David Elsworth, who announced his retirement on Wednesday following a glittering career spanning over five decades, had a “God-given gift” for understanding horses and would top a poll of his peers as the “best trainer in recent years”, according to fellow Newmarket handler Sir Mark Prescott.
Elsworth, 82, who started his career riding work for trainer Lieutenant-Colonel Ricky Vallance in the Wiltshire Village of Bishops Cannings in 1971, and quickly established himself as an accomplished assistant and later a trainer in his own right, has long been admired by his contemporaries.
While he will always be associated with 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Desert Orchid, he also saddled 1988 Grand National hero Rhyme ‘N’ Reason and scaled the heights under both codes, with the likes of Classic winner In The Groove, dual Goodwood Cup champion Persian Punch and runaway Triumph Hurdle winner Oh So Risky.
Prescott said: “It is absolutely no coincidence that the two most charismatic horses under both rules over the last 30 years, were trained by the same man – Desert Orchid and Persian Punch. That is all you need to know.
“I’ve known ‘Elsie’ since he was working in Devizes in the early 1970s. He is a remarkably good horseman, rider and jockey, and always was – he could do it all.
“Like all complete naturals, he could not begin to tell you why. When they read out the winners he had trained in one year, of every description, at the Cartier Awards, it was jaw-dropping.
“Elsworth is the top of the list at getting the best out of a horse. What made him so good was that burning ambition for perfection and in his case, possibly, it was much more freehand.
“He didn’t spend hours and hours in formbooks or studying pedigrees, he had that great God-given gift that he could simply do it. The rest of us had to learn. I truly believe that.
“You become good because you have brilliance, or because you apply yourself, or have determination to succeed. There are a lot of reasons why people get right to the top level. Some have that real flair – and Elsworth had that.
“He just trained what he’d got, probably better than anyone alive.
“His retirement marks a sad day – but I guess he will now be even more troublesome, won’t he?
“If you had a poll for the best trainer in recent years and it was conducted by the professionals, on an anonymous basis, Elsworth would probably top it, wouldn’t he?
“He can’t explain his brilliance, but he can do it. Without getting into quotable details, when Desert Orchid won that defining race (the Cheltenham Gold Cup), he was supposed not to like Cheltenham, to hate the rain, to hate deep ground, and probably didn’t get the trip – and the owner (Richard Burridge) is desperately searching to find ‘Elsie’ to take it out, and Elsie is determined that the man isn’t going to find him, because he wants to run him. But why?
“Because he knew – and he was right. He is just the most extraordinary fella.
“He gets in a strop because he isn’t asked to this box or asked to that luncheon, then he goes and trains the winner at York… and nobody can find him!
“All the other trainers want to be interviewed when they win the big race and have the picture taken with the horse and say, ‘how wonderfully we have trained him’. ‘Elsie’ simply goes missing.
“All the rest of us, we are fighting our way there to give you a few helpful hints about how brilliant we have been – but there is no sign of him! Elsie is just a marvellous man, a truly brilliant trainer.”
Former jump jockey Andrew Thornton recalled the time he loaned a saddle especially made for Elsworth’s popular stayer Persian Punch.
“My wife Yvonne and I had got a horse from Tony Mullins in Ireland called Can’t Call It. Yvonne was looking for a point-to-pointer for her nephew to ride. He came over from Ireland and had very high withers which made putting a saddle on him very hard,” said Thornton.
“I saw Jeannie Brown (Elsworth’s right-hand woman) and asked her if she had a saddle with a cut away at the front. She said Elsie had it for Persian Punch and he’d be happy to see it being used.
“She got hold of it and said just look after it and when you’ve finished with it, send it back. I was thinking, a saddle from Persian Punch to Can’t Call It, a maiden point-to-pointer, but Elsie would do whatever he could to help you out. He was that kind of fella, a more generous man you wouldn’t meet. We know he had his fiery moments.
“We had Persian Punch’s saddle for a couple of seasons and then sent it back. Elsie got it made specially for Persian Punch. It was his attention to detail.
“I used to ride for Elsie, horses like High Cotton and a few others and I used to ride out there when he trained near Salisbury.”