National hero in the making

Pictured from left, owners Peter and Anne Nelson, trainer Malcolm Jefferson, groom Tina Pearson and Jockey Harry Haynes with According To Pete.
Pictured from left, owners Peter and Anne Nelson, trainer Malcolm Jefferson, groom Tina Pearson and Jockey Harry Haynes with According To Pete.
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A village garage owner in North Yorkshire thinks his horse could be first past the post in the world’s most famous race. The team behind According To Pete spoke to Tom Richmond about their planning for the big day.

Yorkshire’s Grand National hope, According To Pete, strides purposefully towards Malcolm Jefferson who says: “Ears pricked, that’s intelligence. I like to see a horse like that.”

“Aye, that’s grand,” adds the trainer as the white-faced horse nuzzles his nose against stable lass, Tina Pearson, and then obeys Jefferson’s hand signal to look up at the camera. “Intelligent. He’s my friend, you know. And I wouldn’t run him if I didn’t think he could do himself justice.”

Jefferson, softly-spoken, has every reason to be content. He’s just trained two winners, Cape Tribulation and Attaglance, at the Cheltenham Festival and the ultra-consistent According To Pete is a leading National contender.

More significantly, the horse’s rise to prominence – he galloped to victory in Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase on Boxing Day before landing one of Haydock’s major National trials – represents a special friendship with owner Pete Nelson.

“The horse was sired by Accordion and I’m Pete,” says Nelson by way of explanation – and introduction – at Jefferson’s idyllic Norton stables, with stunning views across Ryedale, that the Cumbrian has quietly built up with his family over the past three decades into one of the most respected and consistent yards in the country. It is a name that suits both horse and owner. While According To Pete invariably leads his lass around the paddock because he wants to show who is in charge, Nelson is a great raconteur – a proud Yorkshireman whose red and mauve colours could be carried to victory a week today.

“I’m a Helperby lad, always have been, and my wife Anne comes from Boroughbridge – five miles down the road,” says Nelson who has run the village garage for 40 years.

“My dad was a betting man and he had a good eye for a horse. I’m one of seven, but I’m the only one who took after him.

“The rest of my family say I’m an idiot. I’ve always wanted to own an horse, I never thought I’d have one good enough to line up in the National.”

As Nelson reminisces with his wife Anne, who runs a soft furnishings business, and Jefferson, he recalls how an unlikely purchase nearly two decades ago became the catalyst for his National odyssey.

Through an acquaintance who shared his passion for racing, he bought a mare called Magic Bloom after her prospective owners, a syndicate, had failed to find the £4,000 fee.

She won her first race at Newcastle on March 22, 1993, before following up this success at Wetherby on Whit Monday.

Yet, with trainer Andrew Stringer packing up, the Nelson’s had the horse at home before they asked Jefferson whether he’d come and see Magic Bloom. “He fancied her, said she would make a decent chaser and went on to win seven races,” explained Nelson with palpable pride.

“We then decided to use her for breeding and Pete was the second foal. He had a full brother, but he never really made it as a jumper.”

As for Jefferson, he was not overwhelmed when the foal was born in April 2001. “Just a little wee thing with a white face. He used to run back and forth under his mother,” he said dismissively.

“I suppose, like babies, they’re all beautiful. It is when they grow up. If he was in a sale, you would never have bought him. You would have just walked past him because he turns a leg out, he has no bone at all. When you buy a horse, you only get what you breed. He’s the smallest one of all the family, but one thing is he has a heart as big as himself. From day one, he has been a fighter.”

There’s laughter as Nelson recalls the tale about how ‘Pete’ had to be moved from a field where he was being broken in and nurtured before his career on the racecourse. Other horses had been moved – but this dark bay gelding, full of mischief despite being a diminutive 16.1 hands – was nowhere to be seen when his handler looked for him. “He’d only gone and jumped the fence.”

Third on his racecourse debut at Bangor in March 2005, this remarkable horse – one that Nelson, as a typical Yorkshireman, says he was proud to breed himself to save money – won two Bumper races later in the year, beating, among others, Character Building, a future Cheltenham winner from John Quinn’s adjacent yard.

His first hurdles race, a modest contest at Sedgefield in 2006, was a winning one – and the early promise was confirmed when According To Pete galloped to an eyecatching win in the Betfair Fixed Brush Handicap Hurdle at Haydock in 2008.

The problem, said Jefferson, was then keeping the horse competitive because he had been handicapped to the hilt – over both fences and hurdles – and could no longer be regarded as racing’s best kept secret. And, despite a succession of heroic weight-carrying performances that rarely disappointed, ‘Pete’ could not quite get his head in front for three years.

Until, that is, Boxing Day when he was a surprise 33-1 winner of the Rowland Meyrick Chase, one of the highlights of Wetherby’s racing calendar, after benefiting from a drop in the weights – and the expertise of Jefferson’s newly-appointed stable jockey Harry Haynes.

“It’s a dream,” says Nelson who harbours ambitions of naming a future horse For Pete’s Sake, perhaps with any Aintree winnings.

“I’d dream about winning the Rowland Meyrick – and Anne would tell me ‘you silly bugger’. I tell you, I used to lean against the paddock there and think I’d love to have a horse good enough. Harry just rides him brilliantly.

“There were people coming into the garage. Some had backed him at 33-1, others at 40-1. Everyone knows about the horse, and then they read about him when they buy their paper. He’s the best known person in the village.

“The video’s nearly worn out from watching the replays and then he goes and wins the Peter Marsh Chase three weeks later at Haydock in what was an even better performance.

“To have a runner in the National, it’s a dream. To go there with a bit of a chance, that’s another big plus. If Harry sits on him...”

As those words are spoken, the impeccably polite Haynes walks in from riding out. But, if he’s expecting praise, this up-and-coming rider is soon mistaken. “Have you got the superglue ready?” pipes up Nelson’s wife.

Haynes, who keeps fit by running with his Jack Russell dog Tyson who can be invariably found in the weighing room when his master is racing, smiles. Such repartee, he admits, will help keep him relaxed.

His one and only experience of Aintree’s fearsome fences a year ago was not a memorable one. He suffered a heavy fall that ultimately left him on the sidelines for several months before he lost his job with Scottish trainer James Ewart and ended up at Jefferson’s on the recommendation of his friend and rival Dougie Costello, a rider with strong Malton connections.

Such twists of fate are invariably behind every National winner – Gerry Scott, for example, had to disguise the seriousness of a shoulder injury before winning on Neville Crump’s Merryman II in 1960, the last Yorkshire-trained winner of the illustrious race.

“I can’t remember my fall so it is not an issue,” says the young rider who is bursting with confidence after Pete’s two great triumphs and then Attaglance’s victory at Cheltenham when he dropped his whip turning for home.

“I’ll talk to some other riders and watch a few replays, but just make sure I’m fit and well. We know he likes to be handy so we should be easy to spot, I hope.

“You can probably talk to too many people and get too much advice, I know what I want to do, it’s more about being prepared for the experience of the whole day. My dad, another Peter, is a starter and has done so for the National. That’s a good start.”

Jefferson concurs. Turning to Haynes, he says: “You’ve got to go out there and think it is a normal race – and not the Grand National. You can’t do any different. If you do, it doesn’t work. If everything goes right, it will fall into place. If it doesn’t, you can’t do anything about it.”

Jefferson, who served his apprenticeship in Cumbria with the legendary Gordon W Richards and drove the 1978 National winner Lucius to and from Aintree, speaks with authority – even though he reveals that he’s never had a winner at the Merseyside course.

“Mind, I’ve not had that many runners,” says the trainer whose only other National runner, Brooklyn Brownie, was a second fence faller in 2009. “Lucius was a great day. We took him in the pub back at Greystoke, where the stables were, afterwards. I don’t think we’ll do that with Pete.”

The reason soon becomes clear. As the conversation, and memories, become more animated, there’s a slight snag – ‘Pete’ is becoming agitated in his box because he can’t have his lunchtime meal until the photographs are taken.

He strides purposefully towards the gallops, another encouraging sign, as he walks up and down with a slightly embarrassed Haynes besides him. “I don’t think Harry will be very good on the catwalk,” jokes Jefferson’s daughter and assistant trainer Ruth.

The jockey blushes. He pats the horse, the best he’s ever ridden, and says: “You’ll be fit by the time you’ve done this Pete.” They genuinely look the best of pals.

The other Pete, the one who will not be confronted by 30 obstacles and 39 rivals a week today, laughs. “He’ll need to find his way to the winner’s enclosure,” he says.

According To Pete, now 11, shows slightly more patience with his lass Tina Pearson who rides him out regularly and mucks out his stable. She had the choice of two horses to look after when she joined the yard over a decade ago – and fell in love with ‘Pete’s’ white face.

And even though he invariably leads her around the paddock on race day, she says: “He’s a superstar. Look at him, he’d live off Polos if he could.

“The National? I’m nervous, but excited. Aren’t we all? We’re going to enjoy it!”

The countdown to Aintree is the talk of Helperby. “Everyone’s talking about Pete, he’s put Helperby on the map,” adds Nelson. “They keep saying ‘Are you worried?’ ‘Are you frightened?’ I say I just want him to run well, come home and if he wins, it will be a great event.

“He’s about 40-1 in the betting, but I’ll tell you this, if he was with Nicky Henderson or one of the other big yards, he’d be much higher in the betting.

Nelson, like Jefferson, is acutely aware of the risks and the fallout from last year’s race when two horses had the tragic misfortune not return to their stable.

One of his two daughters is likely to watch the National from a racecourse toilet – and wait for the phone call to say ‘Pete’ is fine. “She knows the decor of every racecourse in the country because the horse means so much to us,” adds Nelson as he points out that Aintree will be Pete’s 50th race.

But the trainer, with great realism and pragmatism, explains that horse racing will never be risk-free and its participants recognise this.

“I wouldn’t run him if I didn’t think he would be suited by the race,” adds Jefferson.

“I think he is clever enough if he is lucky enough. He’s a tidy little jumper. When you look at past winners like Amberleigh House and Miinnehoma, they weren’t the biggest but they were nimble.

“We’re likely to be on the outer and probably up near the front because that’s how Pete races.

“The horses are in fine form, Cheltenham was great, and someone said to me ‘you must be sick of people saying well done’. “I said ‘No I’m not. It’s far better than people saying bloody hard luck’. I hope they keep saying it all the way to Liverpool.”

And back.