Sunday 16 December 2018
A couple of tales about the eccentric Lord Belper who owned horses at the yard in the 1980s and 90s
Lord Belper was one of my favourite racehorse owners. Born Ronald Strutt, the Fourth Baron Belper, or Lord Belper as he was known to the world, he was a true character. A former soldier, he had served as a major in the Coldstream Guards during World War II.
I had an on-going disagreement with Lord Belper, although I'm not actually sure what the disagreement was about. Everyone who knew Lord Belper had a disagreement with him because he made it his hobby, he just loved to disagree.
I trained a few horses for Lord Belper in the 1980s and 1990s, including the multiple winning steeplechaser Mick's Star who was ante-post favourite for the 1988 Grand National, just two years after Mr Snugfit had finished fourth. Probably the best known of his horses was Master Pokey, whose tale I will tell another time.
Lord Belper always insisted on getting his own jockeys to ride and he made the arrangements himself. He liked Michael Roberts and Steve Cauthen. He didn't trust jockeys any more than he didn't trust trainers. There were just a select few jockeys who he considered less untrustworthy than the rest.
One of the most unforgettable days racing with Lord Belper was at Sedgefield in mid January 1990 when we went to watch his horse, Mr Therm, run in a claiming chase. The horse finished second, beaten five or so lengths to Spritebrand, who was trained by my brother Peter.
Turning to me as the horses passed the post I could sense the devilment in him.
"Objection, objection. Did you see that?" he cried. "I think we'll object to that one Michael."
Lord Belper waved his stick around, bashing it against the wall, and then he marched into the stewards and put in an objection to Peter's horse.
The objection was immediately thrown out, and Lord Belper returned.
"Why did you do that?" I asked him.
"I just wanted to test Peter out," he replied. "Ha ha, it was worth it just to see the look on your brother's face."
He would have given anything to win that objection but I had no idea what he was actually objecting to. He was all worked up and excited and he had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, largely at the expense of me and our Peter.
Lord Belper's visits were always entertaining. He'd come down to the yard late morning and visit his horses and then he'd amble up to the farmhouse and sit down and wait to be offered his dinner. Eventually I'd grant his wish and food would arrive and then I'd watch what can only be described as a spectacle unfold before my eyes.
I have never seen a man eat so much in all my life. You would have thought he hadn't eaten for three months. Alice would struggle to keep up with his voracious appetite and he'd just eat and eat and eat without coming up for air. There'd be food hanging out of his mouth as he got stuck in to everything put before him.
He'd then eye up the cakes that Alice had baked and he'd wait until he was offered one, at which point he'd say he couldn't eat any more but he'd take them home with him for later. He loved plum and currant cakes and he'd always leave with a couple of cakes in tins.
On another occasion Lord Belper visited the yard to have a look at his horses before the start of the season. Things weren't right that day and I could pick up a sense of displeasure at what he saw.
Eventually he looked to me and I awaited his verdict which I knew wasn't going to be music to my ears.
"They're too light", he said sternly. "You've taken too much off them, they're too light. You're all alike you trainers, you've over-trained them."
Lord Belper did not have good sight. He only had one eye, and the other eye was failing. Years back he had a one-eyed horse named after him, a horse called 'Belper', which won the City and Suburban Handicap.
"I thought you were blind?" I replied to Lord Belper, his frequent complaints about his failing sight making it a fair response.
"My eyes might be failing," retorted the Lord quickly, "but those horses are too light and a blind man could see it."
One of racing's true characters, Lord Belper died on Christmas Eve, 2000. A remarkable man he'd fought in the war, ridden a Cheltenham winner and owned a Cesarewitch winner. In his later years he'd worked in bloodstock management, combining racehorse breeding and ownership with whatever Lords do in their spare time.
I missed his visits and his passion for racing in the following years. He was one of a remarkable breed whose numbers were sadly dwindling.
I learned many things in my dealings with Lord Belper. Looking back, if I made a mistake I always found the best way was to apologise. I'd simply say I was sorry and we'd move on. Apologising, saying sorry, is a quality that no man should be too big to display. I look around today and I see politicians who simply refuse to apologise when they make a mistake, no matter how obvious and apparent that mistake might be. People would regard them in much greater esteem if they had the courage to hold up their hands and say sorry. As you go through life you learn different things by working with different people and I can honestly say that learnt a great deal from Lord Belper and I have many fond memories of the time spent in his company.
Lord Belper at Nottingham with Wild Side. Thanks to Brian Bivens for the photo.