'In whatever guise, he will be a much missed character in the valley'
Everyone who knew Peter Walwyn has a favourite amusing story to narrate. He was an endearingly eccentric character, deeply passionate about horses and racing people in his beloved Lambourn Valley and, in addition, a fiercely staunch defender of country sports, especially hunting. What became overshadowed, however, with the passage of time was the indisputable reality that Walwyn was also one of the finest and most successful trainers of his generation.
Although clearly revelling in his affectionate nickname Basil Fawlty, after John Cleese's lanky, bandy-legged and volatile portrayal of the hotelier in Fawlty Towers, Walwyn nevertheless displayed a thoroughly professional, dedicated and no-nonsense approach to his chosen profession.
Twice champion trainer in the mid-1970s, and the first post-war trainer to record 100 winners in a season, he will be best remembered for the achievements of Grundy, who in 1975 won the Derby, Irish Derby, Irish 2,000 Guineas and, most memorable of all, that titanic showdown with the year-older Bustino for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. It was an encounter that managed to preserve its on-the-day accolade by the media as 'the race of the century'.
As a washy chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail and three white feet, Grundy would not have been the first choice of many, but Walwyn was taken by his free-flowing movement when visiting the yearlings at Gloucestershire's Overbury Stud in the autumn of 1973. Accordingly, he recommended the colt to Carlo Vittadini who duly bought him at the sales for 11,000gns, although he was later quoted, in Julian Wilson's book, 100 Greatest Racehorses, as saying: "He looks more like a horse for a cowboy than the for the racecourse. I'm not altogether happy with his colour."
The assumption was that flashy chestnuts were soft and gutless, but Grundy made nonsense of that. He won eight of his 11 starts and showed the utmost bravery, having taken a full-force kick on the head when following his stablemate Corby into the covered ride at home in the March of his Classic season.
Walwyn's initial Classic success had come in 1970 with Humble Duty in the 1,000 Guineas. With stable jockey Duncan Keith losing his ongoing battle with the scales and undergoing a hoped for solution under medical supervision in Ireland, that spring Walwyn turned to Lester Piggott. Briefed not to give the filly a hard race in the Fred Darling, Piggott was beaten a length by Highest Hopes but told Walwyn in the debrief that his filly would win the Guineas.
Walwyn, in his autobiography Handy All The Way – A Trainer's Life, wrote of a pre-Classic conversation with Piggott at Newmarket. "I leant against the rail in the weighing room and asked him again what he thought. 'She'll win all right,’ he said. Then he got down to the heart of the matter:'What's the owner like?" – in other words, would she be generous? I reassured him on that point, and he gave one of his hard-to-fathom smiles."
The son of an army officer, Walwyn's own national service was seen out as a corporal in the intelligence corps, as he failed a medical due to a misaligned spine. When discharged he was determined to follow the career path of his cousin, champion jumps trainer Fulke Walwyn.
He was taken on by Newmarket's Geoffrey Brooke as a pupil assistant. Three years later, he was approached by Fulke Walwyn's sister, Helen Johnson Houghton, to hold the trainer's licence on her behalf at a yard at Blewbury in Oxfordshire. Johnson Houghton had been training at the yard – with various male nominees holding the licence – for five years since her husband Gordon, regarded as one of the most promising trainers of the day, was killed in an accident.
Walwyn's association with Johnson Houghton was a successful arrangement that was attracting fresh clients, but after four years the ambitious Walwyn knew the time was right to launch his own operation. By then he was married to Virginia Gaselee, nicknamed 'Bonk' long before its modern-day connotation evolved. In 1960 they bought Lambourn's Windsor House Stables from Syd Mercer for £12,000 and with it inherited Mercer's head groom Ray Laing. Walwyn had the knack of employing the right people throughout his career. Apart from Laing, others to play key roles in the success story included Alan Bailey and Mattie McCormack. All three were to become successful trainers in their own right.
The first of Walwyn's 1,900 winners came with his second runner, the John Oaksey-ridden Don Verde, who overcame a mistake at the second-last flight in a novice hurdle at Worcester. Of that total, 27 wins were registered by Be Hopeful who to this day has a race staged in his honour at Bath. He had arrived at the yard as a mud-covered yearling in November 1961, delivered by his owner Percival Williams – grandfather of the trainer Venetia Williams – who at the same time handed Walwyn a cheque for £500, the first year's training fee. From 1963, Be Hopeful won every season for a decade.
Not always the most diplomatic of characters, Walwyn has his share of Basil Fawlty-style fallings out, including with owners. In his autobiography, he wrote of Roger Hue-Williams. "He could be troublesome at times. One Sunday morning, when he had asked if he could come round to see their horses, he was very late arriving. We left the horses tied up but put their lunchtime feeds in their mangers, so that they would be happier. Roger, being rather nosey, looked in their mangers but did not say anything at the time. However, on his return home he wrote me a furious letter asking why the horses had not eaten up. He got a fairly sharp reply to the effect that the only reason the feeds had been in the mangers was that he had been so later turning up."
However, the most spectacular, and certainly most public, of disagreements was with the Wildenstein family, the Paris-based art dealers. Impressed by Walwyn's achievements for them with Pixie Tower in 1973 and Indian Warrior a few seasons later, they asked him in the spring of 1978 to take another 35 horses from France, including Crow, who had won the 1976 St Leger under the care of Angel Penna, and Buckskin, the champion stayer in France. The latter was cursed with flat feet. Despite that, he won the Prix du Cadran for Walwyn and all was set for the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot despite the ongoing problem. Walwyn said at the time: "We tried exercising him in rubber shoes, but he was such an extravagant mover he used to shed them as if he were throwing plates in a Greek restaurant".
Firm ground, allied with a difficult preparation, contributed to Buckskin's below-par fourth place at Ascot. What happened next has been told in a variety of colourful versions, and it is therefore best to relate Walwyn's word from his autobiography. "I went to saddle up for the next race and was met on my way back to the stands to be told that Daniel Wildenstein, in the usual family style, had been screaming blue murder at Pat Eddery’s riding. He apparently announced that either Lester or Yves Saint-Martin would have won on the horse, and that he didn't want boys riding his horses again. I ignored this outburst and counted to at least 20. My only reply was that if they didn't want Pat they could take their horses away. We were doing well for them, but they were known to be difficult people and poor losers."
However, the incident blew over, only to resurface soon after when Crow incurred a tendon problem in the countdown to the King George. "I got a furious telephone call from Alec Wildenstein, who in my view was the worst troublemaker of the lot, to say the horses were leaving the next Monday. I was sad to lose the horses, but relieved that I would no longer have to train for such unpleasant and ungrateful people. I worked out that we'd had 46 runners for them and 13 winners, including two Group 1 races."
As one might expect, Walwyn had the front seats reserved for the Wildensteins on his fantasy double-decker bus heading for the cliff at Beachy Head. A seat was also booked for Willie Carson. Their strained relationship was apparent during Carson's long tenure as stable jockey to Walwyn's main patron Sheikh Hamdan. "I was never a great fan of Carson. To be frank, we didn't hit it off. He was a wonderful jockey, but he got beat on several of mine who should have won. In particular I remember he dropped his hands on Rami, and he got in a muddle with Hateel."
A resolute supporter of hunting, Walwyn joined several protest marches as the pursuit came increasingly under pressure. He was pictured on the front page of the Daily Telegraph as he paraded outside a Labour Party conference in Bournemouth. "I marched for two hours and saw this woman waving a placard that read 'This former huntswoman demands a ban on hunting'. I said to her 'Madam, I think that's because you may have lost your nerve'."
Another demonstration, this time at Sandown where he held a banner in full view of a Channel 4 camera, brought a rebuke from the then executive producer Andrew Franklin.
There was to be one last serious throw of the Classic dice with Munwar who won the 1995 Lingfield Derby Trial, making all. Sheikh Hamdan’s colt went on to Epsom to start third favourite, at 8-1, behind 11-8 favourite Pennekamp. They were both to be well beaten by Lammtarra.
Walwyn’s story as a trainer ended where it had begun, at Windsor House Stables. In between, he had spent 27 years on the outskirts of Lambourn at Seven Barrows, having bought that property from Henry Candy's father Derrick. In 1992, Walwyn did a yard swap with Nicky Henderson and returned to Windsor House.
With horse numbers dwindling he retired in 1999, renting the stables to his assistant, Ralph Beckett, and then Harry Dunlop. In 2011, he sold the property to the Parker family and moved to Upper Lambourn, where he rented a thatched cottage from Brian Meehan, and then on to a bungalow owned by Barry Hills. He remained as the enthusiastic and ever-active chairman of the Lambourn Trainers' Association. In the 2012 Queen's New Year Honours he was made an MBE for his services to racing.
He had a fund of colourful stories, most of them self-mocking. When showing off his scrapbook he would point to the picture of his equally bandy-legged gardener Arthur. "One year, Arthur was so proud of our vegetables he entered them in the Lambourn show. We achieved a record that hasn't been matched since. We finished last in every class."
He frequently told the story of the drive home from Epsom after Grundy's Derby win. "I was with my assistant Mark Smyly and both of us were dying for a pee. We stopped at a loo in Esher and as I was relieving myself I looked up and saw this graffiti on the wall that read 'The future of Britain is in your hands'. At that time I thought it did."
And there was also the infamous occasion when Sheikh Hamdan's racing manager Angus Gold found Walwyn banging his head continually against a stable door at Deauville. Brent Thomson had disregarded riding instructions on the fancied Turfah in a Listed race. When asked what was happening, Walwyn is said to have told Gold: "It's all my fault, I'm the idiot who employed this imbecile."
Walwyn never denied the gist of the story and conceded that his nickname can rarely have appeared more appropriate. In whatever guise, he will be a much missed character in the Lambourn Valley.