Mick Easterby: 'I sold my false teeth and got £120. I'm a legend, you see'
Britain's oldest trainer is in rip-roaring form with Lee Mottershead
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Apologies in advance for these occasional interruptions. It's not me you want, it's him. This is perfectly understandable, for Mick Easterby is an interviewee who needs little help from his interviewer. On a sublime summer morning in Sheriff Hutton, North Yorkshire, the interviewee is in particularly fine form.
Michael William Easterby is not your normal 89-year-old. Truth be told, he is not your normal anything.
In 2021 he will celebrate his 60th anniversary as a racehorse trainer, one who has consistently punched above his weight, often at the expense of battered bookmakers.
He is a Classic winner, having sent out Mrs McArdy to land the 1977 1,000 Guineas, one year after Lochnager swept the King's Stand Stakes, July Cup and Nunthorpe. He is Britain's oldest current trainer and the caricature of the seasoned Yorkshire farmer, careful with his cash, direct with his language. Alongside his older brother, Peter, he owns an impressive portion of God's Own County. If God has any more of it for sale, Easterby remains ready to buy, assuming the price is right.
When he talks, people listen and television directors tremble. As we await his arrival, son and assistant David goes about his business alongside Fin the cocker spaniel – "he's a double portion of stupid" – and Patsy the Patterdale terrier, a hound collected one night in the car park of Wolverhampton racecourse alongside a box of meat, both supplied by a Welsh butcher called Alwin.
Patsy first lived with David but now shares New House Farm with Easterby senior and Alice, Mick's wife of 63 years. Alice has Alzheimer's but also a near permanent smile, particularly when watching Last of the Summer Wine, in which her husband might well have starred. That man's mind continues to be razor-sharp, while the body is still sprightly, although when he appears the onlooker's eye is unavoidably drawn to his sole remaining tooth, for which its owner has much pride and affection. As well as the tooth, he wears trainers, a flat cap, baggy trousers and a large hole attached to the remnants of a jumper. This is how you expect Mick Easterby to look. What then follows is how you expect him to sound and behave, although he kicks off by talking plain and simple about the coronavirus.
"This is a hard thing to say because so many people have lost their lives, and I feel desperately sorry for those left behind, but in some ways this virus has done the country good," says Easterby.
"For a start, people have been shopping local. Supermarkets had pushed out all the small shops but those shops have been needed again. You can also get a doctor's appointment now as well.
"This has sharpened us all up. We had got too complacent. We were living in a false world but I think the virus has pulled us back into reality. What do you think about that then?"
Well, it's undoubtedly food for thought. Also now thinking is Easterby, who gives instructions to the riders of five horses in between posing for pictures at the request of photographer Edward Whitaker.
The tooth is flashed and the tongue stuck out. You might think this was a variety act from the golden age of music hall, yet here is a trouper who needs no boards to tread. That becomes magnificently evident as we head away from the house. It is all laid out before us, a kingdom set green and glorious in front of the Howardian Hills. This is Easterby's place to perform, to breathe, to exist. It is his theatre, his Yorkshire, his world.
"I haven't left the farm since this all started but I'm very fortunate because I can ride around the place," he says. "I feel so sorry for people living in towns who haven't been able to get out." He then pauses to consider that frightening urban thought. "Oh, terrible!" he says with force before returning to his own experience.
"I haven't been one bit frightened. If I die, I've had a good run, but, you know, I've been so confident I won't get it. Mind, if I do get it they'll say: 'He was a clever bugger!' You'll put that in, won't you?"
I say I shall and I did.
"The one thing I have missed is going to the pub," he admits, a wistful look in his eyes. "I used to go every night of my life from ten o'clock to 11 o'clock. I'm a social man. I drink any kind of beer but nothing else, except maybe a Pimm's. I've never had a glass of wine. I've never smoked, either. I once bought a packet of cigarettes when I was 16. I smoked one and thought if I was going to get on in life I couldn't be buying cigarettes at this price. I sold them to a pal and never smoked again."
As he counts the heads on a strand of spring barley, there are further happy reflections on things he has not had or done.
"I was brought up to do without," he declares. "I've really gone through hard times. To me, this isn't a hard time. Not at all.
"I grew up without a shilling in my pocket. Both my grandfathers went bankrupt. My brother says our father couldn't go bankrupt because he had nothing to lose. You can put that down. Dad told me I was very lucky because he was going to leave me the wild world to roam in. Unbelievable!"
His father would surely have been proud to see his son amass so much from so little. In typical Easterby style, he has kept most of it, although plenty has been raised for others, with over £120,000 given to the Yorkshire Air Ambulance thanks to the point-to-points staged on his land. On both the personal and charity front, Easterby is excellent with money. He is sadly not so blessed on the dental front.
"This is the only tooth I've got and I'm keeping it," he says, showing it off for another picture. "I can still eat fish and chips, rice pudding and eggs. I always boil my eggs in the kettle while I'm making tea, you know. With the same water from the same kettle I used to be able to get washed and shaved, plus I'd gently clean my plate as well. Do you know, I did have four sets of false teeth but I sold one on the internet and got £120. I'm a legend, you see. You'll have to write that."
I wrote that.
"Even to this day I love just making do," adds Easterby, suddenly coming over rather evangelical. "It's the most wonderful thing. Life shouldn't be how about much you can spend. Why make money and then spend it? I can live on fresh air. If I started treating myself to things it would kill me."
Fortunately, Easterby lives in the freshest of fresh air. He breathes some of it in and surveys his splendid kingdom.
"Take a photograph of all this land," he instructs Whitaker. "Oh, it's fantastic, out of this world. I couldn't dream of living anywhere else. When I wake up in the morning, I look up at the hill and see the churchyard. I own the land all around it as well. That churchyard is where I'm going. Mind, I think I'm going to live forever. I'm absolutely certain. If I do have to say 'bye-bye' I'll be going to that churchyard, nowhere else, unless I change my mind and end up on my point-to-point course. That way I could overlook all my land.
"Oh yes, I really enjoy everything about life and living here. I've got everything I need. Do you want to see my sheep?"
We've seen the barley, some of the horses and will soon admire his peas, so it's about time the sheep had their turn. We head closer to the hills and stop at a beck, across which the aforementioned sheep are passing the time by eating grass. Asked how many there are, Easterby takes a panoramic view of the flock and comes up with 500 as an answer. Behind him are three horses about to get sweaty on a gallop constructed of cloth. The horses speed along, watched by a trainer driving a Mitsubishi Shogun, on one ledge of which a nervous journalist precariously embraces social distancing and prays the man at the wheel avoids bumps.
Happy with what he has seen, Easterby takes us in the direction of the top yard and the peas, which are currently developing in suitably dry soil.
"When you farm, you ask the land what it wants to grow," says Farmer Mick, who then offers more wise words accrued from a lifetime of learning.
"You mustn't be frightened of making mistakes," he states simply, producing an equally clear statement when asked what his own biggest mistake has been.
"Selling things," he says, absolute certainty in his voice. "If you keep things you get growth. Once you sell them you don't benefit from the growth.
"When I first came to Sheriff Hutton in 1960 I gave £1,600 for a little thatched cottage, but then I swapped it for a new house in the village. That cottage I sold was up for sale not long ago for £700,000. My heart almost stopped when I saw that. 'Michael, how stupid can you get?' I asked myself. They had built an extension, mind."
It was, thankfully, a rare reverse.
"I've done some wonderful deals," he says. "I've also never done a wrong deed in my life. Not intentionally, anyway. Put that down.
"I remember there was once a chap driving up the road just as my horses were about to cross it. I waved him down and asked him to wait. He pulled up and we started to chat, so I invited him in for a cup of tea. I had never met him before but he was a carpet dealer and I do like dealers. While he was having his tea I sold him a horse. As he left he kept saying he couldn't believe what had just happened. A nice chap he was."
Plenty more nice and similarly stunned chaps have been sold horses by the countryside carbon copy of Ronnie Barker's Arkwright, albeit one with a much bigger corner shop. There is always room for more, but with around 60 thoroughbreds in the squad – one of whom sprang a 28-1 shock at Thirsk on Monday – Easterby is not short of owners.
"I grow all my own hay and corn, which is why I can train 'osses so cheap," he explains. "Trainers charge far too much. It's ridiculous. I'll give anyone a big reduction. I just want to keep my clients happy. I love racing, you see."
As we make our way back from the peas we see two horses on Easterby's all-weather gallop, one of them ridden by fellow trainer and near neighbour Ruth Carr, also successful on the Thirsk card.
"You must be learning plenty from the Boss," she says in advance of Easterby making a formal introduction. "This is Ruth Carr," he announces. "She uses my gallops and pays me." A large smile forms on his face.
Something else that has made him smile over the years are winning bets. He claims not to dabble these days, but those in the know insist if you see him nervously chewing his hanky, the money must be down. It most definitely was at Haydock on Saturday, June 7, 1975, when the then three-year-old Lochnager contested the Bass Apprentices' Handicap.
"I fancied three horses that day," says Easterby. All three won, all three were sent off favourite.
"This is absolutely true," he continues. "I took £1,000 in my pocket. I knew it was just a case of how far Lochnager would win by, maybe ten or 20 lengths. Eight of us went in together for a punt, including Nicholas Wrigley's father, Mr Wrigley.
"I put Alice on the grandstand and told her when she gave the signal of taking off her hat we would all back the horse at the same time. While he was waiting, Mr Wrigley went over to the Ladbrokes pitch and asked for a price about Lochnager. The bookie told him 5-1. He kept looking up at Alice, like we all did, but she wasn't taking her hat off.
"A minute later Mr Wrigley asked again and the price was down to 4-1. Alice still had her hat on. He asked twice more and by then the price was 6-4. 'The silly cow still hasn't taken her hat off,' he said to the man at Ladbrokes. What we didn't know was Alice had pinned the hat on her head and couldn't get if off.
"I finished up only having £100 on. I'm sure someone found out about our plan and pinched the price. I think it was Peter O'Sullevan. I couldn't blame him."
Back at the farmhouse, Easterby tries to sell us the leg of a Telescope filly but is distracted by his son – a prolific point-to-point-winning trainer – who explains what happened following his father's announcement in 2013 that he would be passing on the licence to his heir.
"After he won the Ayr Silver Cup he said I should take over but then he changed his mind," says David. "He enjoys racing and he's even more enthusiastic than he was 20 years ago. People don't want to come here to interview David Easterby. They want to interview Michael Easterby."
Interviewing Michael Easterby has been a joy, another item ticked off the racing writer's bucket list. As an added bonus, Mrs Easterby has popped out to say hello, escorted by granddaughter Joanna Mason. Alice sits alongside her husband and beams with delight. In their 1958 wedding photos they were such a beautiful couple. They still are.
Another photo taken, she returns inside to Compo, Clegg and Foggy, while her spouse and son reveal that nobody knows her age, perhaps now not even Alice.
"You just have to adjust," says Easterby of their shared new normal. "She does forget things. A chap who we both know came in one day – you can put this down – and he said: 'Hello, Alice, how are you?' She looked up at him with a confused expression. 'Who are you? I don't know you.' So I said to her: 'Alice, do you know me?' Quick as a flash, she looked back at me and said: 'Who the hell could forget you!'"
Who indeed? Mick Easterby is a legend, trainer, farmer, salesman, collector of land and fountain of wisdom. With his wife no longer safe at a stove, he can even knock up a tasty stew.
"I quite enjoy it," he says. "You don't need a brain to cook. It's common sense. Life is common sense. We're getting that back now. What's been going on in the world has made us realise how lucky we've been. Even I started to grumble. I had to say to myself: 'What's wrong with you, Michael? Get a hold of yourself.' In that way this has all done me a lot of good."
An hour or two in his company would do anyone a lot of good. At some point he will end up in that churchyard or on his point-to-point field. Not yet, though, and hopefully not for a good while. Long may Michael reign.
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