Racing: Akehurst leaves the bookies to sleep easier

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One of the most feared trainers in handicaps may have landed his final coup. Richard Edmondson reports on Reg Akehurst's decision to retire.

William Penn, the English Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania who was born 353 years ago yesterday, once said: "Men are generally more careful of the breed of their horses and dogs than of their children." Roger Moore, who shares the same birthday, observes: "I replace everyone. I'll be replacing Mickey Mouse in about three years' time." Bookmakers, who will celebrate 14 October forever more for the removal of a genuinely irreplaceable force, probably muttered across the nation yesterday, "thank Gawd he's going".

Reginald Peter John Akehurst, who yesterday announced that he is to retire at the end of next month, has been one of the great acts of British racing. With his homely jackets and loafers, Reg always looked more like a trespasser who had wriggled past the enclosure police, rather than a trainer.

The sort of avuncular figure you could find in the back row of a christening photograph, Reg would approach the press corps after a big handicap win professing he was the most surprised man in the house. After he had done this about 20 times following the nation's most prestigious races some of us began to rumble him. Reg was having us on. The bookmakers were not so trusting.

However, the elementary assignment of regularly baffling the Fourth Estate is close to an end for this particular 68-year-old. Akehurst is to step down at Epsom's South Hatch Stables, from where he has told us, the gullible, that "loving the horses is all there is to it". He will not be walking out of the gate and into the sunset though, as he is to advise his son, Jonathan, when Akehurst jnr steps behind the desk.

"I will be retiring at the end of November - I won't be renewing my licence next year," Reg said yesterday. "I have been thinking about it for some time. I had lunch with one of my owners at Newbury the other day and when I mentioned it to him he said, `take a tip and don't leave it too long'.

"My son will come into the yard and take over. He trained here when he started and trained 20 winners, so he knows the place and knows the Epsom Downs. I have spoken to the owners and the majority are going to keep their horses here so it could be a great opportunity for him. But I will still be here - as an unpaid assistant."

After a 12-year career as a jumps jockey, Akehurst took out a training licence in 1962. There was a brief intermission in his career when he retired in the early 1980s, but he returned to post further significant victories, almost exclusively from his Epsom premises, though he also operated from Lambourn and Dorset.

Though he won considerable prizes over jumps, it was Akehurst's ability to get an animal well handicapped for a major Flat assignment which was his greatest skill. He won all the most valuable offerings in the calendar, from the six-furlong Wokingham with Astrac, through the one-mile Hunt Cup with Red Robbo, to the Ebor with Sarawat. It was his gift to improve horses that arrived in his yard from other trainers, an art he refined so greatly that even Red Robbo, who decamped from Henry Cecil's stable, was persuaded to win at Royal Ascot.

Akehurst was inevitably tagged "the handicap specialist", which was not a sobriquet he considered incorporating by deed poll. It may be telling that his proudest moments were the victories he achieved in higher company.

"They didn't stop to think that all I had was handicappers and that you can't win Group races with them," he added yesterday. "Racing has been very good to me. There have been plenty of highlights, and it is difficult to pick out one, but I got a lot of pleasure from little Gold Rod, who won three Group races in France."

The people at Ladbrokes certainly appreciated his talents. "Mr Akehurst is a top-class, dual-purpose trainer," Andy Clifton, the firm's spokesman, said yesterday. "Not just with well-publicised handicap coups, but with horses of all abilities. We are sorry to hear of his retirement, but at least we'll be able to sleep a bit easier the night before a big handicap."


Reginald Peter John Akehurst

Born: 4 July, 1929.

Married: To Sheila, 27 June, 1958. Two children - Murray and Jonathan.

Riding career: Professional jump jockey for 12 years, riding 99 winners.

First trainer's licence: 1962 (gave up briefly in the early 1980s).

First winner: Enamoured at Wye in 1963.

Big Flat winners: Astrac (Wokingham Handicap, 1995), Face North (Victoria Cup & Royal Hunt Cup, 1994), Fact Finder (Lincoln, 1989), Fire Top (Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club Trophy, 1992), Gold Rod (Greenham Stakes & Prix Moulin, 1970), Knowth (Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club Trophy, 1994), Red Robbo (Royal Hunt Cup, 1997), Sarawat (Ebor, 1993), Silver Groom (William Hill Cup, 1995), Sky Cloud (Victoria Cup & Schweppes Golden Mile, 1991), Urgent Request (Rose of Lancaster Stakes 1994).

Big jumps winners: Coe (Timeform Hurdle, 1990), Cool Ground (Welsh National, 1990, Anthony Mildmay, Peter Cazalet Memorial Trophy 1991), Dare To Dream (Finale Junior Hurdle 1992), Inlander (Imperial Cup & Swinton Handicap Hurdle 1987), Jazilah (Seagram Top Novices' Hurdle 1994), Nebris (Free Handicap Hurdle 1985), Solidasarock (SGB Handicap Chase 1989).