David Elsworth, who announced his retirement on Wednesday after a career in racing that has spanned seven decades, felt he was ‘lucky’ to have ‘stumbled’ upon on a career that took him to the very top.
The always understated Elsworth called time on a career that started when he left school a few days after his 15th birthday.
After confirming that he would not be renewing his training licence next month, the 82-year-old reflected upon a glittering training experience that saw him hit the heights with success in both codes with great equine stars like Desert Orchid, Persian Punch, In The Groove, Rhyme ‘N’ Reason and Barnbrook Again.
“I know that in this business, why I have had this degree of success, is because I was fortunate enough to work with some great people and some great horses,” said Elsworth.
“I was surrounded by lots of people and they shared the ambitions, the hopes and the success we had.
It was to racing’s eternal gain that the illegitimate child, raised by his grandparents near Whitsbury, ‘stumbled’ into the sport, firstly as a jockey and then as assistant trainer.
He added: “I was fortunate that I stumbled across something in life, the racing business, by chance. I hadn’t any firm ambitions to be anything.
“It was December 15th, 1954, the Christmas term in a secondary modern school that, if you wished, you could leave – and I left with no firm ambitions or plans to be a racehorse trainer.
“I just needed to earn a living and do something, and I felt that I’d like to work with horses, so I cycled over to a local yard and applied for a job – and once you got on the merry-go-round, you started going faster – and I’ve enjoyed it. It has been a way of life rather than a job – it is just something one does.”
His career began as an apprentice jockey on January 3, 1955.
“I started off with Alec Stewart Kilpatrick, who was a dour Scotsman and he trained at Richard Hannon’s place at Herridge. You learn from everybody.
“You watch and you learn, and they make mistakes – and I certainly made lots of mistakes, and you try to do the job as well as you can.
“For whatever station or job in racing I’ve had – I’ve driven horse boxes, I’ve started off as an apprentice, and then rode a few and was a small-time jockey – it was all a learning process.
“I didn’t think I was grooming myself to be a trainer – you just do what you have got to do. It has never been a chore – it was just a way of life. I’ve played around and it’s all a game – you are just trying to get one horse to run around faster than another.
“It is an expensive pastime, but I wasn’t paying – the owners were paying, and I practised my craft with their ambitions.
“People send you horses and they have aspirations and dreams that they might do well and you do your best to fulfil that job.”
There have been many career highlights, including Desert Orchid’s four King George VI Chase wins and a Gold Cup, Rhyme ‘N’ Reason’s Grand National victory, Barnbook Again’s dual Champion Chase successes among nine total Cheltenham Festival wins for the trainer, and an Irish 1000 Guineas win with In The Groove.
“The one at the time means the most. Everything is a big thrill,” he added.
“When I rode my first winner as a kid – that was big thrill – I think it was in October 1957, the Cowley Novices’ Hurdle on Rathrowan, and there were 35 runners.
“I remember following Graeme McCourt’s father, Matthew McCourt, into the second last. There was Harry Sprague and Fred Winter, and all the top jockeys behind – and there was this green kid who couldn’t really ride, you know? I managed to win and, at the time, I thought that was momentous, that was fantastic.
“If you asked me the next day what was the biggest moment, that was it. But then we have progressed and we have gone on.
“When we started training, we won the Triumph Hurdle with (Heighlin) very early on when I was at Lucknam Park down in Wiltshire. That was a big deal to win the Triumph Hurdle – that was my first Cheltenham winner.
“I used the expression ‘peddle the bike as fast as you can’ and then you get other landmarks, for want of a better description.
“We won the SunAlliance, we had a Royal Ascot winner with the same horse that won the Triumph Hurdle (Heighlin) and then a year later he won the Goodwood Cup, which was the first Group race I won, I think – I can’t remember now.
“They were all, at the time, achievements, thrills. You always thought you’d like to win these big races. To win at Royal Ascot, to win at Cheltenham and things were big occasions.
“Then you had the old horse, Persian Punch, who went to Australia, and was third in the Melbourne Cup, beaten a couple of necks under top weight – that was a great time. His owner Jeff Smith took the family down there and it was a big deal.
“To win the Juddmonte with In The Groove was a big thrill and I doubled up with the other filly winning it as well (Arabian Queen). They were all great days.
“And Desert Orchid – it has been well documented about his achievements.
“We won the Cambridgeshire a couple of times, the Ebor, the Dante, the Duke of York, and more recently we won down at Goodwood with Sir Dancelot in the Lennox Stakes, the Hungerford… these were all in the twilight of my days – I was an old man then, but they were still big days.
“I remember them all – but at the time, you can’t compare them.
“They have all been a great thrill. It has been great. It is not as if I am creeping out with disappointment, I think I have been extremely lucky and it has never been just about David Elsworth, I have just had the good fortune to have good horses and people around me working with me who were as ambitious as you were.
“When you get it right, it’s great. I may have been at the helm, but I was only part of it.”
Elsworth will not be lost to racing and he is not about to travel the world.
He added: “I don’t have any plans. You turn up and see what happens! If you make plans and then you are not happy with it, you want to do something else. I think I should follow my nose. See what develops and see what presents itself and make the best of it.
“Writing an autobiography would be too much like hard work. I would need a lot of help and somebody with a lot of patience and the memory would need to be revitalised as well, because I’ve forgotten most of it.
“But at least I will get one of those badges that allow you to go on course as a retired trainer – as long as I don’t have to pay!”
There are few regrets. If there is perhaps one, it is a lack of organisation. Better to be lucky than good, but in Elsworth’s case, he was both.
“I have never been very well organised,” he admitted.
“Someone like (fellow trainer) Mark Johnston, he’s methodical, he knows what he is doing, he has a plan, he carries it out and he usually fulfils it. He is organised – whereas I stumble along and chuck my hat in the ring and I’ve been lucky.
“I still have a couple of horses, which I may syndicate. I have nice Ribchester colt out of Bonnie Brae who won the Bunbury Cup. I can’t afford to have him in training – I’m not that well off – so I might syndicate him and see what we can do.”
No plan, no need. Elsworth will be just fine following his nose and peddling his bike. Perhaps just a little slower.