Legends of our sport: Revered showman David Tatlow *H&H Plus*

  • As winner of scores of top-class championships, David Tatlow followed his father to become one of the most revered showmen of his generation – and he was pretty successful outside showing, too, as Tricia Johnson discovers

    True showing legends are few and far between, but hunter specialist David Tatlow certainly ranks as one of them.

    During a career in the ring spanning some 60 years, he notched up more than 40 Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) wins and championships, numerous Royal Windsor and Royal International (RIHS) titles, countless championship show triumphs, and pretty much every major county show tricolour not once but several times.

    The boy who grew up on a farm in Warwickshire was certainly bred for the job – his father Harry was one of the most revered showmen of his era, at the top of the tree with both hacks and hunters.

    “With my brother Roy taking over the farm, showing seemed the natural thing for me to do,” recalls David, 80. “I remember being at the old White City for the Royal International when I was about nine or 10 and watching Dad win the Moscow Cup for the best hack, which he did several times in his career. I was tearful with pride and said to myself then that I wanted to do the same.”

    And this he did, taking the same cup himself six times on different horses, proving that he was a chip off the old block. Harry encouraged his son to watch another showing doyen – Harry Bonner – to learn by example.

    “I remember asking Dad why, as I couldn’t see Mr Bonner doing anything when he was riding,” says David. “Dad replied that this was exactly why I should watch – the whole point of showing is that it should all look effortless.”

    David also enjoyed hunting until quite recently and in his younger days, he rode showjumpers, trained Grade One racehorses and was champion point-to-point jockey five times.

    “I once won the hack championship at Royal Lancashire in the morning, then drove to Chaddesley Corbett racecourse, near Kidderminster, and rode a winner in the afternoon,” he remembers.

    A modest man

    David tends to deflect attention from his own achievements. “Most of my best moments don’t relate to me, but rather to my daughter Loraine [Homer] and grandchildren Alice and Harry – their achievements mean far more to me than my own,” he maintains. “One year that surpassed all others, though, was 1968. I was hack and hunter champion at HOYS and also champion point-to-point jockey; the year was crowned by the birth of Loraine.

    “Then in 1989, I won all three hunter weight classes at HOYS and was champion on the heavyweight Mr Meade. Loraine rode the lightweight See Lightwater to reserve and my brother Roy partnered the middleweight winner, Skibbereen, in the championship.”

    Although he achieved most of his major ambitions, there are a couple of gaps in his stellar CV. “I always wanted to win the working hunters at HOYS and a race at the Cheltenham Festival but sadly, I never managed either,” he reflects.

    David’s first major accolade came at the now-defunct Royal Show – once the summer Mecca for all show horses and ponies – when he lifted the coveted hunter championship on a four-year-old called Altamira, a horse bought for him by his father, who spotted it while judging in Scotland.

    “The horse was to be delivered down to us by train, but somehow got lost,” David remembers. “The carriage was finally found two days later in a siding in Shrewsbury.”

    Altamira had already given David, then 19, his first county hunter title – ironically at the Shropshire showground, only a couple of miles from the spot where the train carriage had finally been found – but taught him another valuable lesson, too.

    “Through Altamira, I learnt that you mustn’t do too much with four-year-olds,” he says. “They aren’t ready – in mind or body – for a full season. I overdid it with this horse and it soured him for the job. I’ve tried to make sure never to do that again.”

    David has always been a committed enthusiast for young horses and would bring out at least one new youngster on a yearly basis.

    “It saddens me now that there are so few four-year-old classes,” he laments. “There used to be upwards of 25 per year, all over the country; now, there are no more than four or five.”

    Many of his horses were sourced at Royal Dublin, but were not necessarily the winners there.

    “I once saw a horse in the collecting ring, waiting for the four-year-old middleweights,” he relates. “It had bucked its rider off and was trotting round loose. I was there with Roland Appleyard, one of my owners, and we decided to try and buy it.

    “There were more than 40 in the class and they were lined up in three rows. This horse was in the middle line and I spent the whole class praying the judges wouldn’t bring him forward, because we knew his price would go up. It was a heart-stopping moment when they stopped by him and deliberated, but eventually they walked on and the horse was sent out with the others – only the front line was placed then.

    “We got him bought and then found he had a little string girth on. By the end of the week, it had rolled up like a piece of rope and if you touched it at all, he would buck like a bronco, which explained his behaviour.”

    The horse was named Bunowen and went on to have a glittering career from the Tatlow yard, including landing two HOYS titles.

    Other prolific hunters included Imperial Imp, H&H British Isles supreme champion at Royal Windsor in 2000; Royal and RIHS victor Sheer Delight; State Visit, Imperator, Otter Point and Bow River. He also had the hacks Lady Teller – who claimed the H&H HOYS title three years running in the late 1960s – and Hyde Park, champion at Richmond in 1965.

    Things haven’t always gone to plan, though. “I once turned up to a show at Newbury, Berkshire, only to discover the horse – the Hall family’s Optimus – wasn’t even entered,” David recalls. “What made it worse was that his owners had driven all the way down from Newcastle just to see him compete!”

    On another occasion, at RIHS, he was again left red-faced. “I’d been pulled in top on the small hunter Crown Of Crowns and instead of dismounting normally, I nonchalantly threw my leg over his neck,” he says ruefully. “Unfortunately, the horse threw his head up, my spur caught in one of his plaits, he spooked and I fell off the back – he trotted off happily and everyone roared with laughter. Nowadays you’d be eliminated, but back then, you had to stay in and face the shame!”

    Pet hates

    Although David clearly loved showing – and still does, albeit now through his family’s achievements rather than his own – he does have his pet hates.

    “I was in a class once where a horse made a really bad noise, but still went on to win and then was champion. My owner – who’d been with me for a long time – was so disgusted that he sold all his horses and never owned a show animal again. That was a bad day for showing and I have hated biased judging ever since.

    “I do believe in giving a judge another chance, though – after all, anyone can make a mistake sometimes. But if a similar thing happens three times, you can see a pattern and I wouldn’t take my horse under them again.”

    David never formally retired from the ring. “It was a gradual process for me,” he says. “It started the year my second wife Gilly died – in 2007 – when a part of me died with her. And as Loraine began to do more showing, I did less – I realised she was better than me. I also didn’t want people to think of me as “that old man” in the ring.

    “During my showing career, the odd bad thing did happen, but I’d say that 95% of the times I had were good. How many people can say that about their job?”

    He does still have one major regret, though – and it has nothing to do with winning prizes.

    “I’ve always thought there are too many showing organisations doing similar things, and I spent years trying to bring about an amalgamation between Sport Horse Breeding (SHB) and the British Show Horse Association (BSHA),” he says. “When I was BSHA president and Ian Darcy was chairman, we nearly got it sorted – we’d booked a room for a final meeting with SHB and Ian had even bought his train ticket. Then at the last minute, the meeting was cancelled.

    “When this current situation [coronavirus] is finally resolved, a lot of things will have changed. People won’t have nearly as much money to spend on showing – and may well not want to do it at all – so there won’t ever be a better time to try to get the situation reorganised. If this could happen, I really would die a happy man.”

    Robert Oliver on David…

    One of David’s main rivals was Robert Oliver, who usually calls him “Tat”.

    “One of Tat’s advantages was his background – his father, Harry, was an amazing horseman and taught both David and his brother so much,” Robert says. “And because Tat was also a jockey, this varied experience was invaluable.

    “He was also naturally flamboyant and rode every horse to the best of its ability. He’d out-gallop most of the professionals, too – some tended to gallop with the handbrake still partly on, but David would come round the corner and scatter us all. Some judges liked it, but some didn’t!

    “We became great friends outside the ring, but fierce opponents in it. I was once at the Royal Show on a four-year-old called Masterful and was pulled in second. David was pulled in sixth and, of course, he didn’t like that. When he stripped his horse, he had a white numnah and slung this and the saddle on the barrier dividing the ring. My horse kept spooking with the ride-judge, so I got dropped and he moved up. I was very, very cross.”

    Bill Smith on David…

    Former National Hunt jockey Bill Smith has been a great friend and supportive owner for many years.

    “One of the reasons David was so successful was that he left nothing to chance,” says Bill. “He also never worried about changing his way with a horse if it wasn’t working out.

    “I’d ridden his racehorses a few times and one October, a jump meeting at Fakenham clashed with HOYS, so he asked me to go and ride his four runners so he could compete at Wembley. I won with three; it was his first treble as a trainer and mine as a jockey, but all he said to me was, ‘What happened to the other horse?’

    “While the races were running, David was in the cinder ring with his hacks, but he kept running across the road to the betting shop so he could listen to how we were getting on. He must have been quite a sight, all togged up in breeches, boots, top hat and tailcoat.”

    David Walters on David…

    “As a judge, I’ve ridden lots of David’s horses, and you always knew they had been produced for a judge to ride,” David Walters says. “They went forward and carried you; they felt they were just on the boil, which I loved.

    “He was always particular about limbs, too – they’d tend to have lovely flat bone and clean joints in correct alignment. I also loved the way he could just leave them to stand in line on their own, with their reins on their neck, while he went off to chat to someone.

    “David was always very competitive and once, when I was judging, he pulled himself into line in top before being asked. I wasn’t having that, so I signalled to the steward to send him back out again and pulled him in about sixth. But his was by far the best horse and went very well, so it did eventually win – but he never tried that trick with me again.”

    David’s favourite horses…

    “My all-time favourite was a 14hh pony called Nutmeg, who came to me via Bill Smith,” says David. “She got Loraine back riding and restored her confidence after she’d had a couple of nasty falls. She was a fantastic hunting pony, too, and if it hadn’t been for her, my grandchildren probably wouldn’t be as enthusiastic as they are. Nutmeg even came to Loraine’s wedding.

    “Another was a racehorse called Mystery Gold. He was very sound and a good eater, but the main thing was his bravery. The word ‘defeat’ just wasn’t in his dictionary. He was my special friend.

    “To choose a show horse is really difficult as I’ve been privileged to have had so many lovely ones and I wouldn’t want to offend any of my owners. But Zapatek would be well up there – he was the leading middleweight of the 1970s but wasn’t easy; he was difficult to mount and dismount.

    “I emptied my bank account to buy him from George Chapman; this began a friendship that lasts to this day and I eventually sold him to Di Turner. He won three times at the Royal and Great Yorkshire.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 April 2020