‘DALE AT THE DOUBLE’
Sawtry-based Dale Peters is one of the most successful trainer-jockeys in the game. He rode his first winner in 2009, recently clocked up a half-century of successes in the saddle and took over the running of his Manor House Farm yard from father Michael in 2014. As well as overseeing his expanding operation (he has around 12 to run this year), he rides most of his own runners and has developed a fruitful association with Tommy and Kelly Morgan. This year, he got off to a cracking start, with four winners before Christmas – travelling the country to venues as far removed as Barbury and Alnwick – taking him to the top of the riders table. I popped in to see him last month, watched his horses work and talked about what motivates him and why he’s doing so well in both aspects of his role.
“When the horses come in, we don’t leave the place,” laughs Dale at my first question, about how he copes with the workload. “Nick Pearce told me that he packed up because he couldn’t do it all,” he continues. But Dale is lucky that Manor House Farm is a true family operation. Dad Michael farms, Mum Denise does the books and runs the riding school with sister Kelsey, while girlfriend Natalie Richardson gets up at 6.00am, rides first lot, goes to work as a special needs teacher at nearby Marshfield school, before returning for evening stables!
And he’s grateful for the help. “We’ve got 12 in this year,” continues Dale, “And we’re full. Last year we had seven or eight and I said I wouldn’t have more than ten. But (owners) Toby (Hunt), Andy (Dickins) and John (Balding) keep going to the sales and buying horses!” Funeral director Toby Hunt is Dale’s best-known owner and has three in training this year: Done A Runner, Poetry Emotion and Why Lie. “Toby’s like another Dad, we’re best friends and he’s the first person I’d ring if I was in trouble,” says Dale, while admitting, “The lads in the changing room had a laugh when they found out I was sponsored by a funeral director!
Soon after I arrive, Dale heads off to the gallops on unraced youngster Equus Secretus, alongside Sam Boalsch – “One of my best mates and as good a rider as I’ve had here, but he has no interest in race-riding” – on Bob Keown. Well, I say gallops, but as Dale trotted past the steaming muckheap where I was waiting, he turned round and said, “This is farmer training Jake!” Apart from a four-and-a-half furlong woodchip canter, which he and Michael put in a couple of years ago, and three home-made schooling fences, Dale uses the edges of the family fields – which run alongside the A1 – to work his horses. Luckily, given that the Peters farm is close to the edge of the fens, there are plenty of hills to gallop up and down.
Michael Peters farms between 400 and 500 acres, a mix of arable land and sheep pasture. “Dad’s been here all his life,” confirms Dale, “And I’m fourth generation.” However, at present, Dale doesn’t intend to follow his father into the game. “I’m not interested in arable,” he admits. “One day, and that’s me done for the year. I like doing the sheep though – I shear them and I enjoy it, but it clashes with the horses and I’d rather stick with them!”
Indeed, Dale almost became – not a farmer or a trainer-jockey – but a professional footballer. “Mum wanted me to be a footballer,” he tells me, “But Dad wanted me to go into racing. When I was 14, I had to make a decision. I was on the books at Ipswich – I haven’t got a clue what they saw in me – but it was a long way to travel. Mum would have driven me and people say I’d have been good enough, but I don’t talk myself up. Looking back, I wish I’d given it a go – I regret not knowing whether I’d have been good enough. Dale’s other great regret – when he was aged 17 and working for Martin Bosley – was turning down the chance to go and work for Nicky Henderson. “You always wonder,” he reminisces, “And I hate that.”
However, it seems from the stories he tells that Dale was always destined to be a jockey. “When I was young, we had a Shetland,” he recalls. “I put a bridle on him and he went mad. My mate thought it had killed me, but I sat there pissing myself, thinking ‘I love it!’ I loved racing,” he continues candidly, “But didn’t do any pony club. I had one season pony racing but I was rubbish. It was embarrassing – I cringe thinking about it!”
So, from Martin Bosley’s, Dale returned to home to work for his father, who had started combining training with farming again after a break, buying Petrouge and Cosi Celeste from Doncaster. “Dad’s last runner in 1997 won, then Cosi Celeste – his first runner back – won in 2007,” Dale tells me proudly. And it was the latter who provided Dale’s first experience of race riding in 2008. “We fell at the eighth at Cottenham,” he recalls. “We turned a somersault. Dad said, ‘You’ll either love it, or you’ll never want to do it again… but I walked back with a smile on my face. I wasn’t even supposed to ride it,” he adds. “Tim Lane was. I was riding in flat boots, Dad’s britches and so much lead we had to rob a church!”
Dale’s first winner came a year later, on Rare Gold at Brafield-on-the-Green. “It was unbelievable,” he says with a grin. “I thought we’d win going in, but didn’t know whether I’d be good enough. We belted the second last, but still won easily.” Half a century of victories later, Dale remains modest about his talents. “I never thought I’d ride so many winners,” he confesses. “I’ve been training them too for about seven years, thought they’ve only been running in my name for the last three. This year, I’ve got the best staff and the best team of horses I’ve had, by a long way. Each year, I try to buy better – I don’t buy for the sake of buying.” And Dale takes it seriously, too. “When I get a Doncaster catalogue, you won’t see me for two weeks,” he chuckles, before adding, “I’m lucky with my owners – they normally buy what I ask, subject to budget…”
As well as his own horses, Dale rides for brother and sister Tommy and Kelly Morgan, and Katie (no relation) Morgan. Frank as ever, he admits, “I ride Tommy’s better than my own. I know everything that goes on with mine, and sometimes you can know too much…” So, going back to my first question, how does he combine running a yard and riding most of them, as well as for other trainers? “Kelly brings her horses here for me to sit on and I go to Tommy’s two or three times a year. I try to plan it. But everyone here’s great and I couldn’t do it without them, especially Natalie, and Mum who does all the books.” Denise chips in at this point, “And I feed Dido at one in the morning!”
“I prefer riding to training,” responds Dale in answer to another question about how long he can continue his dual role. “I love my riding. I went to Galway last year and rode out for Willie Mullins – I learnt tons, and that’s why my horses are so much more forward this year. Plus, Tommy and I talk all the time. You never stop learning. I just try and be as good as I can, improve each season and keep my head down.” This year, Dale’s main ambition in the saddle is to gain his ‘Category B’ licence so he can ride Decade Player in the Aintree Foxhunters, even though Denise confides, “He promised me when he started that he’d never ride round Aintree.” Dale ignores her. “I can’t wait,” he enthuses, “On paper, Decade Player’s the best horse I’ve ridden – winning the two-miler on him at Stratford was the best day of my career.” And the horse with the most unfulfilled potential? “Realt Ag Leimt had the most ability, but he bled, and couldn’t show it on course.”
“I’m 26 now,” Dale goes on, “And I want to go down the training route. I’d love to be buying and selling youngsters like the Laceys, but you don’t need to spend much money if you’re clever.” Having the right owners helps, and Dale seems to have formed a strong bond with Toby Hunt, Andy Dickins and John Balding, as well as Dido’s owner Bob Fox, who had horses with Dale’s father. Dale explains how the association with Toby Hunt came about. “He rang me up about the ride on Point Proven and, as he was based nearby at Barnwell, he gave me a chance with Nightcap Jack, who was a real nightmare. Now I train all of his.”
The season so far has been eventful for Dale both on and off the track. His first winner, All The Sevens at Cottenham, was only confirmed in the stewards room after a spot of argy-bargy with Sam Davies-Thomas. “Sam’s went left and mine followed,” laughs Dale. “It was my first ride of the year and I should have pulled my whip through, but if his horse was good enough, he’d have passed me.” “Sam called him a rude word,” interjects Natalie, “But Dale just said ‘unlucky’!” Dale is keen to play the incident down. “Sam and I are quite competitive, but he’s a good lad and he rides well,” he adds in conclusion.
More seriously, the hay barn at Manor House Farm caught fire in January, the day Wither Or Not won at Sheriff Hutton. “We don’t know what happened,” admits Natalie, “But hope it was an accident. We had to get all the horses out and put them in the school – they were very good and lots of owners came down to help. We normally go to the Fox & Hounds in Great Gidding to celebrate a winner – luckily we didn’t go that night, as there’s no phone signal there!” Dale takes up the story. “I’d gone to bed at 9.15 and was woken up by what sounded like fireworks going off. Then I heard Mum screaming up the stairs, ‘The barn’s on fire.’ It was so bright, it was like daylight, and the heat was unbelievable. And asbestos was flying everywhere – I’d never heard anything like the sound of it exploding. If we hadn’t been here, we’d have been screwed,” admits Dale before concluding, “No one got hurt and the horses were fine – everything else is replaceable, but you can’t replace lives.”
I put Dale on the spot by asking what he’d do if he was in charge of the PPA for a day, but he’s quick to respond. “Pointing’s changed, Dad’s way of training was different to mine and – rightly or wrongly –I’d have races over more distances. I’d keep three-mile races because that’s pointing, but one per card over two-and-a-half is a good idea, as is going down the bumper route. And I’d have one race per card with no penalties. One penalty is OK, but I don’t agree with cumulative penalties. Done A Runner’s not up to Open class and you think you’ve found the ideal race, only to find you’re penaltied out.”
He’s on a roll now. “My worst thing is the prize money,” Dale continues. “You pay a lot to put a horse in training and half the time the prize money doesn’t cover the cost of entry. I don’t know what to do, but it needs to be looked at – if it was £500 for a Mens Open and £300 for a Maiden, then it would cover your costs. Getting new owners is hard and prize money is a problem. They ask ‘What am I running for?’ and the answer is £120!” He’s got an interesting suggestion for profit sharing from the more popular meetings. “Look at Easter – they’re always rammed. One Easter at Dingley, there was so much traffic that the boxes couldn’t get in, and they had to put the races back. Maybe you could take a percentage of the profits and put it back in. If everyone put the same percentage in, that would be fair.”
The day of my visit coincided with Paul Nicholls’ classy chaser Wonderful Charm winning a Hunter Chase, which raised the thorny problem of professional yards running high-quality horses in these races. “He had proper pointers giving him weight,” exclaimed Dale. “I don’t mind letting the professionally trained horses run – where else do these old horses go? – and I like beating them, but on a fair playing field. Make them give us weight.” He cites the example of his beloved Realt Ag Leimt winning at Huntingdon. “If we’d gone back the next year, we’d have been giving weight away to the pro trainers, yet if Paul Nicholls came here (and saw our facilities), he’d say ‘What on earth are you doing?!’”
What Dale is actually doing is something he obviously loves. As he admits about two of the horses in the yard with a bit of character, “Whatever I say about Dido or Why Lie, if I lost them at the races…” He doesn’t need to finish the sentence. “It’s the dream,” Dale concludes about his chosen path. Wither Or Not could be the one… Or it could be Equus Secretus. He only cost £600, and he spins and bucks, but it was just his third piece of work this morning and he was very impressive. You never know…” I do know that this modest young man will continue to use his talent to make the best of what he’s got.
All The Sevens
“He’s had mud fever since winning at Cottenham on the opening day of the season – he got a cut, which flared up, but he’s had his knee injected. He only cost £1,000 – he’s good-looking, but was lame at the sales and Charlie Swan told me to buy him. He’s a happy horse, who wants decent ground and we’re looking at Garthorpe for him next – we could run him in the two-miler at Cheltenham.”
“Ex-Rebecca Curtis – he was second at Punchestown and is rated 125 and has only been out of the first four once in ten runs. He’s just turned nine and has been off for a couple of years. I’ve got a Club race at Clifton-on-Dunsmore in mind for him but he’ll have two or three runs max this year and go Hunter Chasing next time. He’s nothing flash at home and has only just started his work – when I was younger, I loved horses that ripped up the gallop, but now I like ones you have to take more time with.”
“Natalie can tell you – I don’t get on with him! He’s a little bugger at home and slaps you round the face with his tail. He works like an aeroplane and takes a keen grip, and you have to space his races out. He hates winter, as he’s a spring horse, but came in better this year and always runs well first time – he was second at Thorpe Lodge – and I’m keen to run him in a Hunter Chase. We may go to Cheltenham for a day out.”
Done A Runner
“He’s a superstar. He’s not the most talented and his work isn’t exciting, but he’s something else on a racecourse and he tries so hard. He’s tough – he won five last year, then was fifth at Cartmel. I always seem to get him beat! Toby (owner Toby Hunt) is clever – he places him well and knows straightaway who should ride him. He’ll start in Novice Riders races then go for a couple of Hunter Chases. I think he’s good enough for Opens, but he has to be fresh.” Fourth on his seasonal debut at Horseheath last month.
“We bought him as a four-year-old – Dad had lost two nice horses and I loved him, so I said ‘I’ve bought him for you!’ His jumping’s never an issue at home but he’s too brave on the track, and overjumps. He’s had a few knocks since finishing second at Cottenham – last year the ground held him up, now the ground’s fine but he’s had little issues – but he worked really well at Newmarket recently.”
“Ex-Nicky Henderson and cost us £2,000 at the May Sales. He’s narrow, but big and athletic and is an easy-moving horse. He jumps well and does everything lovely at home. Probably wants holding up.” Dale gave the lie to that last statement on his Horseheath debut when he made all and led over the last before being passed on the run-in to finish fourth!
Wither Or Not
“Half-owned by me and half by Andy Dickins. I bought him from Ireland via Bidpoint in April – Andrew Hickman told me about him. He was sold, but came back on, and I was straight on the phone! He ran eight or nine times there and was placed behind good horses. Won impressively at Sherriff Hutton and we’ll give him two more runs before freshening him up and aiming at one of the Restricted or Intermediate finals at Stratford or Cheltenham, but not both. He goes left at the fences, so we want to go left-handed, but he’s as good as we hoped, and could be better. He comes out of his races well, is thriving and looks amazing.” Unbeaten in three starts and looks a rising star of the Point-to-Point ranks.