Monday, November 23, 2015

Farewell to one of the very best

Winter's arrived.  The temperature still just about managed to stagger into double figures on Friday (20th November) and I still had my shorts on then.  However, that was it, and I jettisoned them on Saturday, which was a foul day.  For first lot it was cold and wet with poor visibility.  The visibility improved for second lot, but the rain got heavier and the wind picked up.  And that was Saturday, really - except that by evening the rain stopped, the wind dropped and it got even colder.  We had our first proper frost of the winter overnight into Sunday and, although the sun did come out on Sunday, it remained very cold all day before freezing again at night.  So we can say that autumn's gone.

That's a slightly depressing thought, but much worse news came today when we lost one of the very best, Alfie Westwood.  Alfie was known to many and liked by all during his long life working in racing, and then known to and liked by even more after he had eventually retired and joined an elite band of ex-trainers and ex-jockeys, also including John Powney and Eric Eldin, who give up their time to dispense knowledge, enthusiasm and kindness in equal measure to visitors, particularly children, to the National Horseracing Museum.  Alfie was wonderful with all people, but particularly wonderful with children, and there will be many thousands of children around the country (some of whom will presumably be on their way to being lifelong racing enthusiasts as a result of the inspiration which he gave them) who will have happy memories of a morning or an afternoon spent spellbound under his wing in the museum.

Alfie had aged a lot in recent months, but I don't think that he would have been any more than his early 80s.  I believe that he arrived in town in the late '40s, to be apprenticed (again, I believe) to Claude Halsey in one of the yards down the Fordham Road, possibly Lagrange.  He continued race-riding after his apprenticeship was over, and enjoyed a reasonable career as a lightweight jockey.  However, it was as a travelling head lad that he really came into his own.  He was Patrick Haslam's travelling head lad when Patrick was in Pegasus Stables in the Snailwell Road.  Patrick used to have a lot of runners in Scotland, and so much time did Alfie spend up there and so much liked was he there that for many years Hamilton ran an Alfie Westwood Stakes in his honour.

When Patrick moved up to Middleham, Alfie moved on to Willie Musson, where he did everything.  He carried on riding out well into his 60s long after his first hip replacement, and was still working there well into his 70s, latterly just part-time in tandem with spending much time enthusing and enthralling the children in the museum.  For a small stable, Willie's yard has produced a remarkable number of good apprentices.  Stevie Donohoe and Lisa Jones would probably be the most successful (the former was champion apprentice while there and the latter finished third in the apprentices' title).

David McCabe did very well before moving on to David Loder, and is still, I would guess now in his early 40s, picking up the odd race-ride for Aidan O'Brien.  Phil Shea was always going to get too big, but he still rode plenty of winners, while Stuart Lanigan, Debbie England and many others who have slipped my mind also did well.  And I would say that the one common denominator between them all - other than having been apprenticed to Willie, of course - would be that they would all say that having access to the constant kindness and common sense which flowed from the father-figure of Alfie, one of the nicest men anyone has ever known, was a major factor in helping to keep them pointing in the right direction.

We're told that the evil which men do lives after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones.  We'll never find out about how long the evil lives from Alfie because he never did any evil; but he did a hell of a lot of good, and that will all live after him, and for many decades still to come too, thanks to the inspiration and good example which he gave to the many thousands of people, and particularly young people, who had the good fortune to cross his path.  May he rest in peace, and may God comfort his brother John in his grief at the loss of a wonderfully kind and caring lifelong ally.

I don't feel guilty about moving straight on to our racing report, because Alfie was old-school, and it would go without saying with him that the show must go on.  I enjoyed our trip to Chelmsford on Thursday evening.  Koreen finished fourth which I think was promising enough.  The apprentice who was meant to ride him did not arrive in time, and if you're stuck for a jockey at an AW meeting in the winter and Adam Kirby is there and free for that race, and the horse has a weight he can do, then it's a no-brainer to call up the king of the winter circuit.

So Adam rode him and was happy enough.  The race was probably a bit far for him and in retrospect we probably should have ridden him a bit more quietly (as the race turned out be run at a fierce tempo) but it was his first run for five months and he ran OK, so we can continue with optimism.  And, again, we came home from Chelmsford respecting the racecourse for giving a free dinner to all stable staff.  All racecourses should do this but most don't, so it is right that we salute and highlight them for it.  The doyen of travelling head lads, Alfie Westwood, would be most approving.


David Winter said...

I am so sad to hear that Alfie has gone to the "better place". A couple of years back Christine and i, finding ourselves in the town one afternoon popped into the museum to check on anything new. It was a completely empty save for Mr Westwood but as soon as he saw us the show began. In his own inimitable way he made us feel very welcome and regaled us with many stories of his former life. He only stood about 4 6", with all his ailments [ of which he made light] i guess but filled the room with his character. We left full of laughter and warmth and with an invitation to "come back soon". Lovely, lovely man.

neil kearns said...

i find it odd that some racecourses feel it is ok to offer free food and refreshments to the owners and trainers (some do some don't) and then do not offer similar to the stable staff working to help provide the entertainment , the former group can virtually certainly afford to buy their own the latter group may not be able to afford the over blown racecourse prices (apologies to those courses who subsidise their canteens)
A common policy of free for all would not cost silly money if the fayre on offer was not trying to make itself michelin starred and would be a very sensible use of some of racing's millions