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Sunday, 16 December, 2018

From the vaults: Alastair Down's 2012 interview with the newly honoured trainer

Alastair Down interviews Peter Walwyn at his home in Upper Lambourn
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In an interview first published on February 5, 2012, Alastair Down spoke to Peter Walwyn following news of his MBE honour

You wouldn't buy him at the sales because he doesn't trot up too well these days. And anyway his wife Bonk wouldn't sell him, although doubtless she has been tempted down the years when he has done something particularly daffy.

But next month Peter Walwyn will make the journey to Windsor Castle – in a borrowed car as his own jalopy is not guaranteed to get the trip – to receive an MBE. The award, in the dry patois of such citations, is "for services to racing" and is therefore partly in recognition of twice being champion trainer and for having brought us Grundy, prince of all he surveyed in 1975. But what this MBE really does is salute the fact that Walwyn, benignly bonkers but no fool, has given more to the sport and its people than he ever took.

Now 78, Walwyn is a cult figure among those who abhor the petty tyrannies of the politically correct. Some of his views might have the more liberal denizens of Hampstead choking on their muesli of a morning but there are two things to bear in mind about Walwyn. First, there is a rugged kindness that underpins his outlook and, second, he is a very fine character actor and the role he has become quite brilliant at is playing himself.

And to talk to him is to take great leaps back in British history. His father fought in the Boer War and on the Western Front and must have been a notably courageous officer, as he was awarded the Military Cross and DSO and was mentioned in despatches on three occasions.

It is incredible to relate that Walwyn's grandfather was at the Second Relief of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, an engagement of such unbridled ferocity that on November 16 of that year more VCs were won – a total of 24 – than on any other day in military history.

Walwyn says: "My father was a far better horseman and horsemaster than I have ever been. He was involved in the opening artillery barrage of the war in 1914," and by way of proof he pops into the next room and returns with the polished brass casing of a 13-pounder shell.

You might think Walwyn's National Service rank as corporal in the Intelligence Corps marked something of a disappointment in terms of a military career, but he says: "I had back trouble which meant I was refused a commission, but that actually rebounded to my advantage.

"I had undoubtedly led something of a sheltered life as a boy but suddenly I was thrust into a different world with people from absolutely every walk of life. It gave me insight and understanding into ordinary, everyday people and the lives they lead. It was invaluable."

His first job in racing was with Geoffrey Brooke in Newmarket. Brooke had been private trainer to Major Lionel Holliday, a hugely successful Yorkshire owner-breeder of fiery temperament and a choleric disposition. One day Holliday rang up and said: "Brooke, what happened to my filly at Ripon last night? One of my friends said she didn't run well and she didn't look well either."

Brooke replied: "I did not know you had any friends" and put the phone down. If that was brave, he showed it was no flash in the pan by taking on Walwyn as his first pupil-assistant when he set up on his own in 1952.

Walwyn says: "I was in charge of the bottom yard, which was a sea of mud and populated entirely by completely wild Irish lads. But we had a wonderful head man, Bob Ruttle, and I began to learn about feeding and dealing with problem horses.

"In those days a lot of horses still went to places like Doncaster and Manchester by special train with a carriage for the travelling head lads, then the horses and a guard's van on the back."

Out of the blue Walwyn was approached by his first cousin Helen Johnson Houghton, sister of Fulke Walwyn, to join her at Blewbury. Her husband Gordon, an immensely promising trainer, had been killed in a hunting accident back in 1951. As women were not officially allowed to train, others had held the licence for her, and now she wanted Peter to do so.

Mrs Johnson Houghton was a horsewoman of towering reputation and Walwyn stayed for five successful years before the moment came to strike out on his own.

Peter and Bonk were married in January 1960 and later that year they bought Windsor House in Lambourn and for £12,000 got a nice Georgian house and two cottages which included a hostel, 30 boxes and 11 acres.

He recalls: "Our first winner was with our second ever runner, Don Verde ridden by John Lawrence [now Oaksey] in a novice hurdle at Worcester when, despite making a hash of the second-last, they won by eight lengths."

In 1961 a yearling arrived who would become one of Walwyn's stalwarts. From 1963 Be Hopeful won every year for a decade and landed his last triumph at Brighton in 1973 at the age of 14. He trained many finer racehorses but none more durable.

But it is Seven Barrows that became the yard indelibly associated with Walwyn and he bought it off Henry Candy's father, Derrick, in late 1965. Walwyn says: "It was a fabulous place but it needed a huge amount doing to it. The lads' hostel had more rats than the Pied Piper led out of Hamelin and the stables needed complete renovation with new floors.

Seven Barrows, now home to champion trainer Nicky Henderson, was restored to greatness by Peter Walwyn

"We had our first winner, Crozier, from Seven Barrows at Easter 1966 and training is only about winners because it is winners that keep owners and stop them looking over their shoulders to see if the grass is greener elsewhere."

In just a couple of years the yard took off and by 1969 he was approaching the pinnacle of his profession. Lucyrowe won the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot – where Town Crier took the Queen Anne – then the Nassau Stakes. Humble Duty, with stable jockey Duncan Keith up, took the Lowther and the Cheveley Park before sealing her greatness by taking the following season's 1,000 Guineas, Coronation and Sussex Stakes.

Walwyn says: "Once a year I still read George Lambton's famous book 'Men and Horses I Have Known' as you always find something more in it.

I never forgot his dictum to trainers, 'curb your curiosity', by which he meant don't keep going and asking them questions at home that should only be answered on the racecourse. It is very easy to do, particularly on the hills round here."

It was Grundy who provided Walwyn with the zenith of his career. He says: "We went to Overbury, the Holland-Martin stud in Gloucestershire, and there was this flashy looking bugger, but he had great style about him and their very knowledgeable stud groom Peter Diamond said, 'This is a horse you should buy'.

"Usually it took a month to break a horse in but Grundy was boisterous and he took two. It is all about steady perseverance, getting their mouth right and their deportment and never, under any circumstance being cruel.

"He looked encouraging in his early work, so one morning I worked him with a three-year-old who had won a handicap on the heath day of Royal Ascot.

"You sit there all those mornings on your hack and perhaps six or eight times in a lifetime one will go past that sends that cold shiver down your spine. It is the fascination of excellence – seeing a horse you have broken in from nothing suddenly change into something else in front of your eyes. Grundy was the most marvellous mover and as tough as old boots."

If there is one place Walwyn loves as deeply as he does Lambourn it is Epsom on Derby Day. A lifelong water colourist who still goes to lessons once a week, he says: "William Frith's magnificent painting Derby Day captures it all – toffs, touts and tarts, a complete microcosm of life.

"I had already trained the runner-up twice before Grundy won. I watched it from Lord Derby's box and I am sure I deafened the lot of them and after the race we all went up to be congratulated by the Queen, which was marvellous.

"It turned into a very long day. On the way home we stopped as a pee was needed and there was some graffiti on the wall which read 'the future of England is in your hands' and on that day I remember thinking that it probably was.

"We had a great party when we got home and one of our oldest friends, who was quite mad, turned up at midnight in a black cab still in his top hat with yet another case of champagne. He was still here three days later and when we finally got rid of him he got on the wrong train and ended up somewhere in Somerset rather than London."

And, of course, Grundy's defeat of Bustino in the King George was yet to come. It is hard to define why many believed it to be the race of the century. After all there have been even closer finishes in the big race and greater winners, though not many.

But ask anyone who watched it and they will tell you of the immediate certainty they felt as they trooped down from the stands that there had been something primal and almost savagely noble about the struggle they had witnessed. Everyone just knew in their marrow that Grundy and Bustino would be talked about as long as there were people left on the planet to whom hard battles between horses on high summer grass were matters of importance.

Of course, Walwyn's black and white persona inevitably led to the occasional drama and disagreement with owners, none more so than with the Wildensteins, whom he regards with a cordial loathing to this day.

The horses came to Walwyn from Angel Penna in France, and mastering his distaste Walwyn says: "One day there should be a party for the former trainers of the Wildensteins and I think the Albert Hall would be a very suitable venue. Alec Wildenstein was always the most troublesome of them all. After Buckskin, who had the most awful feet in the world, was fourth in the Gold Cup they said that Pat Eddery was not to ride for them again. Having counted to about 100 I told them that if Pat couldn't ride 'em they could go and take their horses with them. They went the following morning."

It was perhaps the skirmishes with the Wildensteins and others that led Walwyn to invent his famous bus that is always on its way over Beachy Head packed with those he would happily never see again.

He says: "That Alec Wildenstein is the driver and Willie Carson is the conductor. And the other people I don't get on with each has a seat in the window with the best view as they go over the cliff. Job done."

For all his occasional bombast Walwyn has been hugely touched by having had nearly 500 letters of congratulation since the announcement of his MBE. Lameness apart, he is in good form, but even if he wasn't he would never let on.

Three years ago he had a major scare, but even that has passed into legend, and Bonk takes up the tale: "We were coming back in the car from seeing the grandchildren and he was mumbling away a bit more than usual. I said 'Peter, are you having a stroke?' and he replied 'I don't know, I've never had one before'."

She adds: "Another time when he had a bad fall out hunting he went a very odd colour, so we shot him into hospital. Eventually, before they let him out, a very serious doctor came to me and said 'Mrs Walwyn, I am afraid he may not be quite the same as other people. He could be a bit tricky, have mood swings and jump up and down and shout a bit'." History does not relate whether the doctor was surprised or reassured to receive the reply, "Nothing new there then".

It is unlikely that Lambourn ever had a greater benefactor and friend than Walwyn and last Monday there was a not-much-of-a-surprise party for him at Oaksey House with more than 90 on hand to celebrate his forthcoming gong.

The glorious Lambourn Valley, home to Peter and Bonk Walwyn for more than half a century

Bonk says: "It was a marvellous and, I must admit, an emotional occasion. His mother and father weren't too keen on him going into racing – they thought it was a 'bit fast' as they used to say. But we've been here in Lambourn 52 years, have survived and still love it and its people.

"He is so chuffed about his MBE, completely thrilled. Mind you, our daughter Kate and I have had to have new outfits for Windsor Castle and when he sees the inroads we've made in his cheque book he may be lost for words for once! But life's about laughing – at least it always has been here."

I had undoubtedly led something of a sheltered life as a boy but suddenly I was thrust into a different world
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