THE CLIMAX of Arthur Stephenson's outstanding career was so nearly frustrated by freak weather. On the final day of a memorable National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham in March 1987, a huge crowd had assembled to watch the world's finest steeplechasers run in the pounds 55,500 Tote Gold Cup.
Stephenson's The Thinker, a powerful nine-year-old fresh from victories at Wetherby and Haydock, ridden by Ridley Lamb, had been confidently backed from 10-1 down to 13-2 second favourite. Just as the jockeys were mounting, and the crowds moving away from the paddock to take up vantage points, it began to snow. As the runners paraded, the snowfall thickened, so that by the time they were at the start we were in the middle of a full-scale snowstorm. What was worse, it was settling.
The stewards and the Cheltenham executive acted with supreme professionalism. Instead of cancelling the race, they announced a delay and the runners were called back from the start. Although the snow was falling heavily, telephone calls kept coming to the course from Malvern saying that the snow would soon pass through. It had already left them and would be only temporary. Encouraged by these reports, the stewards waited. The 3.30 race eventually started at 4.51 - 81 minutes late. It was worth the wait.
Ridley Lamb on The Thinker made steady progress from the fourth last and, despite a mistake two out, was still well in contention, galloping strongly in third place as they jumped the last. Up the hill on the run-in, just when The Thinker was challenging him, the leader, Cybrandian, hung badly to the right, but Lamb is a fine horseman and he had a strong animal under him, superbly trained, who kept going to the line to beat his rival by one and a half lengths. Stephenson had won the jumping classic at last.
A cousin of the famous Flat race jockey and trainer Willie Stephenson, Arthur was born in 1920, farmed the family land at Bishop Auckland and rode as an amateur with considerable success. He did not take out a training licence until 1959, but success came very quickly and before long he had built up a large mixed stable at Leasingthorne, near Bishop Auckland, in County Durham. He obtained his first important successes on the Flat with Forlorn River in the Nunthorpe Stakes, the July Cup and the Challenge Stakes in 1967.
Five years later, he was responsible for Forlorn River's son Rapid River, who won the Gimcrack Stakes, the Harry Rosebery Challenge Trophy at Ayr, the Seaton Delaval Stakes and another race at Newcastle from six appearances as a two-year-old. The same year, he won the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket with Tudenham. But his heart was always in National Hunt racing and in the 1969-70 season he became the first jump trainer ever to turn out 100 winners, a feat which he kept repeating. In many ways he was the supremely professional northern equivalent of his southern rival the late Capt Ryan Price.
Stephenson achieved the amazing feat of winning the unique Gran Pardubice steeplechase in Czechoslovakia with Stephen's Society, ridden by his amateur owner, Chris Collins, the first Englishman for more than 50 years to win this famous chase.
Collins was associated with many of Stephenson's high-class steeplechasers, notable among them Credit Call, who won 37 chases, including both the Cheltenham and Liverpool Foxhunters in 1972.
Stephenson's principal victories included the Scottish Grand National of 1961 with Kinmont Wullie, the Welsh Grand National three years later with Rainbow Battle and the Haydock Grand National Trial of 1966 with The Ringer. In the same year, he won the Mackeson Gold Cup with a typical tough Stephenson horse, Pawnbroker. Sadly, he never won the Grand National. But he won the Topham Trophy in 1971, with Rigton Prince, and the Foxhunters over the National fences twice with Credit Call. Cocky Consort and Mr Jones will both be remembered as typical Stephenson chasers. Both of them won, among other races, the Wetherby Handicap Chase. Stephenson was equally good with hurdlers, of which the best he trained was probably Celtic Gold, winner of the Cheltenham Trial Hurdle and the Wills Hurdle in 1969.
Arthur Stephenson married Nancy Wood in 1948. They had one son, John, and two daughters, Susan and Linda. A man of splendid northern wit, an outstanding farmer and horseman as well as a great character, Arthur will be missed more than any other trainer in the north today. He was one of the real professionals and great characters which make the winter sport in England what it is.
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