With horses like Desert Orchid and Persian Punch, David Elsworth has had a ball during his 58 years in the sport – and he’s not finished yet
The corridors creak with racing history at Egerton House. Pictures, some on the walls, others randomly scattered awaiting a home, plot the passage of time by landmark horses and winners. Outside, the symmetrical King’s Yard, built by an earl in the mid-19th century and first leased to the royal trainer Richard Marsh, is an atmospheric preservation of how training stables used to be built, perhaps how they always should be.
For many of us, brought up on the accent and exploits of David Elsworth in his native west country, his relocation to Newmarket, seven years ago, grated incongruously. Yet to see him here now, that round-shouldered gait plodding around his 30 horses, that ungovernable mind sending his conversation darting from one thought to the next, is to see a man content in his domain, a riveting character in a suitably stirring location.
It may not have proceeded entirely to plan in Newmarket but that could be said for much of the 58 years that Elsworth has worked in racing. His career has never been dull, any more than the man himself. He never was one to conform slavishly to convention and expectation, yet the highs have touched the heavens and the lows have never got him down for long.
Only recently, he has passed the latest such examination. “I nearly packed up last year,” he admits. “We had the cough and, for the first time I can remember, we couldn’t get rid of it. It was terrible. So I did think of stopping completely, then I thought of going back west, or even to Yorkshire. But moving is such a big upheaval and I didn’t fancy that. Things had been tough financially but we’re through all that, I’ve re-negotiated my lease and I’m quite relaxed now.”
It would have been no disgrace to retire. Elsworth will be 74 this year and, even in this age of austerity, most of us do not plan to be working at that age. “But I’d miss it, that’s the problem,” he explains. “I’ve been very lucky, looking back, and I still enjoy it. If I packed up, I’d never be able to get back.”
Elsworth was not an eager interviewee. Despite planning my approach with stealth and cunning (the morning after he had taken four horses to Musselburgh and come home with a treble), it was rebuffed. “Nobody wants to read about a cynical old bugger like me…” came the response. Ten days later, when we sit down in his office overlooking the yard, he is still mumbling his misgivings.
Yet if the name of Elsworth has faded among modern racegoers, the legend is alive and well. Few trainers, even dating back to the time this splendid yard was created on the very border of the July Course, have conquered both codes as he has done. A Cheltenham Gold Cup, a Grand National, four King George VI Chases and very much more over jumps, Classic and Group 1 success on the Flat. In Desert Orchid and Persian Punch, he trained two of the most popular horses of his lifetime.
Both had fan clubs. There have been times when Elsworth has been close to commanding one himself, much as the notion might bring out the curmudgeon in him again. His training has excelled through his instinct and courage. His personality has impressed for its easy charm, occasionally transformed by a fizzing, quickly forgotten temper. He is a genuine character, always worth listening to.
His story is all the more beguiling for its genesis. It is, of course, a fallacy that the elite of British racing trainers all owe their position to breeding and inheritance but very few started out with quite the challenges and disadvantages confronting Elsworth. He was brought up by his grandparents in a council house in Wiltshire. The house stood only four miles from Whitsbury, where he was later to enjoy his most indelible moments in racing, yet the very idea of such a life was impossibly alien.
“I was illegitimate,” he states. “It was a disgrace in those days, so it was hushed up. My mother, now 90, was only 17 when she had me and she went out working to pay for me. It’s been written that my father went away and got killed in the war but I wouldn’t know about that – he never showed, anyway.
“My grandparents had nine children, widely spread in age. The eldest was 26 when I was born but I could have been the last of the batch and I think they let people think that, to make it less embarrassing.”
There were no horses to ride in his boyhood, no racecourses to visit. He scarcely knew of the sport, though he had come across a string of horses when he was out conducting his first entrepreneurial sideline – rabbiting.
“I earned 15 shillings a week from a paper round but rabbit was a standard dish in those days and I knew I could get decent money for them,” he recalls. “I had a lurcher, a ferret and an air rifle and I took them all on my bike to Herridge, where the hills were alive with rabbits. I used to skin them and sell them for half-a-crown.”
The point was that Herridge, now a second yard for Richard Hannon, was the training base for Alec Kilpatrick. Elsworth grew interested in the sight of the horses at exercise, and the fascination grew thanks to the girl who sat next to him at school. “Her name was Pat Macklin and her father Frank, an Irishman, worked for Alec Kilpatrick,” he says. “He actually looked after Galloway Braes, who’d won the King George [VI Chase] the previous season. I learned this because Pat wrote an essay about his job.
“I needed somewhere to work, so I rode my bike over and knocked on the back door – I knew enough to go to the tradesmen’s entrance. Old Alec was a six-foot Scotsman in a long brown coat. He looked me up and down and asked what I knew about horses. I said I knew nothing but he gave me a month’s trial. I came back with my suitcase on the handlebars of my bike.”
He started the next Monday – January 3, 1955. The date is imprinted on his sometimes forgetful mind, even now. He was to stay at Herridge for five years, though, at first this did not look likely. “They put me in the hostel and God it was cold that winter,” he recalls. “For the first couple of months, I stayed only because I didn’t have the guts to tell the guv’nor I wanted to go home. Then spring came, I started riding out and that made all the difference.”
Elsworth had to learn fast. “I knew so little that I thought the fellas who rode the horses were trainers,” he chuckles. “So when the guv’nor asked me what I wanted to do, I naturally told him I wanted to be a trainer.”
Instead he became a passable jockey, starting with a winner at Cheltenham barely three years later. Yet, unwittingly, he had been accurate in his stated ambition. It was the training that had hooked him and he picked up experience from a succession of employers, notably Toby Balding – “the best man ever to work for”.
It was a Dick Whittington way of life. “I was restless, I got bored easily,” he says. “If I’d been somewhere three or four months and there wasn’t much happening, I moved on again. You could live out of a suitcase when you were single and fancy-free but I got married at 30 and had to take things more seriously.”
His desire to train was strong but he had no land, no backer and not enough money. What he did have was initiative. He looked after a couple of horses for a bookmaker friend, John Duffy, and they ran out of the yard of Colonel Ricky Vallance. When they pulled off a coup at Newton Abbot, with two winners both well backed, it lifted his finances but also, perhaps, made him a marked man. Well Briefed then bolted up at Exeter and he was referred to the Jockey Club over his improvement in form.
“They basically said we’d stopped it the previous time, which we hadn’t,” he insists. “We weren’t guilty of anything but I’d been trying to get a licence for a year and now, they told me, I couldn’t. I was a bit chippy about it, because I was innocent.”
This was not to be the last time Elsworth felt the punitive force of authority – in 1987 he was heavily fined over the administration of a steroid to Cavvies Clown, a subject he is reluctant to revisit. This first disciplinary setback, though, might have aborted his training career before it had officially begun. “They separated me from my horses, cut off my income,” he recalls. “I had a wife and two kids and it made things pretty hard. It was then that I played around as a market trader.”
In his subsequent training pomp, that label was to stick with him, a convenient image to portray his improbable background. He was not a regular on Salisbury market for long, though, before setting up a livery yard – “they would call it pre-training now” – and resuming his badgering of the licensing committee. “I even put in a caravan as a dwelling, which you needed to get accepted, but it made no difference until Piers Bengough, a young captain in those days, had a word in the right ears. ‘But mind you don’t let me down,’ he told me.”
I get a bad taste in my mouth about the way racing is promoted through betting now
Bengough, later a colonel and the Queen’s representative at Ascot, could never have thought he was let down. Elsworth began as if all his pent-up frustrations had been exploded. “I bought three horses and they all won,” he says. “We must have had eight winners from our first ten runners. We pretty soon had 25 horses and then the Whitsbury days began.”
What days! Elsworth had always handled Flat and jumps horses but it was the jumpers – Rhyme ‘N’ Reason, Barnbrook Again and, of course, Dessie – who made him famous. “I was very ambitious, I wanted to win everything,” he admits. “It never seemed like work to me but, when I look back, I did work very hard.”
Then, two decades ago, he shocked his devotees by virtually withdrawing from jump racing. He had been champion trainer a few years earlier and would have won more titles but for Martin Pipe. Yet he had fallen out of love with the sport. “I had one particular horse killed at Lingfield,” he recalls. “When I walked down the track to see him, I think that made up my mind. In jumping, you’ve got short days, cold weather, bad ground and so many injuries… and, besides, I’d done it, hadn’t I? I was in my mid-50s and suddenly thought, wouldn’t it be nice to train horses on long summer days?”
That’s what he did and, if the glories of In The Groove, who won an Irish Guineas and a Champion Stakes, were never quite emulated, Elsworth is entering the autumn of his career commanding respect, admiration and affection through the sport.
He still loves a tilt at the betting ring but believes this side of the sport is overplayed.
“I get a bad taste in my mouth about the way racing is promoted through betting now,” he remarks. “Of course, it’s significant – and we certainly don’t get enough from the levy – but I’m always fascinated by the puzzles and storylines of racing. I’m curious about it and I don’t need to have a bet. I’m definitely a romantic about racing, always have been.”
He is not part of the Newmarket training set, nor seeks to be. At Egerton House, he can be a man apart, which suits him fine.
“I’d love to have won a Derby and a Champion Hurdle, an Ascot Gold Cup and a Melbourne Cup, but I’ve been very lucky,” he admits. “I haven’t won a Group 1 for some years, and that annoys me, but I accept I am not Premiership any more. Once upon a time that would have rankled, but it doesn’t now.
“I look at some poor buggers and wonder how on earth they keep going. I’m happy to have success at a reasonable level. I’d never want to be scrubbing around just trying to win a few all-weather races.”
With that, we are off round the yard, and he pauses at the head of Highland Castle, saying: “One for the Ebor, I hope, maybe even the Melbourne Cup.” Always the dreamer, may he go on forever.