Robert Alner looked across the Dorset Vale towards the Neolithic escarpments of Hambledon Hill and wondered about his luck. His 70th birthday was coming up, his granddaughter Beth Walford was fooling around his feet on the veranda and he remembers how good fortune came early. “When I was taking my A Levels”, he says, the words quite soft but the humour bubbling beneath the surface, “they gave you a piece of map and asked you to describe all the features on it. Of all the places they chose Hambledon Hill. I think that helped me a bit.”
Of course the first sight of Robert in his wheelchair takes you back to another anniversary “celebrated” this month. On November 8th it was six years to the day that a car crash saw him airlifted to hospital with a broken neck. Seeing him in Intensive Care without either movement or speech seemed to be about the dirtiest trick that fate ever played. But feeling negative was never part of the agenda. “When I left school,” Robert continued, “I went back to the farm just as my father and grandfather had. That was just the way it was then but my mother said ‘you had better go hunting otherwise it will just be work, work, work.’ So my father talked to his friends at Sturminster market and they eventually got this little horse called Heart Of Oak and the first time he ran he never took off at the third and seventeen others galloped over me. I was perfectly OK but he had a big blood bruise which delayed things a while.”
But not for that long. For two races later, on May 6th 1961, at the otherwise unsung Adjacent Hunts Moderate Race at West Morden near Wimborne, Heart Of Oak and the seventeen year old Robert Alner ran home a twenty length winner and paid sixty nine shillings and sixpence to a two shilling stake. It was also the first (but apparently not the last) bet struck by journalist Jonathan Powell who was also present last week as part of his tireless work as a Trustee of the Injured Jockeys Fund. “Next season we ran Heart Of Oak under rules,” added Robert, revelling in the recollection, “David Mould rode him at Wincanton and made all the running but the horse then broke down at Cheltenham after leading at the last under David Nicholson. We had to start looking for a replacement. I thought I could do a bit better than just listening to father’s friends at Sturminster Market. And so we got started.”
It was a gentle introduction to one of the greatest country racing careers on record, first as a championship winning point to point rider and then as a full time trainer whose triumphs included the 1998 Gold Cup with Cool Dawn. Up until 1993 such achievements were always doubled with running a dairy herd and while the rest of us lay abed Robert Alner would be beavering away in the milking parlour. “It was a good time to think,” he says, “I could sit there and come up with all sorts of plans with the horses. Mind you I would then go and tell Sally and she would say they were rubbish.”
Sally and Robert have been married for 43 years and last week she was a glowing, pink-sweatered picture of health although her Greta Garbo complex about photographers would not allow Edward Whitaker to record it. She still trains a handful of point to pointers and was always an unfussed lynch pin rider in Robert’s team. I remember her steaming up Okeford Hill on the giant Cheltenham, Ascot and Haydock winner Kingscliff one morning in 2004 and then chatting nonchalantly in the village while a cat sat happily on Kingscliff’s extremely lengthy back. The sun was shining on both Okeford Hill and Sally Alner last week. “Of course we have some bad times,” she says of Robert’s predicament, “I have some very black days but you just have to get out and get on with it.”
Such no-nonsense West Country stoicism and Robert’s own determination has been at the heart of Alner’s own battle. “I will never forget what must have been about my third visit to Intensive Care,” said Andrew Thornton who as a jockey was associated with Kingscliff and Cool Dawn and, even more memorably, with Miko De Beauchene’s dramatic last gasp photo-finish victory in the 2007 Welsh Grand National a month after the accident. “By that third time I had got a bit used to how dreadful it all looked and although all he could do was mime with his mouth and eyes I became convinced he was going to win through. Others may not have thought it but I did. He had that jockeys mentality – ‘we are going to beat this’.”
“He was tough when he was riding,” continued Andrew. “Well into his fifties, if one of the jockeys was not going well schooling he would say – ‘let me get on it’ – and go and school it himself. But the best thing about him was that he refused to be sorry for himself. When he was moved to Oddstock in a ward with young people he would say “I have been so lucky, I have lived my life. Look at those poor kids, they have hardly lived at all.”
Robert’s own hold on life will always be a touch tenuous and his condition has meant that one or two fraught visits to hospital may always occur. But woe betide any who try and smother him and Sally with sobbing sympathy however well intentioned. “This new house makes things so much easier,” she says of the Alpine chalet style home built into the hill overlooking the big stable barn from which daughter Louise’s husband Robert Walford now trains. “ My Robert needs 24 hour care but here there is space and movement for it all to be handled properly. He can look out of the window and see the horses, the grandchildren are often around, not just Beth and her brother George, but our other daughter Jennifer’s two, Isobel and Tom who live nearby at Shrewton. Robert is interested in everything. Not just the racing on TV but all sport, Grand Prix racing and even the dreaded West Bromwich Albion.”
There is a chuckle when Robert explains why a grammar school boy from deepest Dorset came to support West Brom from the heart of the Black Country. “All the other boys were on about Manchester United”, he says. “I did not want to be the same as them and West Brom had this centre forward called Derek Kevan whose nickname was ‘The Tank’. I used to like to run around the pitch thinking I was him. It was all very unskilled but the enthusiasm was there.”
Inspiringly and miraculously the enthusiasm remains. Close by the wooden veranda, a mare and foal graze on the steep green slopes which stretch up and across on Okeford Hill where beacons have been lit on great occasions from warnings of the Armada to celebrating the Diamond Jubilee. “I have always wanted a Dr Massini”, Robert says of the foal, “and this one looks a cracker at the moment.” Down below Louise has finished riding out the Walford string and has joined us for the afternoon while her husband has repaired to Ludlow to saddle the promising Mount Gunnery for a not entirely happy first outing over fences.
Robert is much more interested in that than trying to recall eventful other birthdays although he does make an exception for his 21st. “My mother paid off all my debts with the bookmaker at Sturminster”, he says. “I never really had a bet after that.” The nature of his injuries mean that there is little movement except for a bit of lift in his right arm, food has to be taken via a tube and facial expression is limited. But there is a gleam in the eye that still twinkles. Especially when talk moves to Okeford Fitzpaine’s most famous new resident.
The village through which you climb up to the Alner chalet is about as archetypal Dorset as you can get with that golden cider sound deep into the local voice. It may well be with this lady resident too. “She is on the internet now,” says Robert with a suspicious amount of authority. “I told Francome about her the last time he was down and he soon seemed to be in a hurry to be leaving.” The lady runs under the name of “Pixie” and when the website was dialled for one of the jockeys in the paddock at Cheltenham it revealed horizontal jogging offers so challenging that the next race would have surely been delayed if any more of the riders had caught sight of it.
The pictures on the Alner walls are a lot less steamy and the most famous must be that of Robert and Andrew Thornton in the Gold Cup unsaddling enclosure with Cool Dawn and his diminutive owner Dido Harding wearing a massive dark blue hat. It was Dido who had dug deep into her savings to buy Cool Dawn as a point to pointer who started by dragging her half a mile wide at the Beaufort before still scoring so impressively that Paul Barber strode into the winner’s circle and said “name your price”. It was she Dido who steered Cool Dawn to victories at Ascot and Kempton and a highly honourable second at the Cheltenham Festival before some unfortunate paddock tantrums from the horse at Wincanton gave Robert the chance to push for a professional in the saddle. But Dido is small only in stature and had qualified as one of her trainer’s greatest supporters long before this February when Radio 4 nominated her, now Chief Executive of Talk Talk, as one of the 100 most powerful women in the country.
“I remember going to see Robert in hospital in London when there had been a plan to re-break his neck,” said Dido last week. “He was in a general ward with tubes in him, he was lying flat on his back staring up at the ceiling. It was very hard to communicate but with mime and grunting I suggested that it must be driving him mad. But he would not have this. The message he got across to me was that when a racehorse breaks down it is fighting fit but has to be locked in a box. He was no different. I left in floods of tears but he had got his head round it. He and Sally remain my inspiration.”
The hope when we toast someone’s birthday is that some of their best qualities might rebound on to the rest of us. That can never have been truer than today when Robert Alder reaches “three score years and ten. ”