In praise of Eric Alston

June 15th, 2020 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

Quietly and with the minimum of fuss, racing has returned behind closed doors. We’ve already become used to jockeys in masks and the television channels, both terrestrial and otherwise, have set up interviews where required. Against the odds, and in sharp contrast to what some of us expected, Royal Ascot can go ahead and prove as fascinating and informative as ever. Of course, without the pomp and pageantry there will not be a separate audience alongside committed horse players, but we always knew that. We should be grateful for small mercies.

I did not expect to make a bright start but, as last year, Eric Alston sorted things out; Maid In India couldn’t quite oblige at Haydock but Jabbarockie made all the running under top weight at Newmarket. With William Buick booked, it was hardly surprising the seven-year-old was backed from 12/1 to 7/1. It might be argued that if Eric is prepared to send horses to Scotland from his Preston base it’s no great surprise when they head to Newmarket and points south, as well. However, the races take a bit more winning and his record is almost without blemish. One thinks of Ridge Ranger at Goodwood a few years ago and Record Time on the Newmarket July Course further back still. Both started at 14/1 and both were sprinters, like Jabbarockie. The  problem is that the trainer rarely has this sort of ammunition and one has to be patient.

Sometimes you wonder what he might have achieved with better material. Reverence won the Sprint Cup at Haydock in 2009 and might justifiably have been called champion sprinter that year, but otherwise it’s a question of spotting the right opportunities for horses below the top level. Maid in India, not the easiest to keep 100 per cent ‘right’ overcame a long absence to win at Newbury (12/1) last autumn but is only Listed class, while the admirably tough Acclaim The Nation runs his heart out but tends to find one too good in the dying strides  –  the familiar fate of horses in the grip of the handicapper.

Alston, apprenticed to Walter Wharton as a lad, has been training for over 50 years and had his first winner with Samanza in a Cartmel selling hurdle in the late 1960s. He is as shrewd as they come, owners stay with him and he happens to be as straight as a die. A while back the local stewards queried the running of one of his horses and, if memory serves, the matter was  forwarded to the BHA. Alston was quite appalled by this and stated, quite calmly (no jumping up and down, no recourse to the press, just a quiet observation) that if anything untoward were suggested, he would hand in his licence immediately and that would be the end of the matter. This was not a bluff. Nothing more was heard.

I was toying with an article about clever northern trainers sending horses south with a much better chance than the market indicated. Everything has changed now, of course, with Johnston, Fahey, Kevin Ryan and the late Dandy Nicholls raiding on a regular basis. But if I had to name the handler that Eric most reminds me of, it would be Ernie Weymes, who was once the youngest man ever to be granted at licence (at 23) and had the outstanding juvenile Meldrum  –  plagued by sore knees later on  –  and Lord Howard de Walden’s Sarissa, who made the long journey south to win the 1997 Princess Margaret Stakes at Ascot.

I only hope Eric will find another opportunity or two before time runs out. Now in his sixth decade with a licence he has been a quiet, unassuming credit to the sport. We should cherish him while we can.