An Interview with Derek Thompson - Former Stable Manager at Aintree Racecourse
‘Racing people are wonderful,’ says Derek ‘Dec’ Thompson, the former stable manager at Aintree Racecourse. He has been retired for over five years – Pineau De Re in 2014 won his final Grand National in charge. He worked there for forty-seven years – from Red Alligator in 1968 to Dr Newland’s pragmatic winner. ‘I’ve become friends with so many people through Aintree. For example, the Carberry family – I’m friends with them all. I’ve got so many memories through my old job.’ Not retiring to idleness, Dec carried on working at Aintree at the show jumping and ROR days held there and giving tours.
Dec, 77, speaks fondly of his former job and even more fondly of the team he headed. ‘You’re only as good as your staff,’ he explains. ‘Together, we looked after the needs of four hundred horses over three days and the people who were with them.’ He befriended more than the racing families and stable staff, including photographers, press, trainers and jockeys.
Dec’s legacy still remains at Aintree – he was inaugurated on the Legend’s Wall and, more poignantly, his former office is left untouched, a shrine to former Grand National winners. The small, square room is situated near the stables’ entrance and each picture and photograph, rosette and sash pinned up, were left behind to be ‘part of the museum’, honouring the racehorses and people Dec has long held in his heart.
His memories are vivid – the McCain family taking flowers to Red Rum’s grave every Grand National day, having a drink with the late Ginger McCain as well as all the lads and lasses who have led up the horses or driven the lorries. ‘I’ve still got the keys for the stables and my old office,’ Dec chuckles, remembering every Grand National week in April was hard work. ‘It was only after Bobbyjo’s victory in 1999 that a night manager was hired. Before that, I worked twenty-four hours a day. It was the only week ever that, by the Saturday, I was smoking eighty a day! For the last ten years, through the 2000s, it became much easier when I no longer had to do nights.’
Yet, there’s more to Dec than Aintree and racing. He was brought up in a very rural area, in a farming community about eight miles from Beverley. His father was a game keeper. For nine and a half years, Dec was a regular in the Army, where he had a single two-minute free phone call every month, and then continued for a further twenty-five years in the TA. He talks about a love of walking – from John O’Groats to Land’s End, the coastal paths and the Transpennine Way – all for charity. He was sponsored by the Post Office, who supplied a red van as a support vehicle. Over the years, he raised approximately half a million pounds.
‘It’s frustrating now,’ Dec sighs, the only time he sounds despondent. He explains how he died two years ago and was resuscitated, suffering sepsis and kidney failure in the recovery and disabilities ever since.
Dec continues to mull over the memories: how he joined TV’s Challenge Anneka over to the infamous foreign orphanage, where he worked as the chef and drove a truck back many times afterwards to continue to help. There are so many stories, where the people in the past come alive again through Dec’s words. He loves listening to music, watching opera and ballet and, as anyone from Yorkshire should, enjoys cricket, but also loves rugby. His involvement stretches beyond spectating – he sponsors a female rugby team and was once a coach.
Dec still lives on the Melling Road and has done so for fifty years. His marriage to the late Margaret brought this Yorkshireman to Liverpool permanently and he got the job at the racecourse through Margaret’s family. They brought up two daughters about seventy yards from one of the racecourse's emergency gates. There will always be a huge part of Dec at Aintree. He gave forty-seven years of service to a course that in return gave him many friends and many more memories.
How did you get your job at Aintree Racecourse?
I lived in Plymouth at the time and I was on leave, staying with the in-laws. Margaret’s uncle worked at Aintree and it was Grand National week, so he asked me to work for £1.50 a day! I was sent over to the stable yard to work alongside my father-in-law, who was an ex-jockey and a train driver. That was 1968, Red Alligator ridden by Brian Fletcher won my first Grand National there.
Please describe your job:
Being the Stable Manager was like being a hotel manager – just my customers were the horses, not humans. I had to make sure everything was perfect. For instance, the Irish horses couldn’t drink the tap water so I ordered big flagons of mineral water from the caterers.
What are your memories of the bomb scare in 1997?
Everyone had to leave but I wouldn’t, I refused. I’d been in the Army so a bomb scare didn’t frighten me. I stayed right through and didn’t get home until the Tuesday morning.
That night, I walked round the racecourse and weighing room in the early hours - at 01:00. No one was about, not even security – it was very ghostly and strange.
Which was your favourite Grand National winner?
Red Rum – I’d be trouble if I didn’t pick him. I used to drink with Ginger and we were great friends.
Did you work at any other racecourses?
At Chester in the old stables and I worked as a temp for BHA security.
Did you ever have any funny requests?
One year, Jenny Pitman wanted onions in her stables to kill any bacterial infection. I went to the racecourse caterers but they only had tiny shallots. My wife had to go and buy some proper ones – funnily enough we never got the money back for them!
What makes Aintree Racecourse so special?
It’s an amazing place. The National used to be held on a Friday – productivity always fell so the government said it had to be held on a Saturday – it’s always had such a huge impact on the country. There’s so much history. The largest crowd reached 550,000 before the counting was stopped, which was interesting as there was no ‘health and safety’ at the time.
What did you love about the job?
I loved making all the friends that I did. And I loved horses and being involved in their welfare. During the war, when I was a child, there was no mechanisation and I can remember shire horses working the land: I loved helping with them.
Was it difficult to retire?
Yes. I retired at seventy but it was easier that I gradually retired. I gave tours round Aintree and was an after-dinner speaker.
What are your thoughts on Rachel Blackmore becoming the first female to win the Grand National?
Before this, I bet 2000-1 on Nina Carberry being the first female to win the Grand National but sadly it didn’t happen, despite her winning the Foxhunters’ on On The Fringe.
I was delighted for Rachel Blackmore – it had to happen, more and more girls are race-riding and are often better than the lads.
Dec with Bobbyjo, Monet's Garden and Cue Card...
...Sprinter Scare, Don't Push It and his last National
winner as stable Manager, Pineau De Re.
Dec's office in 2013