Lambourn loses a bit of its heart with the loss of ‘Big Pete’
When Peter Walwyn passed away on Friday, Racing lost a great trainer but Lambourn lost a bit of its heart because for so many years “Big Pete” synchronised the beat – and not just through results with great horses at the highest level.
Yes, he cared about winning but he knew that people and the village mattered too.
The whole of his career was closely intertwined with the Valley Of The Racehorse. He started training at Windsor House in 1960 and with his lovely wife, “Bonk”, they encapsulated that free-wheeling period. At a time when trainers liked to use a military title he was proud to tell anyone that he hadn’t made it beyond Corporal.
Starting with a handful of horses at Windsor House at the top of the village in 1960 his success came fast and he fast-tracked to Seven Barrows five years later and it was from there that he began an assault on the turf’s glittering prizes.
When he decamped to Seven Barrows he took the foundations of a great staff – he knew the importance of top class lads – but he also had a racehorse that would be there for the long haul and encapsulated the times, Be Hopeful.
Pete loved him and the horse more than repaid him, the last of his 27 wins coming at the age of 14 at Brighton in July 1973 with an almost unbelievable Timeform rating of 93. When Pete was met with the news getting off a plane that the old horse had fractured a leg he was broken-hearted.
However, it was the beginning of a period in which he would bestride the turf and with it bring Lambourn to the world.
The horse that would do it was, of course, Grundy the 1975 Derby winner and, following that, what is still known as the race of the century.
But by the time Grundy had arrived, Pete had assembled a top quality staff.
His loyalty was legendary. Retained riders through his career could be counted with just one hand. Joe Mercer, Duncan Keith, Pat Eddery and brother Paul. The lads knew that he loved them winning a few quid and after a touch was landed he’d ask them how much they’d won and revel in it.
It was no accident that several of those involved in the halcyon days at The Barrows went on to train very successfully in their own right. Alan Bailey – who did Be Hopeful – is still doing so. Two who made their mark at the top end of the sport were head lad Ray Laing, assistant Mark Smyly and Grundy’s regular work rider Matty McCormack. Jamie Douglas Home was yet another and the most recent Ralph Beckett.
He’d had good horses before Grundy, including another precocious two-year-old of 1972, Lunchtime, owned by his great friend Dick Poole, but Grundy was the real deal – but it wasn’t straight forward.
At a time when the press would be lucky if a trainer would tell them if it was morning or evening, Pete was way ahead of his time as he showed on the run up to the Two Thousand Guineas.
Grundy’s lead horse, Corby, lashed out and caught Grundy on the nose causing internal damage. In these days of social media it would be common knowledge in minutes but certainly not in 1975. But Pete understood the significance and the Press Association wire service clattered out the news shortly after.
It contributed to Grundy’s defeat in the Guineas but no horse could have been prepared better for Derby Day.
Pete and Bonk were party people and the one after the Epsom win was long and hard. He’d just taken delivery of a new bit of technology, a VCR recorder, and by the end of play had all but burned it out.
The yard was as its strongest around this period, having somewhat fortuitously won the 1974 Oaks with Polygamy and the 1970 One Thousand Guineas with Humble Duty. The year before Grundy he’d won the Irish Derby with English Prince.
That resulted in Pete appearing centre stage on the stable float at the Lambourn Carnival decked out as Henry VIII under the banner “English Prince commits Polygamy.”
He was more than capable of going into a full scale rant when the mood took him and his eyes would roll back into his head. He quite liked his comparison to the possibly like-minded Basil Fawlty and often played up to it. One thing is certain; there was never any doubting his passion.
But they just don’t make trainers like him these days, witness his handling of the volatile Frenchman Daniel Wildenstein who was dissatisfied with Pat Eddery’s handling of Buckskin in the 1978 Ascot Gold Cup and wanted to replace him. Pete stayed loyal to his jockey and the Wildenstein horses went eastward down the M4.
Seven Barrows struggled to shake off a persistent virus at this time and coupled with a quiet period for the studs which had backed him so well the classic days slipped away and he couldn’t add to his two trainers championships of 1974 and 75 and he exchanged places with Nicky Henderson thus ending his career where he started at Windsor House.
He was still turning out winners when he called time in 1999 and from then on turned his efforts to helping others. A prime mover in Lambourn Open Day which assists housing for stable staff, he was a vociferous chairman on the Lambourn Trainers’ Association and it was certainly not before time when he was awarded MBE in the 2012 New Year’s Honours list.
Lambourn never had a better friend.