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MILK CART TO DREAM MACHINE; Trainer Eric Alston talks to David Ashforth about a career that has taken him on a long journey from carthorses to racehorses, and of his hopes for stable star Reverence in Sunday's Prix de l'Abbaye at Longchamp.

Byline: David Ashforth

ERIC ALSTON failed in his ambition to be a rag and bone man but has found success training racehorses. On Thursday, Reverence will set off for Longchamp and Sunday's Prix de l'Abbaye, in pursuit of the fairytale ending that lovers of horseracing cherish.

For some, horses are business. For Alston, they are also a passion. "It's love of horses," he says. "That's why I train. Once you've got that, you're stuck with it forever. When I was very young, all I wanted to be was a rag and bone man. I used to jump on the rag and bone man's cart, get off it at the other end of the village, and walk home."

It was the horse, not the rags and bones, that fired Alston's enthusiasm, and a lot of enthusiasm was needed in order for Alston, 62, to work his way from carthorses to racehorses. His father was a farmer in a Lancashire village once full of dairy farms. "We'd deliver milk on a horse and cart," Alston remembers, "and then use the same horse for a bit of showjumping."

Pursuing his dream, Alston was apprenticed to Walter Wharton. He rode ten winners in his second year, but then grew bigger while the number of rides and his income grew smaller. After three years, Alston returned to Longton, near Preston, and married Sue Bodill. They had a smallholding and, briefly, Sue had a horse. Eric sold it to buy a car. He promised that, one day, he would buy her another.

When Alston's father died, they took over his dairy farm. "We delivered about 100 gallons of milk a day," says Alston. Soon afterwards, he kept his promise and bought Sue an ex-racehorse that a neighbour had turned out in a field. "We got the racing bug and bought another horse, Aces High, with some friends." In 1976, trained by Ken Stapleton, Aces High won a selling race in Sue Alston's name at Hamilton.

Alston took out a permit and had his first winner when Samanza won a selling hurdle at Cartmel in 1979. He started with an ambition to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase, and a handful of horses ill-equipped to win it, or succeed on the Flat. It was not until 1984, at Redcar, that Scrummage supplied Alston with his first Flat winner, at 33-1.

"It was very hard work, doing the dairy farming as well," he says. "We'd start at 4am with the milking, and Sue and I would both ride out and do most of the work. Like all trainers, we had bad debtors and, at one stage, that almost finished us."

But it was what they both wanted to do. "Eventually, we decided to take the plunge and sold the cows," he says. "We struggled for a few years, and then Stack Rock came along. She changed it for us, really."

Stack Rock was a giant who won over 1m, ran in a hurdle race at Wetherby, and raced over 1m3f before finding her metier as a sprinter. She helped to put Kieren Fallon, as well as Alston, on the map, winning nine races, including a Listed race, and climaxing her career by finishing second to the brilliant Lochsong in the 1993 Prix de l'Abbaye.

"We took her to Leopardstown for the Group 3 Flying Five," says Alston, "and agreed that, if she picked up some prize-money, we'd go to France. She finished second in Ireland, so we went. She took the journey to Longchamp better than I did."

As Sue testifies. "Living with him before the Abbaye was almost divorce proceedings," she says. This time, says Eric, he's not in quite such a wound-up state, which is encouraging for their marriage.

With Stack Rock as its flagship, the yard started to attract better horses. "You always hope to have a good horse," says Alston. "They seem to come along every ten years for me, so I'll be 70 by the time the next one comes along."

The wait wasn't quite as long as that, with Tedburrow pulling his headstrong way to the front. He joined the yard in 1997, as a gelded five-year-old with six wins to his name, then won another 15 races for Alston, including successive victories in the Flying Five. When Tedburrow won the Group 3 Chipchase Stakes at Newcastle in 2002, as a ten-year-old, he became the oldest horse to win a Pattern race in Britain.

"He just got better with age," says Alston. "He was a very nervous horse at first and used to sweat up terribly, not at all like Stack Rock, who wasn't bothered by anything."

And then there was Reverence, also a gelding, who cracked his pelvis when with Mark Johnston as a two-year-old, cracked it again when with William Haggas the following year, and arrived at Alston's yard still unraced.

THE yard Reverence arrived at is the same intimate yard Alston has always trained at, Edges Farm Stables, its narrow frontage easily missed when driving past the houses that have taken over from the dairy farms along Chapel Lane.

"When he walked in, he was a lovely horse," says Alston. "He had a lovely big eye and a great attitude and was easy to do, uncomplicated - he still is. It was a case of getting him over his problems."

Gary and Lesley Middlebrook, Reverence's owner-breeders, were prepared to wait. When Reverence finally made his debut, at Thirsk in May 2005, as a four-year-old, he finished an encouraging second at 50-1.

"After that race he wasn't lame but he was a bit stiff," says Alston. "We just gave him more time. The Middlebrooks are very patient."

Three months later, Reverence won a maiden race at Ripon, then won handicaps at Doncaster, Pontefract, and Doncaster again, by which time he was rated 84. Extraordinarily, within ten months, Reverence would win two Group 1 races.

"He just went from strength to strength," says Alston. "At the end of last season, we started to think of Pattern races. We went into the winter dreaming he might just improve enough and, so far, we haven't had to wake up.

"Before the Temple Stakes at Sandown, Amanda Neill, who was riding work on Reverence, said to me, "This one's as good as the other two', meaning Stack Rock and Tedburrow. I asked her 'Is he better than the other two?' and she said 'I won't say that, but he's as good'. I knew then that I had a good horse.

"All three have been different. Stack Rock won her races by pinging out of the stalls and galloping the others into the ground. Tedburrow pulled very hard, and you had to bury him and come from behind. This fellow, he can lie up very easily and then quicken, and that's the difference."

Alston was hoping that 2006 would bring a Group 3 success, and when Reverence won the Group 2 Temple Stakes at Sandown, he was elated. "It was fantastic," he says. "I'm realistic. I'm never going to have a Derby horse but I've always thought I might just get a Group 1 sprinter." When Reverence won the Nunthorpe Stakes at York last month, Alston had finally got one, after decades of hard work.

"It wasn't just that he won," says Alston, "it was the way he won. Kevin Darley was over the moon. He's always said that on soft ground, over five furlongs, Reverence would be very hard to beat."

Where Reverence is concerned, fast ground is bad and soft ground is good. "On fast ground, the others catch him out a bit at halfway," says Alston. "He's all right on good ground but on soft, he can quicken when other horses can't, especially over five furlongs. That's the great thing."

And Reverence's burst of speed may not be his final card. "I think that if something came at him, he'd find a bit more," says his trainer. "Once he's quickened, I don't think he's at the end of his tether."

The sixth furlong of the Betfred Sprint Cup at Haydock was an obvious worry. Alston is not a demonstrative man but it was a very emotional experience, the thrill and relief of victory made sweeter by the fact that Haydock is Alston's local course. "I've never felt as tired in my life as I was after that," he says. "Sue felt the same. We were absolutely shattered. We didn't go out and celebrate, we went to bed." The celebrations started the next day.

And Reverence? "He came out the next morning bucking and kicking," says Alston. "He's in fantastic form, really well. I think he'll be the best horse at Longchamp and, as long as he jumps and doesn't meet any trouble . . ."

Alston stops short of saying that, granted suitable ground, Reverence will win the Abbaye, but thousands of racefans will be hoping that, on Sunday, his dream comes true.

CAPTION(S):

Eric Alston is flanked by loyal assistant Amanda Neill and Reverence, his big hope for glory in Paris on Sunday RACINGFOTOS.COM
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Sep 27, 2006
Words:1511
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