LAST OF THE GENTLEMAN TRAINERS; Steve Dennis talks to Arthur Budgett, the dual Derby-winning trainer who is 90 years old today.
THE man who hooked the biggest fish in British racing - not once, but twice - is also adept at catching little fish. Arthur Budgett, breeder, owner and trainer of Derby winners Blakeney and Morston, is handy with a rod and line and the fruits of his labours are feeding the Racing Post admirably.
Budgett, who is 90 today, holds an almost unique position in the annals of the turf, being one of only two owner-breeder-trainers to win two Derbys following the ancient exploits of William I' Anson with Blink Bonny (1857) and Blair Athol (1864). Sometimes described as 'the last of the gentleman trainers', Budgett had a career that spanned almost 30 years and encompassed many more glories than those Epsom triumphs, including being champion trainer in 1969, but it is with those two victories, in a four-year period, that his name will always be associated.
For many men a Windmill Girl was the road to financial undoing, but the day that Budgett acquired the horse of that name was the hinge upon which his career swung. He bought Windmill Girl at the sales in 1962, going to his maximum for the daughter of Hornbeam.
"I'd been through the catalogue and most of the lots were quite unbuyable," he says. "I suppose I must have looked at her beforehand, maybe just a glance, because she was beautifully bred, but everything in the sale was going for much more than I was ready to pay.
"In the end she wasn't sold, so I offered my maximum price for her -1,000gns - and it was snapped up on the spot. The only reason I bought her was because I had one filly foal at home and I wanted another one to run with her."
Windmill Girl must have been the best chance purchase ever made. Budgett trained her to win the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot and finish runner-up in the Oaks at 50-1, surprising her jockey Joe Mercer in the process.
Budgett says: "She looked as though she was going to win a furlong out at Epsom, but she came across the course to finish under the stands' rail and was beaten by Homeward Bound. Before the race Joe Mercer had called her just a nice maiden. When he came in he looked a bit surprised and I said 'Yes, she is a nice maiden, isn't she?'"
Budgett never paid much money for his horses, making many a silk purse out of an apparent sow's ear. "All my best horses were cheap ones," he says. "My limit for most of my owners was 3,000gns - I bought Derring-Do for 1,150gns, Crisp And Even for 1,200gns - I never spent too much." Blakeney and Morston cost him a covering fee apiece.
Blakeney was by Hethersett and was named after a village in Norfolk, in keeping with his sire. His was a relatively conventional path to the Derby, winning the Houghton Stakes at Newmarket as a two-year-old and finishing second to The Elk in the Lingfield Derby Trial. A 15-2 chance for Epsom glory, he came with a powerful late run under Ernie Johnson to beat Shoemaker by a length.
Blakeney was then beaten in the Irish Derby, St Leger and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, but returned to action as a four-year-old and ran Nijinsky to two lengths in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. He was not regarded as the most eminent of Derby winners, although he is generally held in considerably higher esteem than his half-brother Morston, a fact that still rankles with Budgett and his wife Patricia (always known as Bay).
"Morston was brilliant," says Budgett, and the calm certainty of his statement implies an end to the discussion. The trouble with Morston was that the Derby was the second and last outing of his career, and turf historians fight shy of commendations based solely on one piece of evidence.
But Budgett should know, considering he also moulded the careers of the likes of Derring-Do, a top-class miler, his son Huntercombe, winner of the July Cup and Nunthorpe Stakes, Derby fifth Crisp And Even, Daylight Robbery (July Cup) and Random Shot (Ascot Gold Cup).
He adds: "Morston was the most brilliant horse I trained. Blakeney was a bloody good horse, but I would have taken anything on with Morston."
He sounds wistful, denied the chance to take on all-comers with the son of Ragusa, named after the village a mile or so along the north Norfolk coast from that which gave his half-brother his name. Of all the merit of the chance ably taken, it is the ones that got away that seem to colour his memories of his second Epsom victory.
"Morston was very backward as a two-year-old, and he had an interrupted preparation the next spring," says Budgett. "I wanted to run him in the Derby Trial at Lingfield, but he wasn't ready in time and I could only run him in a minor race at the same course." The Godstone Plate, 26 days before the Derby, was Morston's introduction to racing and he made it a successful one.
He was arguably Budgett's second string in the Derby, his stablemate Projector being similarly disregarded in the betting, and jockey Edward Hide was less than impressed with Budgett's instructions in the parade ring beforehand.
"I told Eddie Hide not to give him too hard a race, as he'd been backward and was still inexperienced," says Budgett. "Apparently, when he was going to post, he turned to the jockey next to him and said 'I can't believe I've come here to ride a non-trier when I could have gone to Ripon for five good things!'.
"Personally, I couldn't see how Morston could win. I'd only done the minimum with him at home and he'd had just one run. However, Tom Dowdeswell, who rode him at home, had also ridden Windsor Lad on the gallops, and he said that Morston gave him as good a feel as Windsor Lad."
Windsor Lad won the 1934 Derby' Morston lived up to Dowdeswell's billing by keeping on much too strongly for the Lester Piggott-ridden Cavo Doro, winning by a comfortable half-length. His next outing was to have been York's Great Voltigeur Stakes, followed by the St Leger, but Budgett was thwarted by his star's physical fragility.
"We galloped him at Newbury before the Voltigeur and he worked very well," he says. "When I checked his legs that evening, there was just the tiniest spot on one. I didn't think it was anything to worry about, but he had a canter the following day and his leg blew up like a balloon. That was the end of him." A picture of Morston - "It's only there to hide a big crack," says Bay - hangs on the wall of the conservatory in which we are eating.
He's sticking his tongue out - a fitting riposte to all those who denigrate his worth.
BUDGETT retired two years later, allowing assistant James Bethell to take over at Whatcombe. "I'd had enough of it," he admits. "It was a very strenuous life, with a great deal of responsibility. James was keen to take over and I was nearly 60 and it seemed like a good time to stop.
"The most I ever had in my yard was 85, and that nearly killed me. I cut that back to 75 and it was just manageable. I always prided myself that I felt every leg at evening stables - although there were so many to feel that I had to be quick."
Budgett came from a wealthy family and didn't rely on training for an income. There is the impression that he didn't miss the day-by-day hard work of training when he stepped aside for Bethell, although the affection with which he and Bay recount the names of the horses and for the people with whom they shared their triumphs indicate that those days were very good days.
"We only had one owner we didn't like," recalls Bay, "and we couldn't get rid of him. In the end Arthur said to him 'Take your horses away or I'll bring them up to London and chain them to the railings outside your club'."
The Budgetts were evidently good employees, as every 18 months or so all their old grooms have a reunion party to yarn about the old days.
"They come from as far afield as Germany and Ireland for the party," says Bay, "and I think we're about the only ones they do that for. Often one of them will come up to me and say 'You were like a mother to me', which is ever such a nice way to be thought of."
Memories of the durable and proficient gelding Petty Officer - "such a lovely old horse, he had a lovely life in retirement and ended up being clambered over by children at pony club" - are mingled with recollections of what might have been one of the first stabs at interval training, predating Martin Pipe by 20 years or so.
"We had about 200 acres at Whatcombe," says Budgett, "but I saw that you didn't need a two-mile gallop to train a two-mile horse, and we won the Great Met [two and a quarter miles] three times with horses who had done their training over half a mile, over and over."
BUDGETT'S first major winner was Commissar, who won the 1948 Lincoln in a record field of 58, and photographs of the frenzied flag start and less-crowded finishing stages hang on the bathroom wall, a rare pictorial reminder of training success. The Budgetts don't go in for rooms groaning with memorabilia' the majority of their racing mementoes are packed away as securely as the past years. There are a couple of photographs of Blakeney, a couple of Morston, a Windmill Girl, and the Derby-winner racing plates of her two most famous sons, nothing more. Most of the photographs in the house are of children and grandchildren, the Budgetts preferring to look hopefully to the future rather than bask in past glories. More than once, Bay says "Those days are over" or "That's another life, it's in the past now" and turns the conversation to their sons James and Christopher, the latter now running the Kirtlington Stud set up by his father, which has enjoyed some notable recent success through Sir Percy and Aussie Rules, both consigned to the sales from Kirtlington. Their grandson Charlie recently rode in the Waley-Cohen charity race at Cheltenham alongside the Post's Lee Mottershead, and took second place.
While Christopher continues to keep the Budgett name in the racing spotlight, Arthur devotes his time to fishing, golf - "I started at 68, peaked at 83 and am on the downward slope now" - and his kitchen garden, whence the lunchtime spinach came, while Bay keeps the rest of the garden in hand. They bicker back and forth goodnaturedly - "She gives me stick all the time," smiles Arthur, and Bay answers "It's the only thing that keeps you going" - quibbling about a date or a name, encouraging a fading memory, reliving the days when, as a team, they played the starring role on racing's greatest stage.
It may well be, as Bay keeps saying, all in the past now, but flick through the pages of racing history and you'll find, imperishably written in big golden letters, the name of Arthur Budgett. Not once, but twice.
Blakeney and Ernie Johnson (left) and Morston and Edward Hide are led in after their Derby victories' Arthur Budgett: only the second man ever to breed, own and train two Derby winners JON WINTER
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||May 26, 2006|
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