Seventeen years ago when the last bell was rung, and the final punches thrown, it seemed the stable lads’ boxing tournament had been consigned to the annals of Turf history.
But after the success of boxing trainer Eddie Guest’s ‘Old Skool’ stable lads’ boxing show last month, which raised more than £16,000 for paralysed former jockey Allan Mackay, it seemed there may well be an appetite to bring the event back on a more permanent basis.
And it’s hardly surprising because for decades the tournament was racing’s big night of the year and its popularity was due wholly to the lads who took part and the rivalry it engendered between yards and the country’s main racing centres.
Stable staff boxing had existed long before the formation of the Stable Lads’ Welfare Trust, the charitable body set up to help lads, for which the finals of the boxing tournament, staged every November in London, became the main fund-raiser.
Back in the 19th century, Newmarket’s racing hierachy was known to have had a predilection for the puglistic art with bare-knuckle prize fighting staged at the Bedford Lodge and The Greyhound, a pub which stood on the site now occupied by the former De Niro’s nightclub.
By the 1930s stable lads had become involved in organised boxing tournaments as retired head lad Arthur Taylor, who won three titles, remembered when he spoke about his experiences back in 2000.
“The qualifying rounds were always held during December Sales. There was a ring on the stage at the memorial hall and the money we raised went to buy bags of coal which were given to the old people of Newmarket,” said Arthur, who had served his apprenticeship with Frank Butters at Fitzroy Stables. He remembered how his guv’nor had strung up a punch bag in the stables’ drying room and had brought in a former prize fighter, ‘Smiler’ Pearce, to put the lads through their paces.
The London finals were held at the Holborn Stadium with all proceeds donated to St Dunstans, the charity for the blind, and the two-day trip to the capital was the highlight of the boys’ young lives. “We felt very special. It was our day,” said Arthur, who was presented with one of his three winners’ trophies by one of the day’s biggest stars of stage and screen, Gracie Fields.
In the 1950s the tournament produced Terry Spinks, the East End boy who had dreamed of becoming a jockey, but instead became the youngest ever Olympic boxing gold medallist when he took the flyweight title at the 1956 Rome Games. He remains the only boxer to be schoolboy, ABA, British and Olympic champion.
Spinks was trained in Newmarket by another legend of the stable lads’ tournament, Charlie Leggett who between 1930 and 1936 was unbeaten in over 100 contests winning eight titles. He hung up his gloves in 1938 at the tender age of 22 and turned his attention to training young fighters. One of the boys he coached was Tony Rawlinson, the only fighter to beat Spinks as an amateur. Prophetically Spinks told him: “If you can make Tony beat me you can make me a champion.”
At the time Spinks was in Newmarket, boxing training sessions for lads were held mainly at the old Astley Institute, which stood in Vicarage Road, and had been opened back in 1883 by the then Prince of Wales and financed with money raised by the Turf reformer Sir John Astley. It was in the 1960s that racehorse owner Wilfred Sherman decided to give the tournament a new look and use it to raise funds to help the lads themselves. A new era of stable lads’ boxing had begun.
For many who took part, the tournaments staged between 1966 and 1975 represented the heyday of stable lads’ boxing. David Lowrie won the first of his five titles in 1967.
He had arrived in Newmarket as a 15 year old to begin a six-year apprenticeship with Phantom House trainer Ryan Jarvis. Already an All Ireland Schoolboys’ Champion in the four-stone weight division, Lowrie had honed his skills at Belfast’s Holy Family Club, where decades later world champion Carl Frampton also trained.
“I can remember when there were 300 entries in the championships,” he said. “The qualifying rounds were held at the Chelsea Barracks in London with three rings going over two days.
“I never had any less than five fights each year I took part,” he said. “There weren’t many lads who didn’t box. If there were ten apprentices in the yard, six of them would box. It made you somebody and earned you respect.”
And the finals were glittering affairs, held at London’s swankiest hotels like the Hilton and the Grosvenor House, both on Park Lane.
“So many of the lads had come from poor backgrounds, so imagine what it was like for them to go into hotels like that and have a meal after spending a day in London,” said Lowrie. “One of my fights was refereed by Harry Gibbs, the best known boxing referee at the time who I’d only seen on television and when I won in 1968 my trophy was presented by Dave Clarke of the Dave Clarke Five. I also met some great pro fighters like Billy Walker. It was terrific.
“If you entered the tournament you got a £30 voucher to buy some jodphurs but if you won you were bound to get money from owners and trainers who had backed you to win. “You could get up to £60 which was a lot of money when you were only earning £1.50 a week.”
In 1975 Newmarket was the focus of the national stable lads’ strike which proved to be a turning point not only for the industry, and the lads who worked in it, but also for the boxing tournament.
Attitudes and working conditions were changing. Apprenticeships were cut to a year and more and more girls were coming into the industry. Quite simply there were less lads to take part and the quality of the boxing inevitably suffered.
But for a while into the early 1980s the tournament still managed to produce its heroes, Steve ‘Yarmouth’ Dyble, a legend at Henry Cecil’s Warren Place yard, and who still works in racing getting difficult horses into the starting stalls, took a record 10 titles; Dickie McCabe, who looked after the ill-fated Shergar, won nine and went on to train more champions, Stewart Parr, and Gary Humphreys, a finalist in last year’s Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff awards, kept alive the traditions of the gusty never-say-die fighters, while Daryll Holland and Francis Norton had their moments in the spotlight before going on to forge successful careers as jockeys.
And like Terry Spinks all those years before some stable lads champions found success as pros. Liverpool-born Colin Dunne, who worked for John Gosden, was trained by one-time stable lad Colin Lake to win the WBU lightweight belt and defended it seven times. Lake had also trained Ivor ‘The Engine’ Jones who tested all of Britain’s leading bantamweights in his relatively short pro career from 1979-85 and Daniel James, then working in Newmarket for Karl Burke, became an instant celebrity after recording the fastest one-punch knockout victory in British boxing history in a bout at Bethnal Green’s York Hall which lasted just 13 seconds.
And there are many, many, more who, for their exploits over the years, deserve their place on the role of honour. Lads who somewhere have a trophy, an old photograph or a faded newspaper cutting which will forever bear witness to their moment of glory, and they will remember like David Lowrie: “Every year it was our time. It was a great month, your training, the qualifying fights and the finals. For once you really were somebody.”
See more pictures in this week's Journal...