Weekend Interview: Self-made Peter Easterby is still the hurdles king

In the frame: Peter Easterby at home at Habton Farm with a photograph of Saucy Kit, the 1967 Champion Hurdle winner at the Cheltenham Festival. (Picture: Simon Hulme)
In the frame: Peter Easterby at home at Habton Farm with a photograph of Saucy Kit, the 1967 Champion Hurdle winner at the Cheltenham Festival. (Picture: Simon Hulme)
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PETER Easterby pauses when asked if he is “proud” of his achievements as a racehorse trainer.

“You don’t think about it like that. You do it. It’s your job,” the 87-year-old told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.

The three generations of Easterbys' at Habton Farm Great Habton, Malton..Peter Easterby, with his son Tim and grandson William at the Stables. (Picture: Simon Hulme)

The three generations of Easterbys' at Habton Farm Great Habton, Malton..Peter Easterby, with his son Tim and grandson William at the Stables. (Picture: Simon Hulme)

“We survived. Put it like that. Self-made.”

Fifty years after the Yorkshire farmer-cum-trainer saddled Saucy Kit to win Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle, Easterby’s economy of words mask his record’s magnitude.

No-one has won hurdling’s signature race on more occasions – Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon later became much-revered dual winners in hurdling’s golden era.

Yet Easterby’s record of five triumphs, which he shares with Nicky Henderson, could be lost if the latter wins next Tuesday’s renewal. Equally, Ireland’s champion trainer, Willie Mullins, could draw level if one of his horses prevails. He is in illustrious company.

You want to enjoy the job you are doing. It’s the key to any success. People just love a bit of fiddly-dee, they love that part of racing.

Peter Easterby

Steeped in racing, it should be remembered that Henderson and Mullins are the top two winning trainers in National Hunt Festival history with 55 and 48 winners, respectively.

They are fortunate that their owners, some of the most wealthy in racing, can buy the best horses for six-figure sums.

Peter may hesitate when the word ‘pride’ is mentioned – but his son, Tim, grandson William and the rest of the extended family are in awe of their self-taught father and grandfather who is the only person to have trained more than 1,000 winners on the Flat and over jumps.

“No regrets. None at all,” says Easterby senior.

The three generations of Easterbys' at Habton Farm Great Habton, Malton..Peter Easterby, with his son Tim and Grandson William at the Stables. (Picture: Simon Hulme)

The three generations of Easterbys' at Habton Farm Great Habton, Malton..Peter Easterby, with his son Tim and Grandson William at the Stables. (Picture: Simon Hulme)

“You want to enjoy the job you are doing. It’s the key to any success. People just love a bit of fiddly-dee, they love that part of racing.

“The Jockey Club tried to get me warned off. Winning too many races, I suppose. I was having a good run. Five times in two years was a bit drastic. Luckily, the late Lord Halifax (senior steward) was on the train I was on coming back from a disciplinary hearing in London. I told him all my troubles and I never heard another word. That was the end of it.

“When Sea Pigeon won his second Champion Hurdle in 1981, the Champagne bill came to £1,000. We came out of the bar at Cheltenham and there were only four cars left. You can tell how late it was.”

There was no secret to how Easterby prepared racehorses at his Great Habton stables in Ryedale where some horse boxes were built out of railway sleepers acquired after the Beeching cuts and which – just like the trainer – have stood the test of time. It was that knowing eye, still glinting in the early Spring sunshine at a venerable age, that enabled him to spot a potential champion – and always at a knockdown price. Times, after all, were tough for his parents, William and Leila, following the war.

“He was a horse dealer. Never had money. The only time he had any money was during the war. There was a black market of ham, eggs and bacon. We used to get a licence to kill one pig and killed five. All cash. We started with 25 acres – rent £100 a year in 1951.”

Today, the Easterby landholding is at least 2,000 acres of arable land. He was actually christened Miles Henry Easterby. On becoming Peter, he is dismissive: “One of the mysteries of life. Don’t know. There is a Peter Easterby. He’s my cousin. It’s a bit confusing.”

There’s also Easterby’s irascible younger brother Mick, still a Flat trainer based at Sheriff Hutton and leading landowner, too.

Surprisingly, it also took the new trainer four years to saddle his first winner following National Service with the Royal Veterinary Corps – “I hadn’t many horses,” is the simple explanation – and the 1967 Champion Hurdle, featuring Easterby’s Saucy Kit against horses like the Queen Mother’s Makaldar, was his first runner at the National Hunt Festival.

“Cheltenham, the greatest show on earth. They talk about it in October,” says Easterby, who saddled 13 Festival winners.

“Saucy Kit, he had to have a good, fast track. A fortnight before, he wouldn’t have raced – it was too wet. The Spring, it comes from nowhere. Mind, it will never get firm again because they water the track.

“Terry Biddlecombe rode him at Cheltenham in the Christmas Hurdle. I had never had a Champion Hurdle horse and I wanted to know if the bugger was good enough. I didn’t prompt him. When he came in after winning, he just said he was worth putting in. It’s all I wanted to know. I had bought Saucy Kit at the sales for 720 guineas. I didn’t know anything about him. I just liked the look of the horse. I hadn’t a clue.”

Yet the big race build-up did not go to plan. Doncaster would not allow Easterby to gallop Saucy Kit on Town Moor – the indignant trainer found a track on the inner of the racecourse – and then the horse became lame with a bruised foot.

“Salt and water got him right,” said Easterby, who booked Roy Edwards for the ride because the aforementioned Biddlecombe, the great racing cavalier, was unavailable.

“I had a few quid on the horse. The day before the race I had my money on at 33-1. You couldn’t get the price the next morning. You would think no-one had had time to sleep.”

Owned by underwriter Ken Alder, Saucy Kit was already clear when Talgo Abbess veered across the track in finishing second and badly hampered the Royal runner – the placings were reversed in the subsequent stewards’ inquiry. Easterby, the novice trainer, had arrived.

Further Champion Hurdle successes followed in 1976 and ’77 with Night Nurse, still the highest rated hurdler in history, and then veteran Ebor winner Sea Pigeon, who prevailed in 1980 and ’81 with daring hold-up tactics because the horse idled in front.

It was not the last coup. The only thing not gambled when Night Nurse’s price drifted before his second Champion Hurdle win was the Easterby potato crop as the horse’s favoured rain fell.

Content the horse had not left his stable lad and been ‘nobbled’, four tonnes were kept back in case the horse did not deliver. He did. “By the time we got back we found out the potatoes had gone up in price,” said Easterby, after this unlikely double in 1977.

Asked what makes a good trainer, he says: “First of all, he has to be able to deal, buy or sell, or he has no bloody sense. He has to be a natural horseman, too.” Asked for a self-description, Easterby says “farmer, trainer, dealer – they all go together”.

On his greatest achievement, he ventures: “I wouldn’t know, they all go together. The greatest thing is to get them there ready on the day.”

On ‘retiring’ in 1996 to become his son’s assistant (and dogsbody), he adds: “We had had a good run and we had some good ’osses. You never get a younger owner going to older trainers.”

Easterby senior still goes racing with son Tim, 55, and grandson William, 22. The latter is a leading amateur rider, who saddled his first winner when King’s Lodge won at Duncombe Park point-to-point.

“Tim’s a good judge of the horse,” adds the family’s senior statesman. “It’s the way you are born. You can’t put it there. You have to remember, we were always limited in what we could spend. Somebody else has the good horses, that’s the only way the game has changed.”

The Peter Easterby story...

PETER Easterby is the only trainer in history to have saddled more than 1,000 winners under both codes – National Hunt and Flat.

His 13 wins at the Cheltenham Festival, 25th on the all-time list, includes five Champion Hurdles and two Gold Cups.

His son Tim, who won the 2002 St Leger with Bollin Eric, has saddled two winners – Barton and Hawk High, who is entered in Wednesday’s Coral Cup.

Grandson William, an aspiring point-to-point trainer, is due to ride Carlton Ryan in Friday’s Foxhunters Chase for amateur riders.