Racing: Buccaneer in a thrust at turf's elite: Reg Akehurst, revered handicap specialist, moves up to take on the big battalions at Ascot on Saturday - Richard Edmondson talks to a trainer dedicated to winning the ratings battle

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The Independent Online
EVERY January, Reg Akehurst spends three weeks in Barbados, where buccaneers once roamed and wreckers lured ships on to the coral reefs by placing lanterns on the horns of cattle.

Britain's bookmakers, as well as the Epsom trainer, enjoy this interlude, as Akehurst himself is a very dangerous man in these islands.

For when it comes to training handicappers there are few who can live with the ex- jump jockey. In the last 12 months alone, Sarawat has landed a reputed 'touch' of pounds 300,000 when winning the Ebor, Face North has won the competitive Victoria and Royal Hunt Cups, and Urgent Request left the satchels minus an estimated pounds 250,000 by capturing the Northern Dancer Handicap at Epsom.

On Saturday, Urgent Request attempts to continue at least part of the trend when he lines up at Ascot. The pattern is similar in that the grey has been backed with one firm from 33-1 to 20-1, but differs because he will be vaulting out of handicap class to take on most of Europe's finest in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

Urgent Request, like Sarawat, is owned by Stuart Aitken, a retired casino owner from Paisley; retired, in this case, probably not because he was 65, but rather that he was running out of time to spend all his money.

While Aitken has celebrated his victories in demonstrative fashion, Akehurst has been quite different. Reporters running down to the winners' enclosure have not found a man rubbing his hands with financially-expectant delight but a quiet, almost bemused, trainer with the look of a pensioner trying to remember where he has left his spectacles.

Akehurst always maintains that he does not know what the fuss is about and he always relates what few ever believe: that he has not had a single penny on his horse.

This is not to say the 65- year-old has never made money from his judgement. He still remembers the days when his first yard at Basingstoke was more infirmary than training establishment as he patched up old horses, the days when budgets were as tight as a fiddle string. 'One winter I paid the lads on a Friday and took it all back off them on Saturday at cards,' he said. 'They didn't mind too much as long as they ate, and I needed it.'

These days Akehurst, now a grandfather, spends some of the winter with a rum punch in his hand and life is less spartan. But a constant remains. He is still looked at warily because of the frequency of his success in handicaps.

The man himself admits he has techniques for manipulating a horse's handicap rating ('there are ways, but I'd rather not go into it') and believes there is one tenet to be followed above all others.

'You haven't got to cheat to get a horse well handicapped, the main thing is to get it a decent handicap mark in the first place,' he said. 'My two-year-olds don't run in silly races against good horses where they might get a place, because if you do that they're virtually gone as three-year-olds. They won't win because they're too high in the handicap and it takes an awfully long time for them to come tumbling down.'

As well as bringing on his own horses, Akehurst has developed a reputation for improving horses he has bought either from the sales ring or other yards.

While most people consider confirmation, breeding or fluidity of movement in their prospective purchases in the sales arena, Akehurst sees mainly figures: the ones the animal has in the ratings list. 'The first thing I look at with these horses is their handicap mark,' he said. 'Then you see what type of horse they are and whether they give you the right feel. You do need that feel for horses.

'I buy a lot of three-year- olds who are going to improve for another year anyway, some of them from the Sheikhs (Akehurst appears to think of all Arab owners as Sheikhs). They are not that interested in winning handicaps and there are some nice horses around you can buy from them.

'Their trainers probably don't want to sell them but they've got to make way for the yearlings coming in. They have to pass them on.'

While Akehurst may purchase from the leading men, he himself never has been, or will be, in the big league. In recent days, while the well- connected trainers have been at the Keeneland Sales in Kentucky, the former soldier has been going about his normal business: training, going to the races and playing golf. He knows he will never get patronage from the wealthy Arab owners and he thinks he knows the reason why.

'A lot of it is to do with the agents who seem to be running the Sheikhs' operations,' he said. 'Unfortunately, I didn't go to college with them. I haven't got the old school tie.'

But on Saturday he will be in among the public-school accents when Urgent Request may show what some owners are missing. 'It would be sensational if he won wouldn't it?' he said. And it would pay for next January's trip to the Caribbean.

(Photograph omitted)