Obituary: Ken Oliver

George Ennor
Sunday 20 June 1999 23:02

KEN OLIVER was the most successful trainer of jumpers ever to have been based in Scotland, and a man who was universally liked and admired throughout racing.

Three times, twice with Wyndburgh and once with Moidore's Token, Oliver was second in the Grand National. He also sent out Drumikill to finish runner-up in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, but though he never won any of jumping's three major prizes, few other top races eluded him and he won the Scottish Grand National on five occasions.

Oliver's great-grandfather Andrew staged the first auction ever held in the British Isles, at Hawick in 1817. Ken Oliver was born in 1914, and started to make his mark as a point-to-point rider in the 1930s; he gained by far his most important success in the saddle when his mare Sanvina won the Scottish Grand National at Bogside in 1950.

Sanvina's early racing career had been one of little distinction. She failed to win a point-to-point, and when she won a selling chase at Perth in 1948, Oliver would have let her go at the auction had not the mare's trainer, Stewart Wight, persuaded him otherwise.

By the early 1950s Oliver had taken out a permit to train and gained his first success in that sphere when Stockwhip, one of the last winners he rode, won at the long since defunct track of Rothbury in 1953; he was still only a permit holder when Wyndburgh was runner-up in the Grand National in 1959.

Wyndburgh had been second in the National two years earlier when he was owned by Miss Rhona Wilkinson and was officially trained by her father Percival - the Jockey Club had not then agreed that women could have licences to train.

Oliver and Rhona (his second wife) were married in May 1958, and he was Wyndburgh's trainer when the horse was runner-up at Aintree for the second time. This was behind Oxo in a display all the more remarkable because one of the stirrup irons of the jockey Tim Brookshaw broke at Becher's Brook on the second circuit, and he had to ride for the rest of the way without any stirrups.

Wyndburgh was second in the National for the third time in 1962, thus becoming the only horse to have been second in the race three times without having won it, two years after Oliver had graduated to being a fully licensed trainer.

Once he had made that move, it did not take long for the big winners to start flowing. In 1963 he gained the first of his five successes in the Scottish Grand National, and two years later Fort Rouge won the Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham in March.

In 1966 Roaring Twenties won the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and two years after that The Spaniard, who was later to become Oliver's second winner of the Scottish National, won the George Duller Hurdle at that meeting. At one stage The Spaniard won nine consecutive races and he was still a novice over fences when he gained his big win at Ayr.

Ken Oliver's other winners of the Scottish Grand National were Young Ash Leaf in 1971, Fighting Fit, who also took the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, in 1979, and Cockle Strand in 1982. Other important victories included three in four years in the Greenall Whitley Chase at Haydock with The Benign Bishop (a horse who was named after the nickname Oliver had acquired), Young Ash Leaf and Tregarron.

At the peak of his career Oliver, who once won five races in an afternoon at Wolverhampton in November 1968, was regularly sending out around 50 winners in a season, but he still found time to resurrect and greatly develop the yearling sales at Doncaster which had come to an end in 1957 after the auctioneers Tattersalls had had a row with the local council.

Oliver and fellow trainer Willie Stephenson, who had trained Oxo to win that Grand National when Tim Brookshaw rode Wyndburgh without any stirrup irons, decided in 1962 to try to get the sales going again. It was a very hard struggle but, thanks very much to great support from vendors in Ireland, the sales were gradually re-established and now have a fixed and prominent position in the bloodstock world.

In spite of the time he had to give to this venture, Oliver sent out other major winners like Arctic Sunset in the Cotswold (now the Arkle) Chase at Cheltenham in 1966. Even Keel in the Sandown Pattern Chase in 1970 and China Cloed in the Eider Chase at Newcastle in the same year.

He also won races for The Queen Mother with Earl's Castle, the first being at Ayr in October 1973, and he sent out the 500th winner of his career when Filament was successful over that course some seven months later.

More recently his string had been considerably smaller then in its heyday and his best horses in latter years were High Edge Grey, who won the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in 1988, and Mossy Moore. High Edge Grey later went hunter chasing and it gave Oliver huge pleasure when his granddaughter, Sandy Forster, won on the horse at Kelso in February 1991.

Oliver was appointed OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 1997, though this was less to do with his racing than in recognition of his services to farming and the local community.

James Kenneth Murray Oliver, jockey and racehorse trainer: born Minto, Roxburghshire 1 February 1914; OBE 1997; twice married (one son, one daughter); died 17 June 1999.

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