Mick & David Easterby: Racing Syndicates and Racehorse Ownership




On This Day: Lochnager at Haydock Park



On This Day: Lochnager at Haydock Park

10.16 | Fri 7 Jun 24 | Memory Lane


Lochnager was a machine.

He was like nothing I had ever seen before and like nothing I will ever see again.

I've had a lot of horses pass through my hands over the years. It's in the thousands, five thousand, six thousand, maybe ten thousand, quite how many I don't know.

Many a time I'm asked to nominate my favourite horse and there's only one answer.

Lochnager.

He was quite simply the best racehorse I ever trained.

Bought as a prospective jumper due to his size and strength anything that Lochnager did on the flat was a bonus, and for the first few years we didn't expect a lot.

How wrong could I have been?

Lochnager was a team effort. Percy Marshall mucked him out, Tom would dress him over, Peter Madison rode him out and Brian always took him racing.

Lochnager was the perfect racehorse. He had a switch, and could turn himself off completely. He'd stand and pick at the grass while the other horses thundered past on the gallop and he never even flinched. I did wonder at one time if he was deaf. But once a jockey was on his back and he was a different animal. He knew when he had to perform and he knew when he could relax and enjoy life. That's the perfect horse to train. Some sprinters can't switch off. As soon as they see an open field they're off and it's a hell of job to catch them. All they know to do is to run fast. Many sprinters have only one gear. Lochnager had the full set. He was a monster but he was one that could be controlled and he did exactly what he was told.

Lochnager began his racing career at two years old over the minimum trip, recording his first win at Thirsk in August 1974 in the Studley Stakes ridden by Lionel Brown. At the end of the season he didn't even appear in the 1974 Free Handicap, a list of ratings for the best two year old horses. The top rated two year old of the year was Grundy and with a rating of 88 Lochnager was some 46 pounds inferior. It didn't really matter because common sense told Charlie and I that he'd be better at three and then hopefully again at four and then he'd be going jumping.

I made sure not to over-train Lochnager in his juvenile season. There were two routes he could take as a three year old but given that he was so well handicapped we decided to make the most of his mark and that we would try to pick up as many valuable handicaps as we could without him having to shoulder a lot of weight.

In June 1975 I entered Lochnager for the Bass Apprentices Handicap, the opening race on the card at Haydock Park on what would turn out to be a Saturday afternoon that would live long in the memory.

Lochnager had grown during the winter and he looked a different horse to the one who had been running as a two year old. And, quite conveniently, he was also a different horse to the one in the formbook. It was time for a touch. I had two other horses running at Haydock that afternoon. Resin, owned by Michael Wrigley would run in the Clan Stakes Claiming Race, and Scattered Scarlet, owned by Mrs Mears, in the Cock O'The North Stakes. Michael Wrigley was a big better and he was also going to help us get the money on Lochnager.

I planned to put five grand on Lochnager at Haydock Park. I couldn't wait to hear his hooves clatter along that five furlongs and the winnings were already weighing down my pockets. He was the best horse in that race and there was only myself and a select few who knew it.

I had booked Bill Elsey's apprentice Shaun Salmon to ride Lochnager. He was one of two jockeys in the race who couldn't claim, but Lochnager was a big horse and I'd prefer to have a jockey with experience rather than book a novice rider to knock a couple of pounds off his back.

Alice and I stayed in a hotel near the racecourse on the Friday night. We had a nice meal and a few drinks and went to bed late and on a high knowing what was to come the next day. Or more to the point we thought that we knew. At about half past two in the morning I awoke with a start from my bed and I thought I was dreaming. I could hear rain on the window, and rain was the one thing that we didn't want.

I'd not thought of the weather. The weather forecasts at the time were even less reliable than they are now, they didn't have the technology and what they didn't know I think they made up. Well I wasn't making anything up, it was raining and it was raining bloody hard.

I had made a plan but I hadn't even considered that it might rain. The horse was fit and ready to land the odds but the one thing he didn't want was soft ground. Lochnager was a big bugger and he didn't get through soft ground, he wanted it quick, fast, at the very worst he wanted good ground. Alice was fast asleep so I woke her up. I couldn't get back to sleep after that. Did I still have a go or did we call it all off?

All night it rained, directly onto the window, as if to make a point. I couldn't have five grand on him now, I just didn't see him getting through the mud and the ground was getting softer with every hour that it rained.

I decided that I'd make it four grand.

The rain continued and it would not stop. By breakfast time I'd talked myself out of having a big bet and I was only putting a grand on. There was no point in wasting money, it's hard earned. I've never liked parting with it either. In order to get the money on at decent odds and without raising any suspicions a further plan had been devised. I had seven other accomplices lined up with stake money, but their wagers not as big as Wrigley's wad of cash. Of course they all wanted a piece of the action so they would put some of their own cash on as well. That's how it worked, it was about speed. We had to coordinate it to perfection. Get it wrong, even a few seconds wrong, and one big bet will be relayed by the tic-tac men and the price would crash and the gamble would be sunk.

Alice was the key to the plan. She was going to send the signal out from the stand and tell everyone exactly when to place their bets by taking off her hat. Once the hat was off everyone would dash in before the alarm was raised across Haydock Park. By the time the bookmakers knew what was going on all of the accomplices would have their bets on at good prices and the rest of the punters could fight over the scraps that we'd left them.

The weather still wasn't good, and after the deluge overnight as often happens the wind had got up and it was drying the track. This was in itself a good thing but would create an unexpected problem. Alice couldn't keep her hat on. We tried all sorts of things to keep the hat on her head but the wind kept blowing it off. Wherever she stood the wind seemed to find her. Everything appeared to be stacked against us, first the ground and now the wind, but we had a horse that was ready to win and a line of bookmakers who had no idea that we were going to take them to the cleaners.

The only way Alice could keep that hat on her head was by way of a hat-pin, and so it was that Alice took her place in the stand with the hat tightly pinned to her head.

It was now a few minutes to post time and we were all ready and waiting for the signal. Lochnager was priced up at a ridiculous 8/1, the favourite in the race being Swiss Roll trained by Jeremy Hindley.

Christmas was about to come early. I'd seen Lochnager in the parade ring and he looked a different class to the rest of the other eight runners and it was just a matter of by how far he'd win.

Wrigley and his runners waited patiently for the signal to place their bets, but the signal didn't come. There were anxious looks. The hat was still perched on Alice's head, bravely defying the wind. But now as the wind blew stronger Alice started to fiddle with her hat in a bid to keep it on her head. At this point Michael Wrigley thought that the signal is about to come and he walked over to the Ladbrokes man.

"What price Lochnager?" he asked in his posh voice.

"8/1 Lochnager", came the reply.

"Ohh", replied Wrigley.

Looking back to the stands Wrigley could see that the hat was still on and so he backed off.

At that moment Alice started to fiddle with her hat again. The others, thinking that the signal was about to come, dashed into the betting ring and put on their bets. The deluge of money alerted the tic-tac men, who immediately reacted and the price began to crash.

However, Michael Wrigley remained true to the plan and stood firm with a big wad of cash. In front of him the gamble was unfolding and all hell breaking loose.

Wrigley then approached the William Hill man.

"What price Lochnager?" asked Wrigley.

"6/1", came the reply.

"Ohh", said Wrigley, glancing up at the stand where the hat remained in place. Wrigley backed away. However, the punters had by now all realised that there was a gamble afoot and started to get their bets on as fast as they could. At this point I gave Alice the nod to take the hat off, only she couldn't get the wretched thing off as it was pinned so tightly to her head.

Alice fought frantically with her hat as the odds were tumbling. The 3/1 became 5/2 and still the hat clung to Alice's head for dear life.

Lochnager was by now a 2/1 red hot favourite and, observing that Alice had managed to get her hat off, Wrigley went and put his money on. The bookies had run for cover, and having missed 8/1 Wrigley's bet is made at 2/1.

I eventually got a £200 bet on at 2/1, a scant reward for the six months planning that had gone into the gamble.

Michael Wrigley had been the only one to stand his ground and stick to his word but his loyalty had come at a price. He walked over towards me, looking very unhappy.

"Why didn't she take her hat off?" asked Wrigley.

I tried to placate him by explaining about the pin and the wind but it didn't matter by that time. The circumstances had all worked against us, a hatpin, rain, wind and a band of runners who panicked and gave the whole game away. Race time arrived and it wasn't going to be the big win that we'd hoped for and I was going to make £400 at best, plus my share of the winning prizemoney.

The runners had by now scarpered and disappeared into the huge crowd. Punters from Liverpool and Manchester and the Lancashire mill towns clung on to their betting slips. It was a Yorkshire horse running in Lancashire but when the money's down rivalry between the counties takes a back seat. None of us were surprised as Lochnager romped home on the bridle, beating a horse called Silver Camp by two lengths. He could have won by ten lengths if he'd wanted. Lochnager was the biggest certainty that I had known in my career.

I went to begrudgingly pick up my winnings.

Lochnager was greeted with cheers as he was led back in to the winners' enclosure. He looked a picture, as if he hadn't even had a race, but all I could think about was that we'd missed getting our bets on at 8/1.

Michael Wrigley came out of the debacle with honour, he had faithfully stuck to the plan, resisting the temptation to pile his cash on at a fat price. The bookies had taken a hit, but not in the way we planned and there would be plenty of drinks on the tables in pubs that evening as what seemed like the whole of Lancashire had made a killing.

I would later learn that it was actually Peter O'Sullevan who had started the gamble. One of his spies had seen Lochnager burning up my gallops and tipped him the wink and he'd put a pile of money on at 8/1 and his bet had caused the price to plummet. It happens from time to time, you never know who's watching. He had no idea about our plan.

Poor Alice. It wasn't her fault but she felt bad about the whole thing. She was actually shaking after the race when she realised what had happened. We'd set up a gamble on my horse and I'd not even had a proper bet.

Despite a woeful start the afternoon would turn out well. Half an hour later Michael Wrigley's horse, Resin, ran out a well backed winner of the claiming race. This time I did have a bet on. My final runner that afternoon was Scattered Scarlet in the Cock O'The North Stakes. Eddie Hide rode a perfect race on Scattered Scarlet to get her home by a length at odds of 6/4 to complete the treble.

I'd trained three of the first four winners on the card on an afternoon I would never forget and we'd all go home with money in our pockets.

As for Lochnager, his story had hardly even begun and he would go on to much bigger and better things the following year.



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