'I'm a bad-tempered old sod' - inside the mind of training legend David Elsworth
Lee Mottershead meets up with a true racing great in his 80th year
Published in the Racing Post on August 11, 2019
This is Newmarket but not as we know it. With one of two canters completed, horses amble through what feels like a dark, thick forest that paints an elegant impression of Chantilly. As they make their way back towards the woodchip gallop, David Elsworth drives slowly and carefully in between trees. Behind us Racing Post photographer Edward Whitaker reacts with surprise when licked enthusiastically on the neck by Cyril.
In between the Fred Darling Stakes on April 13 and the Lennox Stakes on July 30, Cyril the labrador won as many races as the equine members of the Elsworth string, which means he won none. That could have been expected of the dog, but not the horses, as their boss is a racing legend, a one-off who can claim to have been the greatest dual-purpose trainer of his generation. When Sir Dancealot scored at Goodwood the win was badly needed.
"It was an awfully long time between drinks," says Elsworth, as he plots a scenic route through woodland set amidst Egerton House Stables, the self-contained property he has rented since 2006. There have been some super afternoons in that time, including when Arabian Queen captured the 2015 Juddmonte International at 50-1. That season the yard ended with 28 victories and more than £1 million in prize-money, a cash marker matched again last year.
This year has not been like that. Sir Dancealot ended the drought in style but his win was only Elsworth's fifth of 2019. He believes a viral problem may have been to blame.
"We were struggling," he admits. "I would strike a bet I had never gone so long without a winner.
"It creeps up on you. First we hadn't had a winner for three weeks, then we hadn't had a winner for a month, then it became two months. It does happen to people but it had never happened to me. We could easily still end up with more than £500,000, so we're doing all right, but it has been a tough year. Didn't he win well, though?"
He did indeed win well, powering home under Gerald Mosse, just as he had 12 months earlier. In the moments that followed, Elsworth approached Goodwood's winner's enclosure asking if anyone had a tissue. "Not that I'm crying, you understand," he had said, but nobody would have been surprised if tears were shed. Elsworth is an emotional fellow, which makes you wonder how he handled the bleak streak?
"I'm a miserable bugger when I'm winning, so what do you expect me to be like when I'm losing?" he responds. Typical Elsie.
He is not miserable at all, certainly not this morning. He has also prepared well for our meeting, having gone through the big-race results section of Horses In Training and noted some of the coveted prizes he has plundered.
"Modesty forbids me from counting them all but we have won a lot of the major races," says a man whose first success came 40 years ago at Salisbury, the place he lived as a young boy and just down the road from Whitsbury, his training home for a quarter of a century.
What made that period so special is Elsworth ruled two roosts, winning crown jewel Flat and jumps races at the same time. In consecutive months he sent out Desert Orchid to land the Irish Grand National and In The Groove to take the Irish 1,000 Guineas.
That, too, was typical Elsie, whose personal roll of honour features the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Chase, four King George VI Chases, two Juddmonte Internationals, a Champion Stakes and much more besides.
It also features two of the most loved horses in British racing history, for while Desert Orchid was enjoying retirement, the giant Persian Punch was earning his own special place in our hearts.
Both horses are now gone, but Elsworth is very much around. In December he will turn 80. Before that milestone arrives he hopes to have landed another nice race or two with Sir Dancealot, who canters past his trainer for the second time, watched also by Elsworth's Spanish-based 82-year-old former travelling head lad Peter Maughan, here on the first day of one of his regular week-long visits.
"He can still rear up now and again but he's more relaxed these days," says Maughan, offering what seems a fine description of a man he knows so well. That man is soon showing his bond with Sir Dancealot, rubbing the seven-furlong specialist's ears and sending the animal into a state of temporary zen.
"He's a pet," says Elsworth, who, when leaving Whitsbury for Newmarket – a move that stunned many of his close friends – had 100 horses in his care. Now no more than 30 horses live in the boxes of Egerton's historic King's Yard, which is exactly how their master wants it. At one point he also thought he might want to buy the yard and all the land around it.
"Many years ago I saw in Country Life, or something similar, that this place was being sold," he says. "They wanted £5 million. I was younger and more foolish and I did wonder if I shouldn't have a go at buying it. I don't know where the good sense came from but I didn't buy it, thank God. I couldn't really have afforded it. The big mortgage would have killed me, plus I was doing very well at Whitsbury. When it became available to rent I decided to give it a whirl and I've been here ever since."
So long has he been here that Elsworth has spent roughly one-sixth of his life training horses at Egerton, where he is rather looking forward to being photographed, albeit with slightly unrealistic expectations.
"Could you get me to look as though I have skin like Rebecca Curtis?" he asks Whitaker. "I remember you took a picture of her on a beach somewhere. She looked a million dollars and her skin was beautiful, totally unblemished. If you could do that to me I'd appreciate it."
Even Whitaker can only do so much. Fortunately Elsworth looks nothing like his 79 years, more than 65 of which have been spent in racing.
"My first experience of the big time was when I led up the favourite for the 1956 Grand National, a horse called Must," he says. "I thought that was a hell of a big deal. In fact, I'm sure it made a bigger impact on me than when we won the race with Rhyme 'N' Reason 32 years later.
"Unfortunately, Must fell at the first fence. I was out trying to catch him and was stood by the winning post waiting for him to come around when I saw a lovely lad in a trilby and breeches, looking like an AA man on his day off. He was shouting, 'Come on my beauty, come on my beauty'. It turns out he was Devon Loch's lad. We both saw the horse sprawl right in front of us. The poor man just looked at him in total astonishment.
"I actually rode in the race as well on a horse called Chamoretta, a mare owned by a mad old major, in 1968. We jumped, jumped, jumped, and I got into the race nicely, but at the final ditch I got baulked and there was no room to get over the fence.
"Being a jockey did me the world of good. I was living out of the back of a car and if I rode ten or half a dozen winners a year I was lucky, but I enjoyed it."
He started to enjoy training soon after as assistant to Colonel Ricky Vallance, bagging the Mackeson and Hennessy Gold Cups with Red Candle. Those wins came in 1972 and 1973. In 1974 Vallance – who delegated to Elsworth considerably more responsibility than a normal assistant would take on – was plucked from the sport.
"It was a big learning curve for me," he says. "We were completely innocent and did nothing wrong. The horse, Well Briefed, had run well under Johnny Haine first time at Fontwell but it was a big field and he was constantly stopped in his tracks. Johnny came in and said he would win next time. That happened at Devon and Exeter, where his odds collapsed and he won by 15 lengths.
"The stewards reported it to the Jockey Club and the colonel lost his licence. I had been trying to get a licence of my own but that stopped me getting one for a while. It also left me chippy. We had been wronged by the Jockey Club and I felt hurt. One of the stewards who had been officiating that day lives in Newmarket now. I won't name him but when I look at him, I think, 'You bastard'. It doesn't really matter, though."
Elsworth would be the first to admit he can still do chippy. That was evident following Arabian Queen's famous York defeat of Golden Horn when he failed to appear for the trophy presentations.
"I was annoyed," he says. "When people were summarising the race they didn't dismiss her chance because they didn't even mention her. I have a certain amount of regret for my behaviour that day but, the thing is, I am a bad-tempered old sod."
He is also wonderfully endearing. To be in his company is a treat, as is to see him directing operations before the latest bunch of horses begin their morning routine. "Ryan, you and Rob do one," he says. "You do two. Will, you need to do two. He's getting fresh."
It is the opinion of the man handing out instructions that 2017 Doncaster Cup victor Desert Skyline finished a little too fresh at Goodwood. He heads now to the Sky Bet Ebor.
"He isn't an out-and-out rogue but I'm going to try blinkers at York as they might inspire him," says Elsworth. "He didn't get out of second gear at Goodwood. I think the jockey was more tired than the horse, although to be fair to Gerald, he is 52. I'll send the horse to Mark Johnston. That will wind him up."
To wind up Elsworth one just needs to point out the winning trainer's share of the £1 million prize-money would add nicely to his savings pot.
"Savings!" he splurts out with mock incredulity. "I started off with nothing and I've got most of it left. Fortunately, I have bought and sold horses quite well over the years. I started with a bucket and chuck it job so, truthfully, I've been very lucky. I've always lived a charmed life. I could bore you about it for hours."
Yet Elsworth is never boring. If his life has been charmed it is also one that has enriched the lives of so many others. It has by this stage been quite a long life, but while his skin might not rival that of Curtis, nor does he look his age.
The soon-to-be 80-year-old shows no sign of slowing down but he is thinking about a time when he might. For that reason, he is currently living away from his home in Dullingham, to which builders are fitting a smart new kitchen and creating a brand new property.
"Growing old is a bugger," he says.
"I know I'm definitely past halfway. In fact, I think in Newmarket there's only Alan Bailey who is older than me. We're both pretty ancient.
"I've decided if I can build a self-contained flat on to the end of my place I'll one day be able to have someone living in it and maybe cleaning and cooking for me once a day. I don't feel that old now, but nobody does until they do. I say to myself. 'Hang on, Elsie, in ten years' time you'll be bloody 90!' Parts wear out and things break down but I'm all right for the moment. Sex four times a week helps."
So do the horses. This has hitherto been a far from sensational season, but Sir Dancealot turned the tide, Desert Skyline could spring a surprise in the Ebor and others offer much hope for the future, not least Fred Darling winner Dandhu, who will soon return after being injured in the 1,000 Guineas, Ascot specialist Ripp Orf and Jeff Smith's No Nonsense, a three-year-old Elsworth is positive will be better at four. Unless Elsworth decides to spend more time in his new kitchen, he will hopefully be the one orchestrating that four-year-old campaign.
"People say you shouldn't stop working because once you do you get old," he says. "I think that's partially true. I believe you should carry on working but without knocking yourself out. I like to think I now have a happy balance. I don't expect to win every race but it's nice to have good horses and good winners to keep the owners and myself happy.
"I've got fewer horses these days and that's by design really. I'm playing at it now really, although that doesn't mean we're any less serious in what we do. We certainly don't do the job by half.
"I'm very ambitious with the horses I train but I don't have ambitions to increase my numbers. When you're young, hostile and angry, it's different. At my age I'm just very happy to be doing it. I would not be telling the truth if I said I hadn't thought about stopping. The thing is, though, I still love it."
Desert Orchid: a proper horse
In Desert Orchid, David Elsworth trained a horse whose fame, celebrity and popularity in Britain transcended the sport in a way only rivalled before or since by Red Rum.
Racing Post readers once voted him their second favourite horse behind Arkle, while in a separate poll Dessie's iconic 1989 Gold Cup defeat of Yahoo was named their favourite race. He truly was the nation's horse, right up until his death at Egerton House Stables in November, 2006.
"It crept up on one," says Elsworth. "I was on the inside looking out, so initially I didn't realise how popular he had become.
"One night I was coming back from having dinner with some friends when Aussie Jim McGrath rang at 10.30pm. I asked him why he was calling so late? He said The Telegraph had just heard Desert Orchid had died. I told him that was news to me but he said they were holding the front page in case it was true.
"Of course, it wasn't true, but it made me realise what big news it was going to be when he did die. When he eventually went he did it the same way Desert Orchid did everything – with style. I'm not trying to be a tearjerker but he literally just lay down and died, peacefully and with dignity.
"We obviously had affection for Dessie but I would be lying if I didn't say I felt that about lots of our horses. You have to remember Dessie was a miserable old sod as well. If you went into his box while he was eating he would chase you out. He was a proper horse."
Have you read our Tuesday Profiles, exclusive to Members' Club subscribers?
Members can read the latest exclusive interviews, news analysis and comment available from 6pm daily on racingpost.com