Alastair Down in the Sporting Life Weekender

GIANTS

‘They were giants in those days’. That old line kept running through the mind this week as the news of Fulke Walwyn’s death sank home.

As a child, when a fanatical interest in racing first nudged me down the slippery slope, the great figures of the game seemed like colossuses. Remote and often rather daunting, they bestrode the stage with an imperiousness and style that has few reflections among the current generation of trainers.

They were the ‘Old School’ and, although some of that revered institution’s prefects are still with us in the likes of Crump, Oliver and Stephenson, the head boy has now gone the way of most of its alumni.

The most daunting of them was Peter Cazalet, who only had the pleasure of meeting me once. He probably recalled the occasion with mixed feelings.

He was escorting the Queen Mother round Sandown one afternoon when a sturdy young lad of nine years came running round the corner and head-butted him heavily in the stomach.

‘Twas me. I remember it distinctly as it may be the last time I actually ran anywhere.

A large hand hauled me to my feet and I found myself peering up at a bowler hat apparently supported over each eye by a medium-sized handbrush. ‘It pays to look where you are going in life, young man.’

Sound enough advice and frequently ignored since. But to a child the figure of Cazalet was too terrifying a spectacle to inspire anything but respect. Affection or admiration were reserved for others. My hero of heroes was – and remains – that most wayward pupil of the Old School, the matchless Ryan Price.

Here was a giant indeed, a man fully justifying that tired tag ‘larger than life’ that is nowadays trotted out to describe all sorts of unremarkable pygmies.

There was a raffishness to his genius and a quality of being his own man that set him apart entirely. In later years, as a green hack on the Sporting Life, I was sent to interview him down in Sussex.

On the journey excitement turned to more than mild consternation as I realised that one young journalist was going to be very late indeed. Arriving an hour behind schedule I was expecting a bollocking straight out of the top drawer. Instead I received numerous gin and tonics and a whole morning of the great man’s time.

After all the chat I asked if we could go up on to the Downs and see his old warriors in retirement – What A Myth, Major Rose, Charlie Worcester, Persian Lancer and Le Vermontois.

I recall racing up a rough old cart track in a large Merc at what seemed about 60 mph and getting out at the edge of an apparently empty field. But after an ear-splitting shout of ‘Come on you boys!’ the place suddenly came to life as the horses responded to that inimitable roar and ambled up over the skyline to greet him.

He loved those horses and his obvious affection for them and gratitude for what they had done for him taught me an important lesson about racing and racing people.

It is important because it helps draw a crucial line between those who love racing and those who love racehorses. To most trainers – and it is usually the best trainers – the horses are more important than the racing. But to many people involved with the turf, the racing is more important than the horses.

To listen to the likes of Price or Walwyn or nowadays Jenny Pitman talking about their horses is almost akin to eavesdropping. Their depth of feeling is unmistakable, a strange, almost hard-hearted sentiment.

I am quite capable of getting worked up about horses – I’ll still thump anyone who doesn’t appreciate that Rondetto was the greatest chaser of all time – but I will never have the depth of feeling for racehorses as a whole that the great trainers exhibit in their every fibre.

My one meeting with Fulke Walwyn some seven years ago was another vivid illustration of this extraordinary bond. After several very substantial liveners we wandered round the yard. He was 73 and still very much in command and, as we went from box to box, I was forcibly reminded of my meeting with Price a year before. There is no point in talking about ‘the likes of Price and Walwyn’ for the simple reason there was never anyone ‘like’ either of them. That is what made them and what will make us remember them. Giants indeed.

 

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