh’.

Despite the fact that he’s now 88, retirement is the last thing on his mind. As a concession to age, he’s stepped down as the boss and is assistant trainer to his son, Tim. He’s still up at seven every morning, looking over horses, monitoring them, advising stable hands, wandering up and down the gallops, feeding, chatting to riders - doing what he does best.

Easterby is probably the last of his breed – a self-made man, he started dealing in horses when he was just a lad of 21. Quizzed for the secret of his success, he grins: “You just kick on and do your job. Everybody should enjoy the job they are doing, if not it’s a waste of time. It’s the key to any success. Our success has all been selfmade.

No silver spoons at the start.

“I’ve done well with a lot of horses who were bought cheap. The reason I never bought expensive horses was quite simple. I couldn’t afford them. Anyway, no expensive horse ever did me any good. There was a limit to what we could spend back then. They were tough times, but you didn’t know any different. It’s when you’re in trouble and nearly skint when you think quickest.

“I even built some horse boxes out of railway sleepers after the Beeching cuts (the reduction of rail network routes). If I could make any change in today’s racing it would be to cut the rule book in half! At one time the local stipendiary stewards were after me. “I hold the record. I was sent to the Jockey Club’s HQ in London five times in two years for allegedly breaking some rule or other. I was coming back to Yorkshire on the train after my last hearing and I was moaning to top Jockey Club member, the late Lord Halifax, how their officials were chasing me.

“I reckon I was being too successful but funnily enough, after that conversation I never had to make another trip to face the disciplinary panel.” Easterby’s nags to riches story is a real fairy tale. His memory is still razor sharp and his eyes sparkle as we walk down his memory lane.

“I first got my licence in 1950. You had to have seven horses. I only had three but I included an old brood mare and some hunters to qualify.

“In 1951 I cycled the five miles from my father’s home at Great Habton to Malton where I got a lift to the Newmarket sales in a horsebox. I bought three yearlings for a total of 380 guineas. By the time I had got home I had sold all of them. That got me started. I waited three years before my first winner though. Double Rose won at Market Rasen on March 7, 1953.

“I had to wait another two years before 25-1 King’s Coup was my first flat winner at Thirsk on April 15, 1955. I soon learned that the more money you started out with the less chance you had of making a success because you weren’t hungry.”

That hunger paid off. Today, Easterby is a very wealthy man. It has been claimed that if Castle Howard wasn’t in the way, he and his brother, Mick, would own most of the lush acres in North Yorkshire. But you get the distinct impression that money doesn’t matter to him. Winning, however, really does.

“Goldhill was my first big winner on the flat. He was a very good horse but nobody bid for him and that’s how I got him. He won at Ascot as a two-year-old and then won later at Royal Ascot,” Easterby says. “Saucy Kit was my first runner at the Cheltenham Festival and in 1967 he won the Champion Hurdle after a brilliant ride from Roy Edwards. “He pulled like mad at home and it was almost impossible to settle him.

That got some head scratching but in the end I settled him by using him to round up cattle. It was unusual but it worked. I spotted him at the sales ring and saw that he was a good sort of ‘osse. When I got him I realised that he had been heavily bandaged. I was then told by a chap that all his horses were bandaged like that and that there was nothing wrong with him. I could have kissed him. I didn’t have proper gallops in those days and Doncaster refused to let me work him on the racecourse. But I used strips of land inside the track. Saucy Kit’s secret was his jumping. He was a brilliant leaper."

It’s no secret that Easterby’s favourite horse was Night Nurse, although he has a galaxy of stars to pick from. “He won the Champion Hurdle in 1976 and 1977, cost me 1,100 guineas. He won 37 of his 85 races but he was miserable in his box and he would kick and bite you. People still talk about his epic battle with Monksfield in the Templegate Hurdle at Aintree in 1977.

“Night Nurse was all heart, but Sea Pigeon was the cleverest horse I ever trained – he had the brains of two horses. He won the Champion hurdle for us in 1980 and again in 1981. The champagne bill came to £1,000 that day at Cheltenham, we were last in the bar.

“But he’s most remembered for his win at the 1979 Ebor. He was one of the most popular horses ever trained in Yorkshire. Jonjo O’Neill rode him against Donegal Prince.

“It took ages for the photo finish verdict to be announced. We only heard the word ‘Sea’ because the crowd roared with triumph. My heart nearly stopped while I watched. I reckon I’ve had numerous heart scares ever since.” Now it’s Tim’s turn to carry on a monumental legacy. “He’s a good judge,” says Easterby. “You can’t learn that, it’s just there.”

Given the chance, would he do it all again? “It’s been a good journey,” he winks. “Definitely.”

This article was taken from This is Y 2018