Wightman does the great man proud

September 5th, 2020 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

Of course, I spend more time than most people on the second division of Class 5 apprentice handicaps at Salisbury. Like my father before me, I like to spot up- -and-coming riders with a handy allowance making a fair mark look positively attractive.

And Salisbury is very much my sort of track. Salisbury, where Herbert Blagrave once dropped the one-eyed Striker to a seller and saw him win by about half a furlong at 15/8 and Albert Finney’s Brother Ray passed the entire field in a 20-runner handicap to land a typical John Sutcliffe gamble. The Wiltshire venue also saw the recently-arrived Steve Cauthen win on Barry Hills’ Marquee Universal in bottomless ground, serving notice that here was a world-class talent we’d appreciate for years to come.

Alongside these memories I now have Mick Channon’s Wightman fairly bolting up in the aforementioned apprentices’ handicap. For once, the financial aspect mattered less than the memories evoked by the winner’s performance. There is no doubt that trainer Bill Wightman was by far the most influential figure when racing started to share my affections with Southampton FC well over 60 years ago. He trained just up the road at Ower Farm, Fair Oak; I was only six when Halloween won his second King George at Kempton in 1954 and soon I was following all of his runners but most especially old Eyes Down, who prevailed on nine occasions.

Bill won most of the top handicaps. He laid out Final Score for the Lincoln in the year I was born, 1948, with Mickey Greening booked to ride off 6st 11lb. The owner went in early, and heavily, at 66/1. Unfortunately, the ground came up firm and Final Score had to wait for Hurst Park a fortnight later, when he duly romped in. The trainer had several near misses before King’s Ride finally set the Lincoln record straight in 1980.

Bill trained for Southampton FC president John Corbett, whose family bred the 1951 Grand National winner, Nickel Coin  –  the last mare to triumph in the Aintree spectacular. Also close to the yard all those years ago was Blagrave, not only a hugely generous philanthropist and successful owner-trainer himself later on, but also president of the same football club.

I could tell any number of stories about Bill Wightman’s winners but there is quite a lot about him in my forthcoming book The Long Road From Portman Square so I’d rather concentrate here on his relationship with Channon. It’s quite a story and off the top of my head (and leaving aside members of the same family) I can’t recall an owner and trainer reversing roles the way the pair of them did. Bill trained Mick’s first winner, Cathy Jane, when the England international was at his peak as a footballer for Southampton. Then, many years later, Channon trained the old sprinter Digital for his former mentor, winning with him at Bath at the age of 11.

I’d have to say my favourite horse of all time was Bill’s Import, who completed the Stewards’ Cup and Wokingham double and also finished third at 25 to 1 in the July Cup. Mick, a vital member of Southampton’s FA Cup-winning side in 1976, saw Import win the Royal Ascot race the following month. He didn’t own Import but sent Cathy Jane to him and the happy outcome was Jamesmead, who won the Tote Gold Trophy, universally known as the Schweppes, for David Elsworth.

I think Mick buys enough yearlings to go round and those which don’t sell run in his familiar ‘yellow with black seams’ colours. I’m not sure at what point he named Wightman but he must have been be delighted with the outcome. In fact, the horse had quite a bit going for him at Salisbury. He finished a modest third behind William Haggas’ 2/7 chance Al Salt at Wolverhampton, the winner going on to finish third in a £19,000 handicap at Goodwood.

Trainer Ivan Furtado must be pretty shrewd because he sent runner-up Byford to pick up a little maiden, very easily, at somewhere called Pornichet-La Baule in the French provinces. Add in the fact that George Bass took over from inexperienced amateur Suzannah Stevens (7) after the horse’s recent third, also at Salisbury, and he was probably something to bet on. It’s always easy afterwards, of course, but quite a few people must have gone through it all because Wightman finished up at 4/1 favourite before winning by five and a half lengths.

Bill would have approved. He liked a bet but was sensible enough to back only his own horses. I hope I did him justice in the Sporting Life when he retired and the Racing Post when he passed away but if you want the full story, Japanese POW camp (over six feet tall, he weighed 7st 12lb when released) and the rest of it, you should pick up a copy of Alan Yuill Walker’s excellent biography Months of Misery, Moments Of Bliss. Mick wrote the foreword. Let’s be honest, who else would you choose?

Ian Carnaby is a weekly contributor to The Weekend Card.

Ian’s new book – The Long Road From Portman Square – will be available to order from 9 September on this website.

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Ian’s first book Not Minding That It Hurts is available to order here.