Even though the Cheltenham Gold Cup would elude this equine warrior, the legendary Dickinson told the Yorkshire Post: “I don’t think there has ever been a better jumper of a fence. A very kind horse and a trainer’s dream.”
This verdict was echoed by Robert Earnshaw, who rode Wayward Lad to victory in the 1983 renewal of the Charlie Hall Chase – Wetherby’s illustrious race which honours the memory of a redoubtable Yorkshire trainer – before partnering the horse to King George glory in Kempton’s showcase Boxing Day race.
“To ride, he was a machine. All you had to do was press the button,” said Earnshaw, who lives near Harrogate and who is now a widely-respected steward.
Coming to the 19th and last fence at Kempton in 1983, with the roar of the packed crowd growing in volume, a nerveless Earnshaw hardly had to move a muscle – as the picture illustrates – as the nine-year-old took the obstacle in his stride before galloping to the line to land the second of his three King George’s.
“He is the one horse that I ride that I didn’t have to do a lot on,” added the former jockey. “Badsworth Boy, Captain John, Bregawn, they all had little problems that tested a rider. I was fortunate to win three successive Queen Mother Champion Chases on Badsworth Boy.
“With him, I had to use his speed between fences and bring him back on his hocks to make sure he jumped safely.
“With Wayward Lad, you could use his speed going into his fences and he would ping it. If you picked up and jumped a fence that well, it must have been a little soul-destroying for the horses he raced against. To ride, he was a machine. All you had to do was press the button.”
Purchased at Doncaster Sales for his owners David Ingham and Gordon Thewlis, Wayward Lad was not a natural over fences to begin with. Dickinson, who had taken over the training licence at the family’s Harewood stables from his father Tony while continuing to be assisted by his astute mother Monica, recalled: “He wasn’t jumping as fluently as we knew he could so we called in James Herriot.
“Not exactly James Herriot but his partner Siegfried, real name Donald White, who treated the horse’s back and his jumping improved. In one season, he won four major races, probably ones that we considered to be Group One.”
Those victories, however, did not include the Cheltenham Gold Cup – Wayward Lad was ultimately third to Bregawn as Dickinson trained the first five home in an unrivalled training feat.
“In February 1983 he was lame practically for the whole month,” said the trainer who later moved to the USA where he even enjoyed Breeders’ Cup success before retiring to develop his revolutionary Tapeta all-weather surface.
“We gave him one gallop at home and a gallop after racing at Catterick, Jonjo (O’Neill) rode him that day and persuaded me to run him at Cheltenham even though I knew he wasn’t fit. It was incredible that he finished third.”
The 1983 Charlie Hall was far less competitive than the likely line-up this Saturday which could be headed by the 2011 Gold Cup winner and two-time King George winner Long Run.
Wayward Lad’s presence at Wetherby meant he only faced two opponents – stalemate Ashley House and Josh Gifford’s very talented Royal Judgement.
As The Duke (Victor Green) reported for the Yorkshire Post, Wayward Lad produced “a faultless performance”.
“His speed from one side of a fence to the other was breathtaking, and although Richard Rowe on Royal Judgement did his best to get Wayward Lad off the bit, he failed and his mount was being left behind when he hit the top of the third last,” he wrote.
“That mistake enabled Graham Bradley to ease Ashley House into second place where he kept him without having to push hard. Had he done so, Ashley House would have finished closer than 10 lengths to Wayward Lad, although that would have flattered him.”
Dickinson was not surprised by the outcome.
“Recently I have been playing some of his old races on DVDs, and although he jumped well for all his jockeys, he jumped brilliantly for Robert Earnshaw who is the best jockey I’ve ever seen over a steeplechase fence,” he said.
Although this champion repeated the Wetherby and Kempton double in 1985, he is still remembered for his heroic second to Dawn Run in the 1986 Gold Cup when the Irish mare overhauled Wayward Lad – then trained by Monica Dickinson – on the line at the end of the most famous race in jump history.
If his preparation had not been so badly interrupted by snow, he might have won the Gold Cup that he so richly deserved – but Earnshaw believes that Wayward Lad was at his optimum over two-and-a-half or three miles.
The winner of 28 of his 55 races, his final success at the 1987 Grand National meeting, brought his career earnings to £218,732 – a sum that was only eclipsed at the time by Dawn Run.
After an acrimonious dispute between his owners led to Wayward Lad being sold, he was purchased by acquaintances of Michael and Joan Dickinson and spent his retirement close to their training base in America.
He died 10 years ago at the age of 28. And perhaps the best tribute is this: only Desert Orchid and Kauto Star had a better record in Kempton’s classic chase than the Yorkshire horse fondly remembered as ‘The Lad’.