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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Grundy feats proved Walwyn was a serious trainer as well as great fun

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To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, the Racing Post is giving away one piece of paid content free each day. Here, Alastair Down remembers legendary trainer Peter Walwyn

It is arguable that Peter Walwyn's tireless and passionate advocacy on behalf of Lambourn kept the valley going in its doldrum days.

In recent years there has been massive Jockey Club investment in its facilities and the old place thrives once more. But it was Peter's booming voice crying in the wilderness that helped sustain Lambourn through to the breaking of a bright new dawn.

In life he helped in the forging of the future but his death severs some extraordinarily close and personal links to the past.

Peter claimed the Walwyns were descended from a nephew of King Arthur. That is as may be, although family trees from the late fifth century are somewhat tricky to trace.

But there is no doubt he hailed from a distinguished military family. His father, amazing to relate, fought in the Boer War and on the Western Front and must have been some soldier as he was awarded the Military Cross, a Distinguished Service Order and was also mentioned three times in dispatches.

His grandfather, staggering to relate, served at the Second Relief of Lucknow 160 years ago. This was a battle of such unremitting ferocity that on November 16, 1857 a total of 24 Victoria Crosses were won – the greatest number on a single day in history and among whom was the first black recipient, William Henry Hall.

A somewhat more modern connection with the weapons of war came on one particularly busy work morning in the 1970s when Walwyn was at the height of his training powers.

It must have been quite early in the season as out on the Downs he had a large batch of two-year-olds furthering their education with the peace of the Lambourn Valley punctuated by little more than the song of skylarks.

Suddenly – and literally out of a clear blue sky – the rural idyll was shattered by the Red Arrows thundering over as they brushed up on their low-flying skills.

Every horse went up the air as if to join their tormentors, with any amount of jockeys suddenly airborne and the two-year-olds scattering in every direction from Acton to Aberystwyth.

If a passing rambler thought the Red Arrows could make a noise it was nothing compared with Walwyn, who spurred his trusty hack into a gallop and set off across the Downs in pursuit of the offending jets screaming invective at the top of his voice.

Many a mimic could take off Walwyn but nobody lampooned Peter better than himself. To see him or even think of the man always brought a smile and a chuckle.

We should be wary of letting the eccentricities and fund of stories mask his talent as a trainer, which merited the tribute as a "great". He gave us Grundy, who looked as if he should be in a circus but galloped his tenacious way into the inner sanctum. Walwyn was the first trainer to rattle up 100 winners in a season and gave us the enduring wonder of dear old Be Hopeful, who won 27 races with the final victory coming at the age of 14.

Alastair Down interviews Peter Walwyn at his home in Upper Lambourn

Walwyn moved in some rarefied circles but nobs and nabobs meant no more to him than the butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

National service as a corporal taught him lessons about ordinary folk that he never forgot. If one of his old lads needed a helping hand, Walwyn was straight round. He had the priceless gift of caring about people.

Walwyn had his pet aversions who would be given their place on his famous bus bound for Beachy Head. He reserved a deep loathing for the late and unlamented Alec Wildenstein.

In truth recent years were not kind to Peter. He had enjoyed a deliriously happy life with his fabulous wife Bonk and her death in 2014 was a shattering blow to him. If half your life is snatched away from you, all you are left with is half a life.

Increasingly he became hideously lame but while he had the occasional harrumph about it he never moaned. He would not have known how to spell the word 'complain'.

His last years were spent in a bungalow at Barry Hills's place, proof that combustibility can walk hand in hand with genuine kindness.

The volume of stories about this utterly individual and benignly bonkers stalwart would make War and Peace look like a pamphlet.

After Peter had been hospitalised following a bad hunting fall, the serious-faced consultant emerged and said: "Mrs Walwyn, I'm afraid your husband might be a little tricky, have mood swings, jump up and down and shout a bit."

Bonk digested this information for a split second and replied: "Nothing new there then."

She used to tell the story of a bit of a scare Peter had a few years ago, saying: "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'."

Hilarity followed Walwyn like some devoted terrier. His eccentricities drew people to him and he was widely loved and valued. When the news broke that he had been awarded an MBE in 2012 he had 500 letters of congratulation – that really is a full church of the faithful.

They said of the great Sir Christopher Wren "if you seek his monument look around", a reference to the many churches he designed in London, principally his master work St Paul's Cathedral.

If you seek Peter's monument just look around Lambourn, a place he served and cherished like no other.

In his 84 years, the world changed around Walwyn in ways he did not always relish. But Peter never changed or cut his cloth to suit this year's fashions. He remained true to himself and stuck to his last.

Wherever racing people gather – particularly in Lambourn – the old tales will be told over a glass or two and there will be laughter at the antics of an essentially benevolent man.

There is no need to be sad at his passing. He endures in the affections of those who knew him.  

Peter Walwyn: "To see him or even think of him always brought a smile and a chuckle"

Cobden a weekend star

Sizing John looked superb on Sunday and initial quotes of 6-1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup are plenty generous to my eye. He looks the best staying chaser around.

The weekend also featured the emergence of a feasible Champion Chase contender in the shape of Tingle Creek winner Politologue.

What really caught the eye about that race was the ride the grey got from young Harry Cobden, who was precociously skilled in extracting a superb round of jumping out of the winner.

Politologue was doing plenty with Cobden as they headed out into the country and the jockey was half having to restrain him at his fences. That often leads to making mistakes and is not easy to do. But they never put a foot wrong down the back at Sandown and clearly he is a jockey who instinctively understands what jumping is about – the legacy of a lifetime's hunting.

At 19 Cobden will get stronger, like they all do. But he is winning races out in the country and that is rarer than people realise.        

Huge day: young jockey Harry Cobden is all smiles after winning on Politologue

Word watch

With Christmas approaching there are several no-nos to be avoided like the plague.

We are in for an overdose of the sickly "gift that goes on giving", a modern piece of guff that is the first plausible reason I have come across for the reinstatement of capital punishment.

As for Yule, this is banned under all circumstances. If you use this ghastly word then You'll definitely get a slap.

You might also be interested in:

Peter Walwyn, former champion and trainer of Grundy, dies at 84

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

From the vaults: Steve Dennis relives the epic battle of Grundy v Bustino

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If you seek Peter's monument just look around Lambourn, a place he served and cherished like no other

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