Easterby still the canny lad

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The Independent Online
You can flannel some trainers into an interview by telling them how well their horses are running or chatting about the weather. This tactic, however, does not work with Peter Easterby. When you ring him, with prepared niceties, the Yorkshireman manages to convey that it is not to be a long conversation. "What is it?" he asks before the caller can launch himself. "Mek it quick."

If, though, you can secure an invitation to the trainer's Habton Grange stable, north of Malton (point towards Norway and keep filling the car up), you will find Miles Henry Easterby (even he doesn't know where the Peter came from) an agreeable chap.

When this reporter arrived last week, Easterby, one hand in plaster courtesy of a hunting accident, got the coffees organised and carried the tape- recorder into his lounge. He spread out tables for his visitor's use, threw a log on to the fire and then occupied the chair pushed up against mine, creating the effect of two men sitting together in an aeroplane. "What do you want to know?"

There is plenty to know about Peter Easterby, but it will not be quite the same after this afternoon. This is the day when, 45 years after starting out as a trainer, Easterby relinquishes his name on the training licence. From tomorrow his yard's runners will be sent out officially by his 32- year-old son, Tim.

His father is not departing (the day Easterby will consider himself retired is when he is supine in the back of a slow-moving vehicle) but there will be no more additions to a unique career. Peter Easterby has won more than 2,500 races and is the only man in history to have recorded 1,000 winners under both codes. Along the way he has been champion jumps trainer three times, won the Champion Hurdle five times and the Gold Cup twice.

Easterby today, in his 67th year, still bears the characteristics of a harsh introduction to the world of the turf as a young man. He used to work for Frank Hartigan, an Irishman who took advantage of the somewhat more lax industrial relations of the time by hitting his staff with a fork or rake. Hartigan was a good trainer, but a bad businessman, and died penniless, which would not have passed the attention of the young Easterby.

In matters of finance (which forms a substantial part of Easterby's conversation) he must be bracketed with his younger brother, Mick. Peter and Mick do not mind southerners thinking of them as daft lads, a Laurel and Hardy of the Ridings. It gives them an edge, much as Boadicea had over the Romans who thought her no more than a mobile hairdresser.

The Easterbys look owlish, and while Mick surveys most in his profession as mice, customers to be sold a horse, Peter has always been more the straightforward trainer, pumping the winners in.

They say what they think. In many quarters racing is full of the stuff that makes the grass greener in Texas. The Easterbys are not like that. Both are now extremely wealthy and it said that if Castle Howard did not get in the way they would own most of North Yorkshire between them.

There are no photographs of the brothers throwing mortarboards into the air, but they do know a deal. While attending a funeral recently, Mick saw a line of shops he thought to be in a particularly advantageous position. He put in an offer for the lot of them.

In the beginning (and a certain comedy sketch comes to mind) times were hard. In 1950, Peter Easterby returned from National Service with the Royal Veterinary Corps at Melton Mowbray (22/6d a week, he remembers you know) to the family's 25 acres at Great Habton (rent pounds 100 a year he tells us). Easterby bought surrounding bits that came along and now has 2,000 acres of arable land on which he produces wheat.

"It's never easy for a young trainer and I don't give a damn about who he is or how much money he's got," he said. "It could be that the more money he's got the less chance he has of succeeding because he's not hungry.

"The 'osses here were no good to start with. Useless. But it's surprising how much quicker you think when you're skint and in a corner.

"Nothing much has changed here. We've just bought a bit more furniture and decorated it, that's all. We used to have red rud in the hall, that cheap paste that costs nothing, and we used to have lino down in here where we have carpets now. You didn't get fitted in them days. "The standard of living has gone up a lot. I had to make a car park for the lads. They were lucky to have a bike 30 years since."

While Alverton's death in the Grand National of 1979, a month after his Gold Cup success, is Easterby's worst moment, the one at the other end of the spectrum takes a little more getting. "My favourite memory was when Night Nurse won the Champion Hurdle when he drifted out to 7-1 [in 1977]," the trainer said. "He kept drifting and we kept having more on.

"The best thing, though, was that potatoes were very expensive that year and as we were selling them I told my brother-in-law to keep four tons behind in case Night Nurse got beat. By the time we got back we found out the potatoes had gone up in price so it was a double-barrelled day."

Night Nurse and Easterby's other great hurdler, Sea Pigeon, are still thriving nearby, but there have been relatively few headline horses at Habton Grange in the last decade. "No one has asked me for an interview lately," Easterby said. "That's the God's honest truth."

No one has dared mention either that the maestro may be on the wane. Certainly his memory is not. He can still look through the 1955 Horses In Training annual and remember the career of his 12-strong string and how much they cost him and for how much he sold them.

Many of his schoolmates may now be pottering about on allotments, taking home a bunch of asparagus and collapsing into an armchair. Easterby and Great Habton co-exist energetically as they have for over 40 years.

There is an interesting blend of the old and new at the yard, where the stonework and flags have the shine and roundness of age. A barrow of logs stands outside the office and a decaying horsebrush is on the windown ledge. Inside, the secretary supervises a fax and computer. This stable has accommodation in the most awkward of areas, and if you opened a cupboard it would be no surprise to see a couple of horses' heads pop out.

Back in the lounge, Easterby is displaying a strange conversational habit; staring upwards as if he is about to add to a previous thought. Nothing ever comes.

As his inquisitor gets up to leave, he notices that Easterby has bought two Lottery tickets. The trainer bids farewell as he delivers a business mind's appreciation of Camelot's operation. "It's a great thing that Lottery, people queueing up at that counter and buying sweets and chocolates all the time," he says. "Bye bye."

PETER EASTERBY FACT FILE

Full name: Miles Henry Easterby

Born: 5 August,1929

Married: to Marjorie (three children)

First trainer's licence: 1950

Jockeys retained: M Birch, L Wyer, R Garritty, S Maloney

Best horses trained: Alverton, Goldhill, Little Owl, Night Nurse, Saucy Kit, Sea Pigeon

Major races won: Champion Hurdle (5 times), Cheltenham Gold Cup (twice), Arkle Trophy (three times), Irish Sweeps Hurdle, Schweppes Gold Trophy, Ayr Gold Cup (three times), Gimcrack Stakes, Lincoln Handicap, Chester Cup (twice), Ebor Handicap, Newbury Spring Cup.

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