The Easterbys: brothers, businessmen and a real good laugh
Alastair Down meets the legendary Yorkshire brothers Mick and Peter
Published in the Racing Post on August 19, 2018
Three all-conquering empires have occupied North Yorkshire. The Romans, the Vikings and the Easterbys.
The brothers anything-but-grim are famed for not being short of an acre or two, but they also own some healthy chunks of York – so much so that what was once Eboracum should be re-christened Eastoracum.
Having arranged to see the pair of them I drive into Mick's yard outside Sheriff Hutton with a broad grin on my face. Forget stand-up comedians on the Edinburgh Festival, many of whom are as funny as a tooth abscess. If you want pure wit you won't beat the rapid-fire interaction between the Laurel and Hardy of racing.
For identification purposes Peter is not Hardy.
Incidentally, the local village is soon to be redesignated plain Hutton because Mick ran the sheriff out of town years ago.
Peter is standing smiling and there is Mick, who has clearly dressed up for the occasion.
Exactly who he has dressed up as is a trickier question. My guess is Fagin – not the snappiest of dressers but by God he could pick a pocket or two.
"My, that's a very grand car," is Peter's opening gambit. This from a man whose Range Rover worth eight times as much is parked yards away.
Then Mick pops up and says: "I owe you 70 quid don't I?"
The answer to this question is yes. He has owed your correspondent £70 for 15 years since I unwisely gave him the money during a Channel 4 shoot.
"Don't worry," says Mick, "I'll put it on a horse for you."
I politely inform him that he has been saying this for a decade and a half.
"Well, the right one hasn't come up yet. You have to patient in this game."
When I suggest it could be left in his will that big smile, not over-crowded with gleaming teeth, creases his characterful but unreadable face and he comes out with the line: "You might not live that long young man."
We potter down into the yard. But forget any notions of serried ranks of immaculate boxes, raked gravel or neatly trimmed topiary. This is yard as in farmyard and all the better for it.
Their joint achievement has been monumental. When people blithely trot out the expression "self-made man" they often do so without much thought.
But Peter, 89, and Mick, 87, set off on their long road with not so much much as a washer between them. They did not start out from scratch so much as itch.
It has all been about farming and horses, land and dealing.
Peter set out in 1951 with 25 acres rented at £100 per annum. After a year the landlord put the rent up to £120 and Easterby took him to arbitration and got it reduced to £110.
As we stand by Mick's gallop on a flat plain below the Howardian Hills he says: "When I came here in 1955 this was all marshland and full of snipe. So I drained it and cleared all the trees."
The brothers were partners and Peter says: "One day I said to him 'look we are not making any money here so you might as well have my half'."
Mick says simply: "Yes, he put me on the map did Pete."
Now the brothers admit to owning a little over 7,000 acres between them. Peter says: "Mick's land here runs up to Castle Howard and my land nudges that estate on the other side."
Then in one of those classic Easterby snr asides to no one in particular he looks up towards Castle Howard and says: "I did ask if they would sell it to me once . . .
"Our first car was a Morris and we paid £35 for it. I put in £15, Mum £10 and Mick £10 which he had saved up. Three years later I sold it for 88 quid."
It is striking how the pair – 176 years old between them – can put a figure on deals done 60 years ago down to the last penny. But back in the 1950s every penny had to be counted and it was them against the world.
Time and again one or the other will say "we've never fallen out" and they think almost as one.
Conversation turns to the days of prisoners of war camps in the area and Peter says: "Germans were the best, real good workers" but Mick counters: "I liked the Italians. I had one chap Michael D'Ambrosio who could pick two bags weighing God knows how many stone straight up off the floor.
"He taught me to speak Italian you know [total bollocks] but I've forgotten it now [entirely true]."
Having seen the horses we head to the house but Peter declines to sit down in the kitchen – "full of flies that kitchen" – and we settle on the conservatory, which may have been out of House & Garden once but that was back in the days kids were still hopping up chimneys.
The memories stream forth. Peter says: "The first three-year-old I bought was by Contraband and I paid £22.50 for him in a pub yard in Kirkbymoorside. It was dark but we trotted him up and down barely able to see him and then had a big argument over the price. He won 15 races and was sold for £150."
Peter says: "When I took out a licence I had to borrow two horses and throw in a broodmare to get the numbers up. My first winner was Double Rose at Market Rasen and the race was worth £102 to the winner."
But the early days of a man who would go on to train two Cheltenham Gold Cup winners and land the Champion Hurdle five times were not easy.
Peter says: "The stewards were after me big time because I was successful. I had to go down to London five times in two years and they were trying to get me warned off. We had the odd touch and there were two stipes – both dead now – who were out to get me.
"The last time I came back from London who should be on the train but the old Lord Halifax. Well, I told him all my troubles and never heard from the stewards again. Plenty got done in those days and I was about the only one who came back free.
"But it made me think what I would do if I lost my licence and in a way it did me a favour because it made me buy a farm at Habton – 100 acres for £10,000 and it also meant Marjorie and I had somewhere to live."
Mick chimes in: "We've always worked together. My brother would lend me money, I would lend him money. And never anything in writing.
"When we punted one it usually won and others would follow us in. You don't really need to gallop horses, you've just got to look at them. Some people have an eye for animals and I don't understand why others don't."
Both were dedicated hunting men and bloody good across country. And Mick was a very fair jockey by all accounts. He says: "I was a young teenager when my Uncle Walter, brilliant horseman, asked me to ride one of his at Wetherby. I had to lose a bit of weight and needed to shift 10lb in the last two days.
"I wrapped myself in blankets in front of the fire and sweated off a lot and drinking a bottle of liquid paraffin did the rest.
"What a man that Uncle Walter was. Never swore and he'd give you anything in the world – except money.
"The race was a three-mile amateur handicap hurdle and I was so excited putting on the colours in the weighing room my hands were shaking.
"Then Uncle Walter appears in the doorway and says 'You're not riding it. The top amateur is suddenly spare so you can lead it up.
"After the race he said you'd better ride it 'ome. You'll be home by the time we are. So that's what I did – ten miles bareback all the way to Tadcaster."
And the brothers knew how to celebrate. Peter has said that they spent £1,000 on champagne in the bar at Cheltenham after Sea Pigeon won the Champion Hurdle and recalls: "We had a big party at York for Night Nurse and we were going to split the bill as Mick had invited all his big clients.
"But he slipped his head collar and somehow forgot to pay me! But we've never fallen out over anything although plenty of folk have tested us.
"And Sea Pigeon gave us that unforgettable day when he won the Ebor. When the result of the photo was announced all you heard was the word Sea because the roar that went up drowned out Pigeon."
Trying to outfox the brothers would be waste of time. You would have to get up before you went to bed to get the better of this pair, although occasionally someone would get one over them.
Peter says: "W A Stephenson was a proper man and the greatest dealer ever born. Got Mick drunk once and sold him a blind horse!"
Mick shoots back: "Blind in one eye to be fair. For months afterwards W A would walk past and ask 'got any glasses for that 'oss yet?' But you never backed out in those days. You learned your lesson and took it on the chin."
Both men have had run-ins with authority and neither subscribe to "that bloody nonsense about not treading on people's toes".
Mick has been up in front of the tax man three times – "enjoyed it because you can if you've done nothing wrong" – and also appeared in front of a big tribunal in Birmingham when investigated for insider dealing.
Mick says: "I was quite innocent of course. But the barrister didn't half set about me.
"At one stage one of the officials nodded off and I said 'Can you wake him please as I don't want to come back here again'.
"I told the barrister he should have a racehorse but he wasn't having it. Called me a con man – could be right I suppose. But I never raised my voice or let him goad me.
"At the end of the third tax inquiry the officer in charge told me it had been a pleasure to deal with me and said he wished 'they were all like you'." If Mick's eyes are a touch moist it is not from pain at the encounter but amusement. He can adopt an air of put-upon innocence that no angel in heaven could match.
When the pair started farming, heavy horses were coming to the end of their time as those first grey Ferguson tractors were just coming in.
The old carthorses gave way to swifter ones on the racecourse skilfully backed. "They didn't all win you know," says Peter. But enough did to sow the acorns that have become oaks.
Hard work is second nature to the pair of them. They say rust never sleeps, well nor do the Easterbys. A couple of hours spent with these seemingly ageless old wiseacres is education and amusement.
But more than that it's a privilege. They don't self make them like these two anymore.
When they were young their father William had a licence to kill pigs. Peter says: "He was only allowed to kill one at a time but father would kill five. All cash and never any trouble – the policeman liked his bit of bacon too."
The irrepressible Easterby brothers have been bringing home the bacon ever since.
'My Alice could live on fresh air'
Marriage counselling may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the brothers Easterby.
But Peter enjoyed a long and magnificent marriage to the late Marjorie, of whom he said: "She struck lucky when she met me – landed on her feet."
"Yes," said the saintly Mrs E, "my bare feet."
But if you have relationship troubles forget Relate. You need to speak to that great modernist thinker Mick, married to the legendary Alice since the Boer War, and a veritable fount of wisdom.
He says: "You have to have a thrifty wife and my Alice could live on fresh air. She doesn't worry about what we could do with – she has always been more interested in what we can do without.
"She'll make the leftovers from Sunday lunch last a week. So when she's not looking I give them to the dogs. She'll ask 'What happened to that piece of pie?' and I will say 'I ate it it'.
"So then she'll have to cook again. I've got the fattest dogs in England, me."
As I leave I notice Mick is wearing a new cap. Peter gives it the once over and says: "Someone must have given it him."
It turns out it was left one morning by an owner. Let's hope he is not holding his breath for a call to tell him his "flat 'at" is waiting for him at Sheriff Hutton.
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