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Death of pioneering trainer Helen Johnson Houghton.

Byline: John Randall

HELEN JOHNSON HOUGHTON, Fulke Walwyn's twin sister and the first woman to train a British Classic winner, died on Tuesday night at the age of 102.

Johnson Houghton took over the running of the family stables when her husband Gordon died and, before handing over to her son Fulke, she trained Gilles De Retz to win the 2,000 Guineas in 1956. She did not hold a licence because at that time the Jockey Club still refused to recognise women trainers. Ironically, she later became one of the first three women to be elected to the Jockey Club.

Her best horse was St Leger runner-up Nucleus, and that colt's rider Lester Piggott said in his autobiography: "Helen was a marvellous trainer, quite rightly showing far more patience with her horses than she ever showed with human beings, and making her opinions forcibly known. In the swearing stakes, however, she was outdone by the stable duck, which used to take up residence in the breakfast room whenever it felt like it."

Johnson Houghton was born Helen Marjory Walwyn at Wrexham on November 8, 1910, the younger twin sister of Fulke Walwyn. They were the children of an army officer who became a Master of Foxhounds in Monmouthshire, and they were regulars in the hunting field from an early age.

In 1937 she married Gordon Johnson Houghton, who at the time was training in Cheshire. After war service he moved to Woodway stables in Blewbury, near Didcot, and in 1950 won more races than any other trainer in Britain. In January 1952 the trainer was killed in front of his wife and children when thrown under a lorry while out hunting.

His widow determined to keep the stable going even though, as a woman, she was not allowed by the Jockey Club to hold a trainer's licence. Florence Nagle did not force the Club's capitulation on that point until 1966.

She therefore had three male nominees to hold the licence for her - Dick Poole (1952-53), Charles Jerdein (1954-56), who received the official credit for Gilles De Retz, and Peter Walwyn (1957-60), her first cousin who was also her pupil until starting to train on his own account.

Johnson Houghton's first good horse was Star Signal, whose triumph in the Victoria Cup in 1952 was his second in the race for the stable. The following year she trained Harvest Festival (Lancashire Oaks), Parakeet (Challenge Stakes), Ocean Sailing, who landed the Brighton Autumn Cup and beat Oaks winner Ambiguity at Ascot, and Osborne, who was placed in the City and Suburban Handicap and Liverpool Autumn Cup.

In 1955 she won the Princess Elizabeth Stakes with Pappagena and the Welsh Derby with Le Glorieux, but her first real brush with Classic fame came with Nucleus, who won that year's King Edward VII Stakes. Dorothy Paget's colt then ran Meld (who was coughing) to three-quarters of a length in the St Leger, after which Lester Piggott unavailingly objected to the Triple Crown heroine.

Nucleus won the Jockey Club Stakes that autumn and all his three races as a four-year-old, including the Paradise (now Sagaro) and Winston Churchill Stakes at Hurst Park. He was the main British hope for the Ascot Gold Cup but died of a brain tumour.

Nucleus was perhaps unlucky not to win a Classic, but Gilles De Retz went one better and enabled his trainer to make history. Owned by Anthony Samuel, Gilles De Retz came fourth in the Middle Park Stakes, but his limitations seemed exposed when he was fifth in the Greenham Stakes on his reappearance in 1956 and he started at 50-1 for the 2,000 Guineas. Belying those odds, he was always prominent and, leading in the Dip, he strode up the hill to beat Chantelsey by a length.

He was unplaced on all his other outings that year and, despite winning the Coronation (now Brigadier Gerard) Stakes as a four-year-old, must be considered a sub-standard Classic winner.

The stable's other good horses included Street Singer, Miss McTaffy (1959 Great Metropolitan Handicap) and New Move (1960 Chesham Stakes).

Peter Walwyn left to set up on his own towards the end of 1960, so Helen's son Fulke Johnson Houghton, who was still only 20, took over the licence and, gradually, the actual training of the horses.

The stable housed Romulus, Europe's champion miler of 1962, when the colt won the Sussex Stakes, Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and Prix du Moulin de Longchamp. Romulus was the first notable horse owned in Britain by Charles Engelhard, who later had dual Classicwinning brothers Ribocco and Ribero trained at Woodway, as well as champion two-year-old Ribofilio, top miler Habitat, Tin King and Falcon.

Engelhard's widow owned champion filly Rose Bowl, and the latter's halfbrother Ile De Bourbon proved another stable stalwart, and one with tangible rewards for Helen Johnson Houghton.

The trainer's mother owned 30 per cent of Ile De Bourbon, the other partners being her son, Sir Philip Oppenheimer and Engelhard's former racing manager David McCall. The colt was the best three-year-old in Europe in 1978, when he won the King Edward VII, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and Geoffrey Freer Stakes. The following year he was champion older horse by virtue of his victory in the Coronation Cup.

Johnson Houghton had her own colours carried by Akdam, who won a PS100,000 bonus for winning four races at Kempton in 1990.

Well before then, the Jockey Club had finally been brought into the 20th century, and in 1977 the trainer whose existence it had once refused to recognise became one of the first three women to be elected to the Club. The other two were Lady Halifax and Priscilla Hastings.


Helen Johnson Houghton: trained Gilles De Retz, winner of the 2,000 Guineas in 1956
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Dec 6, 2012
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