Andrew White speaks to Bill Blenkinsopp about how he realised his dream to be a jockey – and triumphed in the boxing ring.

"I’VE wanted to be a jockey ever since I was ten-years-old. I’ve never wanted anything else.” So says Bill Blenkinsopp, speaking from the front room of his home in the village where he was born, bred and still lives. Now aged 72, Bill has been representing Aycliffe Village on Great Aycliffe Town Council for more than 30 years, is a former Durham County and Sedgefield Borough councillor and is a well-known figure throughout the county.

But far fewer people are aware of his sporting pedigree and the chain of events which could have taken his life in a very different direction, were it nor for a terrible accident when he was aged just 18. More about that accident and its aftermath in the second part of this feature next week, but in the first part of his story, we focus on his drive to achieve his dream of becoming a professional jockey.

Young Bill was mad about horses and his fledgling ambitions to forge a career in the saddle were given a boost in 1966, thanks to an innovative careers scheme at Marlowe Hall School, in Newton Aycliffe.

The school found him a job as a stable lad with a renowned trainer in Newmarket – the headquarters of British racing. An excited 16-year-old Bill got on a train at Darlington station to head off for his new life – but his new career was to get off to a stuttering start.

“I was supposed to go to Tim Thomson Jones in Newmarket,” says Bill. “I was supposed to be met off the train at King’s Cross in London, but he didn’t turn up. So I found out where the Newmarket train was and caught that. I got off at Newmarket and there was nobody there either. So I found out where the stables were and went there.”

He bowled into the office at Newmarket, where the secretary told a bemused Bill he was in the wrong place.

He was supposed to be linking up with Geoffrey Brooke, who used the same secretary as Jones – which explained the initial mix-up.

Although now in the right place, a homesick Bill was unable to settle at Brooke’s stable. “It was a complete shock,” he says.

“It was my first job, I was a long way from home and the northern lads weren’t liked by the southern lads. I was there for six weeks and I didn’t like it one bit.”

Bill’s misery was ended when the stable’s blacksmith found him a job at Ernie Davey’s yard in Malton, and Bill returned back up north to try his luck with another trainer. But Bill’s luck was to run out again and his career stalled once more when Ernie retired.

Although Ernie’s son, Paul Davey, took over the yard, he was soon offered a lucrative job in Newmarket. Paul Davey went on to forge a highly successful career – but young Bill was out of a job again.

Undeterred and determined for follow his chosen career path, Bill returned home to Aycliffe Village and he caught another break when jockey’s valet Arnie Robinson found him a job closer to home. This time Bill was off to Richmond, as apprentice jockey to trainer George Oscar Fenningworth – known ubiquitously and affectionately as ‘Buster’.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Buster Fenningworth, pictured above, was an established trainer, the “master” of Bell-Isle and Hurgill Lodge stables at Richmond. He knew the racing game inside out, having started as an amateur rider in 1936, before turning professional.

He began his training career in Kirk Yeltolm, near the Scottish Border, in 1951 and took over the string of his father-in-law, Harry Peacock, at Richmond, when Peacock retired at the end of 1961. Rarely seen on course without his good luck charm – a battered trilby hat – among his owners were the Marquess of Zetland, Lady Sassoon, Major Lionel Holliday and the film star James Stewart.

By 1966, Fenningworth boasted the largest string in the north, with 80 horses in his care and he was looking forward to a successful season.

Northern Despatch racing expert Jim Lynch described his prospects for the year ahead as “very rosy indeed”.

Bill had finally landed on his feet with a respected and well-liked trainer, with a reputation for believing in giving young up-and-coming jockeys a chance. “Good lads can make horses,” Fenningworth told The Northern Despatch’s Max Presnell in 1964. “You begin a young lad on one of the older horses who has been through the routine to the extent that he can teach the rider.

“But mainly the youngster has to have the ability to absorb the experience gained in actual races and learn to follow riding instructions. It is an expensive job moulding an apprentice, as the trainer has to buy a horse for him to ride in his early races. Owners cannot be expected to put inexperienced riders on their horses.”

Bill enjoyed working for Mr Fenningworth, “the Guv’nor”, who he describes as “hard, but fair”. “After about six weeks, he came over and said ‘get yourself changed, you’re riding at Catterick, recalls Bill. “It was my first race and I was only 16. I rode Painter’s Boy and finished seventh, I think. Things went very well after that. I was getting ride after ride, I was being used quite a bit.”

Bill rode his first winner, Summer Pride, at Ayr in June 1966, prompting a letter of congratulations from the horse’s Glasgow-based owner, Sandy Grant.

Grant wrote: “I hope you will have many easy wins such as you had on Summer Pride.” And he enclosed a “little present” of £50 for Bill to start a bank book.

As well as becoming a promising jockey, Bill was also getting noticed in the boxing ring. In fact, it was an article about boxing which first jogged Bill’s memory.

Earlier this year, the D&S Times sister paper The Northern Echo reported on a contest in which racing stable staff from North Yorkshire laced up their gloves to compete against each other in the ring in support of Racing Welfare.

Spectators from racing centres in Middleham and Malton turned out to support the 22 competitors in The William Hill Racing Staff Boxing Night – all of whom were fundraising for the charity.

Boxing contests between jockeys and stable lads used to be a regular feature of the racing circuit – and Bill was one of its pioneers, taking part in the first ever national contest.

While working for Mrr Fenningworth, Bill used to train at a gym in Catterick Garrison, to maintain his fitness and keep his weight down – he was riding at seven stones. That year, the Stable Lads’ Boxing Association organised its first national championships, backed by the powerful Anglo-American Sporting Club – and Bill saw his chance. "The trainer asked if there was anybody in the stable who was interested and I put my hand up straight away,” he says. “The semi-finals were at Catterick Garrison, where I fought a lad called Billy McCaskill and I beat him. That put me through to the finals, which were held at the Hilton Hotel in London.”

Darlington and Stockton Times:

The finals were a swanky affair, with high-profile guests from the world of racing and a posh dinner where comedian Charlie Drake was the guest of honour. Bill was fighting in the final of the seven stone division – and he wasn’t short of confidence.

“I expected to win,” he says. “I was pretty good mind. My brother Jim was a good trainer, because he used to give you one if you dropped your guard. He kept me on my toes.”

And win he did – “easily”, he says, against his Welsh opponent. There was a magnificent trophy for the winner, but because Bill’s opponent had lost his brother in the Aberfan coal mining disaster a few weeks earlier, the organisers presented it to him as a gesture.

“I didn’t mind,” says Bill, who was instead given a replacement trophy, which he still has to this day.

Bill’s success in the ring was so impressive that he was approached by the manager of the Scottish boxer Walter McGowan, the world flyweight champion who also held the British and Commonwealth titles.

“He said he had just watched me and asked if I would like to turn professional afterwards,” says Bill.

“But I didn’t want to know. All I was interested in was horse racing, it was my life and always had been.”

So Bill returned to his day job at Richmond, where his career appeared to be on an upward trajectory. He had some high-profile rides for Mr Fenningworth, he was looking forward to defending his stable lads’ boxing title and everything was looking ‘very rosy’.

But everything changed for Bill on Saturday, April 22, 1967, when he was involved in a horrific accident as he was on his way to Ayr to ride a horse named Aldburg.

We’ll bring you the story of that fateful day – and what happened to Bill after that – next week.