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An Interview with owner Alan Black



We catch up with Mick Easterby and owner Alan Black, a partnership that dates back to the 1960s and has sent out many well-known winners both on the flat and over jumps. The story spans several generations of the Black family, going back to a chance meeting in the 1950s on a farm in Raskelf.


There's not many that have trained racehorses for as long as the legendary Mick Easterby, as he reflects on the past six decades where he has sent out almost 3,000 winners, including a Classic winner and a Champion Sprinter.

"Good owners. You won't get far in this game without good owners", muses Easterby. "At the end of the day they pay the bills, and they're the ones that keep us going. Good owners like this chap here".

Alongside Mick Easterby is retired Chartered Surveyor, Auctioneer & Valuer Alan Black, who has owned over a half century of winners. Easterby puts an affectionate arm round Alan, a mark of friendship reserved for those special few.

The partnership between Mick Easterby and the Black family goes back to the 1950s. Easterby recalls the time he was visiting Alan Black's father, George, a farmer in Raskelf, when he spotted a half bred horse which had been pulling potato carts. He asked George if he would sell him the horse and if so how much would he want for it.

George said "how about £70?" to which Easterby replied "I haven't got any money but if you let me take it away I think I can sell it."

George was quite agreeable. So he took the horse back home, clipped it out and trimmed it and promptly sold it for £90 for an old lady to ride. Everyone was happy, the horse was sold, and £20 profit made from the deal.

"Tell people you can't afford it, you've not got the money, no point in hiding. That's how to get a deal", advises Easterby wisely.

And over the years there are many tales of deals, some that can be told and some stories we'll keep back for later.

It was a deal that marked the beginning of a longstanding partnership and friendship. Inevitably George was to become a racehorse owner with Easterby, his optimism and faith in his horses striking a chord with the fledgling trainer.

"He'd never condemn an 'oss, that man", recounts Easterby.

"His first one was average, but he wouldn't sell it, he always thought that it could do better."

Perhaps that faith in part being a sign of respect for his trainer's ability to get the very best out of a racehorse.

George registered his first colours in 1945, scarlet body with scarlet and blue hooped sleeves. The description was to be amended by Weatherby's in the 1950s who noticed the word 'scarlet' on a set of Royal colours. After an unexpected phone call the colours were amended, officially to be 'red' with the blue hoops. They looked the same.

George had several successful horses, a memorable one being the giant Nigarda who stood at 17.2 hands. He'd won at Stockton in 1961, the track which became Teesside Park.

"Last time I was at Teesside Park I was measuring up some commercial premises. It's an industrial estate now", recalls Alan Black.

The stands and the turf are long gone, and only the memories remain.

Alan took ownership of his first horse in the 1960s and in the five decades of the owner-trainer partnership there's never been a cross word. Notably, he has always paid modest amounts for his horses, a sentiment that strikes a note with his trainer, although the majority of his success has come through home bred horses, most notably from his mare Prime Property. Alan Black's first racehorse was called Fooasaboot. He'd acquired him in the mid-1960s as a yearling. At a young age the horse had lost an eye, and the name Half A Look had been mooted. Foo As A Boot was a Scottish term for 'tipsy' - he's as foo as a boot. There is no suggestion that either Alan or Ken Oliver (his trainer at the time) were 'foo' when they bought the horse! Alan was working for Oliver's firm, Andrew Oliver, in Hawick as a livestock auctioneer. On a busy day they would sell over 30.000 sheep in what was claimed to be the oldest auction market in the British Isles, (founded in 1817). Oliver trained Wynburgh, of Grand National fame, a horse on whom years later Black's wife went hunting. Ken Oliver was also a very successful amateur rider, winning the Scottish Grand National amongst other notable races.

Alan Black tasted his first success as an owner, fifty years ago as of this week, when Fooasaboot won at Sedgefield in the great sporting year of 1966. He went on to win the Barton Handicap Hurdle at Catterick on New Year's Day 1967 ridden by the legendary Tommy Stack, famed for piloting Red Rum to his third and unsurpassed Grand National victory in 1977.

Alan was fortunate to own a horse called Top Scale in partnership with his good friend, the legendary Edward Hide, who also bred the horse. He won several races over both codes, including the Jackie Milburn Memorial at Newcastle, named in honour of the famous Newcastle United and England player, where the Cup was presented by Milburn's widow.

In his wonderful half century of racehorse ownership, Alan Black has owned (or part owned) over 50 winners, the majority of which have been trained at Sheriff Hutton by Easterby.

The red (not scarlet) and blue hooped sleeves have been carried by some well-known racehorses in the north of England, including the jumper Russian Aspect and dual purpose horses Middlethorpe and Provost. But probably the most famous was the sprinter Blessingindisguise, bought by Mick Easterby at Doncaster sales in 1994 for 4,000 gns. His sire, Kala Shikari, was not a fashionable name, and his dam was an unraced daughter of Native Admiral, but the yearling colt caught the Easterby eye and the rest, as they say, was history.

Blessingindisguise was named after a phrase often said by George Black after a fancied horse had been beaten. "It might be a blessing in disguise you know. Next time he'll have less weight and the price might be better", he'd say with cheery optimism.

Blessingindisguise went on to run 101 races, winning 11 times and earning over £108,000. Memorable wins came at Ascot and on Alan Black's local track, the Knavesmire at York.

"He loved to hear his hooves rattle on the fast ground did Blessing," recalls Easterby. "Always came to his peak in the summer months. We had some fantastic days out that that horse".

In 1993 Easterby had bought the yearling Tirol filly Prime Property from Tattersalls Sales to run in Alan Black's colours. She won at Pontefract in 1995 off a mark of 34, and was retired the following year with a broodmare career in mind. That year she was covered by Noble Patriarch and her first foal was born the following year. Middlethorpe, as he was known, was owned in partnership with Alan Black's good friend John Quickfall and won twelve races including one on the Knavesmire. Another rewarding partnership with Quickfall, together with Ray Edmonds (of snooker and billiards fame) was the ownership of Desert Vision - a winner of nine races, mainly on the 'all weather' at Wolverhampton. He recalls how he was able to watch most of Desert Vision's wins from their winter home in South Africa where Sky TV was available.

In the meantime, the family enjoyed further success as Middlethorpe's half-brothers, King's Square and Property Zone were also in training, winning two and three times respectively.

Prime Property was also the dam of the Gentleman's Deal filly Prices Lane, so named after a memorable deal involving a property in Prices Lane, York. The sire, Gentleman's Deal, had been bought by Easterby in 2005 at Tattersalls Sales for a remarkable bargain price. Regally bred, by Danehill out of 1000 Guineas winner Sleepytime, he went on to win the Group 3 Winter Derby amongst his seven wins before standing as a stallion and siring numerous homebred winners.

The racing career of Prices Lane was unspectacular, but in the true optimistic spirit of her owner, a second career as a broodmare was to be followed.

"I've never known a man like it", Easterby sums up Alan Black. "Never known such optimism. The whole family are like it".

Price's Lane's first foal showed little, but in 2013 she was covered by Monsieur Bond and gave birth to a filly foal the following year.

Alan Black considers how the filly was named. "We didn't spend long on finding a name. The best horses I have had haven't been the ones I've thought long and hard about naming! I asked the lad who looked after her what she was called at the yard. He said "Babouska". So, I went straight to see Wendy (Easterby's racing secretary) and she had Weatherby's register the name."

Michael Burrows is Alan Black's partner in Babouska. Burrows is no stranger to the winners' enclosure having tasted success five times in 2016 with Qaffaal.

"He's new to the fold is Mr Burrows. Mr Black recommended us to him. When I get a new owner I don't let 'em go".

Easterby leans towards Burrows and playfully puts his crook around Burrows' neck, drawing him in like a wayward ram. Easterby's japes are as well-known as his ability to spot a bargain and to train a winner. He once sang Happy Birthday to himself over the loudspeaker at Newcastle racecourse. And, of course, who could forget the moment when Channel 4 pulled the plug and apologised mid-way through an interview as Easterby recounted how he bought his multiple winner Blue Spinnaker in France. In true Easterby style the story was told in his own colourful way, a way which the producer quickly decided was not for the faint-hearted afternoon Channel 4 audience. Spinnaker won the Thirsk Hunt Cup and Zetland Gold Cup and is still at the yard, employed as the babysitter for the yearlings in the fields, unaware of his unusual place in Channel 4 Racing history.

"He (Burrows) is a part owner of Qaffaal," he continues. "It's a good story is how he got Qaffaal. But we can't tell it here!" mused Easterby, the twinkle in the eye suggesting it was better not to ask any more.

So we move on, with a note in the book to try and tease out the Qaffaal story next time.

Babouska started out as a two-year-old, debuting at Ripon. She ran a fair race but showed more promise in her next outings as she strengthened and grew into her frame. Perusing the forthcoming races, Black had found a race at Newcastle on the new tapeta track; a one mile nursery handicap on the stiff straight course.

On a December evening at Gosforth Park she started favourite under the floodlights. An eye catching fourth at Chelmsford on her previous run had ensured the short price and the jockey was instructed to ride prominently.

"I'd rather lose from the front than from behind like Qaffaal did last night" were Black's words to the yard's star apprentice Nathan Evans. The advice was duly taken on board and Babouska was never headed, passing the post unchallenged.

"Mr Black's looking for a partner in the latest one," points out Easterby.

He is referring to Nunnery Lane, Babouska's half-brother by Mazameer who has just come into training and is being prepared to make his debut on the flat in 2017. Easterby's head lad Mark Cobb, a gentle giant of a man, pulls the Mazameer colt off the walker and he is presented to admiring nods from co-owner and trainer. He is growing nicely into his frame. At this age a look at the horse just a few weeks apart brings about noticeable change and development. This one is doing very well.

Easterby reflects on sixty years of business with the family, father and son. "He's the perfect partner is Mr Black. Never a cross word, a true gentleman. He's had, I think, 53 winners over the years. And he's a smashing horse this one. A new partner can name the horse too. I've also got a lovely new barn conversion, any owner joining us can stay there for free. For a week. For 'nowt. They can come and have a tour of the yard, watch their horse race and have a nice little break. It's home from home. Not every trainer offers that!"

And with that, the colt is put back into Easterby's ample sized barn, and the party retreats from the North Yorkshire chill into the warmth of the farmhouse for a brew and a chat about Babouska's next engagement. As the kettle boils Easterby is keen to catch the 11.50 at Doncaster where Shadows Lengthen, another multiple winner bought as a yearling by the canny Yorkshire trainer, is bidding for his 14th win. It might be a Saturday morning but it's one of the busiest times in the yard. More owners will be along soon to catch up with their treasured horses and to plan the next stages of their careers.

Returning with a mug of tea, Easterby exudes excitement and enthusiasm as he continues to regale his audience with tales from one of the longest training careers in history. There's a lot of material to draw upon.

"You don't do a job for sixty years unless you love every day of it."

Easterby clearly does.





Posted: Saturday 10 December 2016






Babouska on the gallops




Always a hands on owner! with Blessingindisguise at Thirsk




Percy Marshall leads in Blessingindisguise at Thirsk




Alan Black with homebred star Babouska




Blessingindisguise at York




'Once I get hold of an owner I never let them go' - Mick Easterby and Michael Burrows




Another home bred winner. Middlethorpe after winning at York.




Co-owners Alan Black and Michael Burrows with Babouska.




'I've never known a man quite like it'. Mick Easterby on Alan Black




Alan Black with Babouska the morning after her first win.




Alan Black regularly visits his horses with some Polo mints as treats!




Gentle giant Blessingindisguise at the stables open day





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