pig farmer Peter Atkinson is not your average trainer dreaming of big-race success on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival.
“In a week’s time it will be all forgotten. On to the next thing,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
Yet this is the unlikely trainer who carries the hopes of Yorkshire when bargain buy Irish Roe lines up in Wednesday’s Grade One Weatherbys Champion Bumper against Britain and Ireland’s top young horses.
This was a race won in 2010, for example, by Cue Card, now the most popular steeplechaser in training and favourite for next Friday’s Gold Cup.
A throwback to the golden era when Ryedale arable farmer Peter Easterby dominated Cheltenham with his horses, Atkinson could not be more unassuming.
Born and bred in Northallerton, he and his wife Lucinda find time to train Irish Roe – and stablemate Reverant Cust – when not farming their 120 acres of land and tending to 160 sows.
“You exercise the horses as and when,” says Atkinson. “Sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. We fit it in.”
Now 49, he became passionate about National Hunt races when he stood – as a teenager – at the final fence at Catterick and watched the horses in action.
He later became a successful point-to-point rider before taking out a permit to train – not a full licence, horses have to be owned by the trainer or a close relative.
Atkinson has enjoyed 14 winners since saddling his first runners in 2003-04, a pleasing return for an individual who trains for a love of the sport.
It was also good fortune that the couple acquired Irish Roe for £2,000 – the mare has already claimed £12,000 for her two wins at Perth and Sedgefield before dead-heating at Cheltenham on her last outing in November.
“We picked her up at the Goffs sales,” explained the trainer. “She had a very good pedigree, sired by the Irish Leger winner Vinnie Roe. The only reason she was so cheap is that she failed the vet for her breathing. We had it scoped and it’s perfect.”
Atkinson describes Wednesday’s race as “a shot to nothing”.
He says it is a good job that his wife, a talented event rider, drives the horse box – he is currently lame with sciatica. “We never thought we would be in this position,” he explained. “We’re doing nothing different, just exercising the horse. Steady away, keep her in one piece.”
Asked whether racing or farming means more to him, Atkinson added: “It depends on what is going well at the time – market prices or the horses.”
However, big-race jockey Henry Brooke, from Middleham, is hopeful of a good run. He was in the saddle for Irish Roe’s first two wins but missed the aforementioned Cheltenham race with injury when Graham Lee was a more than able deputy.
“She’s done nothing wrong,” said Brooke, whose best Festival result came in 2011 when Son Of Flicka was second. “She’s got to improve again, but we’re hoping she can. With two horses, it’s a good effort to get one for Cheltenham – fair play. The Atkinsons, they’re lovely people. They just do their job, real down to earth.”