Recalling the harsh winter of 1963 when racing was forced to shut up shop
First published on Monday, January 14, 2013
Every time you hear yourself moaning about the weather, think of 1963. Rivers frozen, blizzards raging, roads blocked, ice in the sea and only one British race meeting from Boxing Day to the weekend before the Cheltenham Festival. It would probably finish us now. It nearly finished us then.
The snow drifts were often 20 feet deep. The average temperature for January and February was -7C. In the towns betting shops either closed or existed on a thin gruel of afternoon greyhounds, bingo and dodgy card games among their punters.
In the country much of the time was spent digging out or defrosting pipes. In most stables the only way to exercise the horses was to trot round a ring bedded down with soiled straw. For four days Bill Marshall's yard on Cleeve Hill was so enveloped that he just threw hay and feed into the boxes and took the lads to the pub.
No-one really saw it coming. Apparently there had been reports of some 30 villages being cut off by blizzards in Italy's Abruzzi mountains, but the worst that happened on Saturday, December 22 was thick fog, forcing the cancellation of the last two races at Uttoxeter. Terry Biddlecombe had won the first two, while what was to be the final event before the freeze-up, the 3.15 at Fontwell, was won by Fred Winter for Findon trainer Ryan Price.
The big race of the day, Fontwell's Ovaltine Hurdle, worth all of £1,536 8s, was won by Antiar, saddled, like three other winners, by the royal trainer Peter Cazalet, who in doing so nudged Middleham's Neville Crump off the top of the trainers' table as well as giving Peter's chef Albert Roux something to cook for that night back at Fairlawne, near Tonbridge.
The frost first hit on Sunday but Christmas Eve's Sporting Life the following day was optimistically listing the ten runners for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day under the headline 'Weather Permitting'. The Newmarket-trained Frenchman's Cove was 5-4 favourite to hold off the challenge of rising star Mill House, who had looked awesome at Sandown ten days before but had been outsprinted by King's Nephew and an inspired Stan Mellor at Kempton in November.
Stan was now on Frenchman's Cove with David Nicholson on King's Nephew and Kit Stobbs on the 10-1 shot Cocky Consort, trained by Arthur Stephenson in Durham and burdened with the Sporting Life selection. Looked optimistic then. Still does.
The frost gripped hard enough to stop all racing on Boxing Day, but not the strike by 16 stable lads at Sam Armstrong's yard at Newmarket. The first snow came that night followed by a full-scale blizzard on December 29-30, bringing the country to a halt, cutting off large areas and blocking the railway line to Scotland.
More snow over the next week saw a degree of desperation creep into the news bulletins and a rather splendid touch of gallows humour appeared in AA reports, which described conditions as "satanical", stated that "the only thing going up the M1 is snow" and on January 16 described Britain as "one vast ice patch".
It was David and Dinah Nicholson's first winter at Condicote in the Cotswolds. David was still a jockey, having yet to enter the training ranks, so the only horse available was Dinah's hunter Nelly, on whom she rode the five miles through the snow to Stow-on-the-Wold with panniers on either side to stock up with bread and milk for the villagers. When her mother was taken ill with pleurisy at Temple Guiting, Dinah had to make the 25-mile three-leg journey from Condicote to doctor's surgery to sick patient. It nearly finished her too.
On January 5 there was a deceptive gleam of hope when the Ayr meeting was able to go ahead and two races were won by Denys Smith, who praised his staff for spreading the straw on an uphill stretch amid the snowdrifts at Bishop Auckland. But the snow and the iron frost returned, and with it clear blue skies and the brightest of sunshine, making Britain an alpine paradise if all you wanted to do was skate or ski.
If you were trying to ride racehorses the pleasures were strictly mixed. At Derek Ancil's Middleton Stoney yard, to which I used to skive off from Oxford University, we trotted endlessly around the straw ring, praying that when the bucks came from the bubbling fresh horse beneath they would land him back on the straw, not into the snow under which was now solid ice.
For a wannabe jockey there was the huge thrill of being next to champion Stan Mellor, who had moved down from the north only that summer. After such a slow start when he had ridden less than a dozen winners by October, he had rocketed to the top of the table and tried to console himself that every lost day kept his lead intact.
It was the bitterest of ironies that the bubbliest, nicest, but most buck-filled horse of all those circling at Middleton Stoney was a moleskin-coloured bay with a white tipped nose called Eastern Harvest. For it was he who was to fall with Stan when in the lead at Aintree's first running of the Schweppes Hurdle that spring.
There were 41 – yes 41 – runners and not many of their hooves left Stan's face alone. His recovery to become the first man to ride a thousand winners over jumps is the most sustained piece of skill and bravery I have witnessed in all my time in racing.
Many places had it a lot worse than Middleton Stoney. Mind you, up at Middleham, Charlie Fawcus remembers his father Jack telling him it was much tougher in 1947 when the only way in and out was by sledge. Jack trained some 30 horses at Ashgill Stables close to Sam Hall's famous yard at Brecongill. "They had to keep the road open for the big dairy at the bottom of the hill," says Charlie, "so we could get all our deliveries left there. But we still spent half the time just digging things out of the snow."
With typical practicality David Nicholson managed to do the same thing at a profit. He got together a gang of local guys and went around digging cars out of the drifts for the local council, it was not just horses who needed to get fit. Further west David's great friend and rival Terry Biddlecombe was trying different and characteristically more dangerous methods.
"Biddlecombe was always up for anything," says Michael Scudamore, still then a master in the saddle, "if it wasn't shooting or ferreting what he loved to do was toboggan down towards the main road and then be the last one to bail out before you hit the fence at the bottom." Terry was not called The Blonde Bomber for nothing.
Week after week the bright Arctic weather continued. There was ice a mile out to sea at Herne Bay, there were 'ice yachts' skimming across the Norfolk Broads, there was a picture of John Oaksey (John Lawrence as he then was) skiing at Lambourn, and at Oxford we had the beautiful and surreal experience of playing ice hockey on the Capability Brown-landscaped lakes at Blenheim Palace.
Ireland was slightly more temperate and at long last, on February 23, there was a major meeting at Leopardstown which featured Cheltenham and Grand National hopefuls.
The Leopardstown Chase was won by Owen's Sedge, with Mr J Lawrence on Carrickbeg running third and best of the English raiders en route to his epic Aintree second to Ayala. Mellor on Frenchman's Cove and Nicholson on Border Flight were way down the course at Leopardstown but did at least get the racecourse gallop they needed if they were to be ready for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in two and a half weeks' time – weather permitting.
It was not until March 4 that the thaw started and March 6 was the first frost-free morning of the year. By Friday, March 8, racing was on at Newbury and eager punters at Paddington stood back in a hush of pleasure and anticipation as the royal car swept up the concourse and the Queen Mother stepped out in a blue winter coat and matching hat to be greeted by the station master and ushered into her special compartment.
It looked as if she would win the first race too, only for Bill Rees and Dargent to capsize at the last, leaving Mellor in front on Rise And Shine before he got chinned on the line by Josh Gifford on the Ryan Price-trained Hamanet.
"Rise And Shine was a decent horse and a good ride," recalls Mellor in that exact way of his, "but he was a bit faint-hearted. Being left in front was a bit too much for him."
Racing after such a layoff was too much for a number of runners. Only six of the 21 starters finished in the 3m novice chase, six being pulled up, eight falling with one other brought down. The race was won by Monarch's Thought, trained by Mill House's handler Fulke Walwyn in preparation for a tilt at the Grand Military Gold Cup. He was ridden by Captain Philip Arkwright, who was based in the Gunnery School in Dorset, had never set eyes on Monarch's Thought, and had not himself jumped a fence since October.
"But the horse was absolutely brilliant," he recalls, "and I sailed round in front alongside Josh Gifford. Fulke Walwyn had been quite grumpy in the paddock yet halfway round he said 'Who's this jock? He looks like ****ing Fred Winter'."
Peter Cazalet may have lost out with Dargent but he took two other races on the Friday and no fewer than four the following day. "We had a sharp hill of three and a half furlongs close to the stables," recalls retired judge and former Kim Muir winner Sir Edward Cazalet. "They covered it with straw and as my father had always believed in short, quick gallops the horses were very fit even after the layoff."
So too, surprisingly, was a flaxen-maned chestnut called Centre Circle who had been one of the Ancil horses circling endlessly at Middleton Stoney. Ridden by Derek's brother Basil, he skated up in a novice hurdle at Stratford on the Saturday before repeating the trick over fences in that year's Kim Muir at Cheltenham on the Wednesday.
Fears that Ireland would wipe the floor at the festival owing to superior fitness were not confirmed as Biddlecombe won the opener on Honour Bound for Fred Rimell, rugby blue and future Derby winner Ian Balding took the National Hunt Chase on Time for Willie Stephenson, and Mill House won the Gold Cup so impressively that we thought he would win it for years to come.
He didn't, because in the Broadway Chase the Irish had played what was to prove their ace of aces. Even at that stage there was something rather different about the way he carried himself, head and neck very high and deer-like as if he was already lord of the glen. In the race he was sensational and left the others labouring like routed cavalry. He was called Arkle.
But the best of all postscripts to the 1963 freeze-up came after the one-eyed Winning Fair had won the Champion Hurdle under amateur Alan Lillingston for Tipperary trainer George Spencer, late father of Jamie Spencer. George was neither a teetotaller nor a great respecter of pompous press men. "Mr Spencer," one hack asked rather patronisingly in the unsaddling enclosure, "Is it true that your horse has only one eye?" On the volley George countered: "Sure, if he had two ****ing eyes he would have won the ****ing Derby." Then as now, you needed a smile.
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