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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

The Racing Life of Chris Lawson

Updated: Jun 12

Few people have had the varied and colourful career that Chris Lawson had.

'I always have been and always will be point-to-point mad and put ‘pointing above racing under Rules,’ says the former trainer and, despite his objections to such, amateur jockey who was the 1998 leading owner-trainer-rider in the East Anglia area. Chris’ involvement with the amateur division of steeplechasing ran alongside a career in Fleet Street that spanned more than thirty years as a journalist, photographer and editor from smaller press agencies to the Financial Times.

A true amateur, Chris left the tumult of the city behind at weekends to ride in his own green and white colours on the likes of Mount Patrick and Citizen Band. Latterly, he trained his own as well as for other people, and was associated with Hatsnall, Mill Lord and Dont Do Mondays. He was the leading trainer in East Anglia in 2007.


Yet, Chris hadn’t originally sought a city lifestyle – that happened by accident. Growing up in Dorchester, Dorset, Chris’ family moved to Lincolnshire when he was ten. He did not have a horsey childhood and after another decade, he attended a London polytechnic, which predated the universities of today, to study a BSc with honours in Geography and Environmental Management.

‘It was fine being a student in London but I didn’t want to join the commuting and rat race so I went home to Lincolnshire,’ explains Chris. ‘I tried to get a job in Lincoln or Nottingham but nothing happened. After six months, I returned to London for a party with some university friends. A chance sighting in the window of a job centre led me to Keystone Press Agency in Fleet Street. They interviewed me that Friday and asked me to start on the Monday.’

Chris in 1997 at the Financial Times.

Photo Credit: Lydia van der Meer

Chris spent a long time there before going elsewhere, which was much more of a paparazzi agency. ‘I chased the Royal Family,’ Chris ruefully says, ‘before moving on to the Financial Times for sixteen years. I ended up as Picture Editor for the last six years I was there before leaving to train point-to-pointers.’

Once training his string a stone’s toss from the M25 in Stapleford Tawney, Essex, Chris then moved to Bilsington, Kent in 2006. He married Libby, also a successful amateur jockey, a year later. Libby runs a wedding venue from the house, called the Priory, that she inherited and has been in her family since 1946. She has three grown up sons, Toby, Barney and Gus from a previous marriage and owns ten dogs with Chris.

Photos Left to Right: A big smile after Chris won on Hatsnall, with Mount Patrick and Mill Lord, who Chris trained

‘I’m supposed to be retired,’ chuckles Chris, who continues to have many guises. Always the familiar ones of a photographer and writer but also gardener, head of maintenance and until two years ago, editor for an online newspaper. A longtime member of the International Travel Writers Alliance, Chris regularly contributes to their trade magazine Allways Traveller and has just started up a new website Travel With Spirit.

Chris and Libby on their many travels, Chris' leaving card from the FT and bottoms up!

Although Chris has taken a step back from racing, his heart will always be galloping round a bygone point-to-point track, wearing his cross-belted silks, soaring fences as an eagle glides, the thud of hooves and the rush of winning never fading from his memory.


What was your most memorable day’s racing? During the late Eighties, I lived near Epping in Essex and the first trainer I rode out for was John Simmons. He had a runner, Cauchemar in the 1989 Cheltenham Foxhunters’, which, in those days, was the race before the Gold Cup. A few of us had gone to support John and help with the horse, which led on the first circuit and unseated on the second circuit when going backwards. We went out onto the course help catch him. By the time we had, the Gold Cup runners were in the parade ring. I still had my armband on from leading up Cauchemar and, in those days, it was less safety conscious and anyone could walk anywhere. I watched the horses in the paddock and the race in Owners’ and Trainers’. That race was the start of my point-to-point career: I was blown away by that Gold Cup and how everyone loved Desert Orchid. I went back to the winners’ enclosure and I took lots of pictures, which I still have: beautiful black and white photos of Dessie with owner Richard Burridge. Being there was one of my most memorable days.


How did you get into racing? After that day at Cheltenham, I bought my first horse, Unknown Martyr, from another local trainer, Nigel Padfield.


Were you a jockey? I was very lucky to have horses who always got me in the frame. We were each-way contenders for most of our races but I only rode a couple of winners.

Chris winning the Aldington Members' race on Hatsnall in 2011 on Chris' retirement ride!

How did you begin training? A few friends pointed out that I was too soft on my horses and looked after them too much in a race. They always said I’d make a better trainer than a jockey but I never wanted to train. But, when it came to it, I changed my mind. I dropped down to only riding in a couple of members’ races a year and, by 2002-3, I was getting a bit disenchanted with all the technological changes coming into Fleet Street. At the same time, I was having to say no to people who asked me to train their horses because I didn't have time. In ‘03, things all fell into place and I talked my way into redundancy with a payoff from the Financial Times. I rented a yard off a local farmer and started training for friends.


Favourite racehorse: The best horse I had was called Hatsnall. The first year, I leased him to a syndicate who was having their first go at owning pointers and he won his maiden, restricted, open and a hunter chase at Folkestone. I thought that the syndicate boys would keep him but they wanted to do all that again with another maiden. So, I leased him out to someone else before eventually running him in my own name. He was a star, winning at least one race every year.

  Dont Do Mondays was a fun horse but he had his own way of doing things. Libby was down as his trainer but couldn't stand riding him at home, so I rode him a lot. Dont Do Mondays, Cheltenham and Cauchemar bookended my career in point-to-pointing. Being there with Cauchemar in the Foxhunters’ started at all in ‘89 and Dont Do Mondays brought it to a close when he ran in the Foxhunters’ in 2019, finishing seventh.

Photo Credit: Pete Wilson

What horse would you love to have trained? Dublin Flyer. He was such a spectacular horse to watch over fences, which is why he was the horse I always wanted.


Favourite jockey: Peter Scudamore and Richard Dunwoody.


Favourite trainer: Captain Tim Forster and David ‘the Duke’ Nicholson.


Favourite racecourse under Rules: I'd love to say Folkestone but it is no more. It was my favourite because of the good memories I have there: all the horses I ran there, the winners I had there and that it was only ten minutes down the road. I loved it there.


Favourite racecourse between the flags: Aldington and Marks Tey but both are sadly redundant now. I had most of my winners at Aldington and I used to love riding round Marks Tey. Of the courses that are still here, it's High Easter.


Favourite meeting: It used to be the Essex meeting at High Easter. It's the Puckeridge and Essex Hunts club fixture now.


What were your best days in racing? Two days exactly a year apart when Dont Do Mondays won the feature race, the Warwick Vase, at High Easter. He won it in 2018 with a novice lady jockey, Louise Burnell, and we went back a year later with Izzie Marshall on board, winning it again. It was on my home ground, was the biggest race in East Anglian point-to-pointing and it meant more to me than anything.

Dont Do Mondays with Louise Burnell

I remember James Crisp, the commentator for that second win, asked about the Cheltenham Foxhunters’ and I pointed out that winning the Warwick Vase again gave me more satisfaction. We really wanted to go back the following year but covid cancelled that plan. It would have been Dont Do Mondays’ final year and the icing on the cake if he'd been able to win a third Warwick Vase.

Dont Do Mondays retired to an old friend, Laura Maloney, in Essex but he sadly died a couple of years later. Laura had him cremated and his ashes are buried here in his old summer paddock. It’s a lovely story – he was a great horse to have in training.


Why did you stop training? My owners’ circumstances changed and training was no longer paying its way. I trained in my own name until 2016 whilst Libby continued to train a couple, including Dont Do Mondays, but covid came along so we packed up training altogether. I returned to freelance journalism and photography.


How has racing changed for the better? Now, there's so much more importance placed on the welfare of the horses taking part. For me, that's the most important factor for anyone in racing. Whether a jockey, owner or trainer, the horse must come first.

The other thing about racing now it puts much more emphasis on the staff. I think television has helped that – the presenters talk to the guy or the girl leading up. It's very important to give the people the recognition they deserve.


How has racing changed for the worse? Racing is still run for betting and I've never been in agreement with that. What always upsets me about the bookies is their complaints about members’ races at point-to-points – they didn't understand that the members’ drew in the crowd more than the other races. Everyone came to support their friends who were riding in that members’ race and phasing out members’ races has taken away point-to-pointing’s strongest sense of community. Now, only the diehard meetings have a hunt members’ race and it's a great pity. For me, it’s the most important race on a point-to-point card.


What further changes would you make to racing if you could? I’d go back to the time when hunter chases were purely for point-to-pointers, amateur riders and amateur trainers. Licensed trainers should stick to running their horses under Rules. Amateur jockeys and owners of amateur trained horses should be able to have a crack at hunter chases and not have to take on the champion licenced trainer.

Riding Citizen Band at the Enfield Chace Point-to-point, 1998

Photo Credit: John Beasley

Is racing under continuous threat from animal rights activists? It probably is and that's why putting the welfare of the horse above everything else is going to slow them down so it will take them longer to ban National Hunt racing. In the meantime, we won't ever stop them campaigning.


What does racing mean to you? It's always been my passion – it’s as simple as that. Although I'm not as involved with racing as much as I used to be, I still go to my local point-to-point and watch racing on TV.

How did you get into photography? That was part of the job at Keystone. I started as an editorial assistant, learning the basis of everything and getting a grounding in the photographic research library. I learnt how to write a story, interview somebody, take pictures and, in those days, I spent time in the darkroom, learning how to process my film. I got paid next to nothing but had the chance of doing everything. If a photographer was on holiday, I was told to pick up a camera. If a reporter was sick, I covered for him until he came back. If there was no one available in the darkroom, I’d be in there. I even had the season ticket for West Ham United because I lived closest to them; I had to go there every other week for all their home games. I got to go to many Grand Prix, motorbike races and met many celebrities and politicians on big news jobs.

Every day was different. It was fun, especially going to celebrity parties and launches for records and pop groups. That's why they paid us so little because it was such a fun-filled job. Plus, I got fed as all the PR people would give us food and booze. I really enjoyed it.


What events have you photographed in racing? I have been very lucky to be commissioned by Great British Racing. For instance, I went to Jackdaws Castle and met everyone at Jonjo O’Neill’s. Most importantly, I met all the staff and saw what went on in the background. I’m grateful that the PR department at GBR understand that’s what I love doing. I don't particularly want to go to a racecourse and take pictures of horses running. I prefer to go into the yards and take pictures of the people who do the work each day.


What has been your favourite photography assignment? GBR gets me to do all sorts and one of the most enjoyable jobs I've had recently was to go to Jimmy Frost’s on the day Frodon went home for his retirement. Bryony bought him back; all the staff were there to greet him and he was reunited with former stablemate Black Corton. All the Frosts were so warm, welcoming and accommodating. The yard was homely with chickens running around and the horses were chilled and relaxed. It reminded me of the yards that I used to have.


How did you get into writing? Back in the Keystone job, when I was Jack of all trades and master of none, I always wrote. I was a freelance writer throughout my years at the Financial Times and training racehorses. I was also the editor for a local online paper, the Rye News, for a couple of years.

Mixing business with pleasure: Chris interviewing Bob Champion for the now

defunct Sporting Life newspaper in 1993

How have you continued to write nowadays? In so-called retirement, I do a lot of work around home and the gardens, helping Libby run the wedding venue. As I'm based at home, I've always got time to sit down to write or research a story.


Describe your new venture Travel With Spirit: I love travelling and I've always wanted to have a travel website. I've also always taken my camera everywhere so it is great that these pictures can now be published. It all might be vanity publishing but I have two others collaborating with me on the website. We are all former editors of the Rye News who are now developing this new travel website full of entertaining pieces that can be read over a cup of coffee. I never wanted to be listicle – the top ten places to visit or stay – but rather about the writers’ and contributors’ experiences of where we’ve been, who we've met and what the places were like. Hopefully, it'll become a platform for contributors to put up cracking articles. It's a bit of fun but I’d still like enough readers to make it worthwhile for advertisers to pay for the cost of the website. We're not looking for a wage or to become millionaires, just for it to become a platform for people to put up interesting travel stories.


What does writing mean to you? It's an escape and something I feel the need to do.

What's your advice for wannabe writers? Get in touch with me! I'm always willing to help and if they're good writers of good travel stories then we'll publish it.

The first port of call for all wannabe writers should be their local newspaper. Sadly though, these are not what they used to be as they now have very few staff left but if you're a good writer, despite not getting a lot of money, you'll get noticed and go up the ladder.


Other hobbies and interests: The other day, I was only thinking I don't have a hobby anymore. When I worked in Fleet Street, riding point-to-pointers was my hobby. Then that became my work and bits of freelance writing and photography became my hobby. When we packed up training in 2019, I quite enjoyed doing nothing but maintenance around the estate. Yet, I began to miss writing so that's the reason behind the Travel With Spirit website, because I felt the need to do something. I don't do horses anymore, bar hacking out occasionally on my own retired horse, so the website is my latest hobby – but I do want it to become more than that.

Winning jockey, trainer and groom

Favourite meal: Any British food like fish ‘n’ chips and Sunday roasts.

Favourite drink: A Manhattan cocktail – bourbon whisky basically.

Favourite holiday destination: The Caribbean.

Favourite book: I love books and have so many that I wouldn't want to say any particular one is my favourite. I have shelves of novels and shelves of biographies on World War Two, racing people and movie related ones too.

Favourite music: I have a very eclectic taste in music so I don't have a favourite band. I listen to anything from country and western to rock'n'roll - from Dolly Parton to Alice Cooper.

Favourite film: The Searchers, a 1956 western directed by John Ford.


Hopes for the future: I hope that point-to-pointing does not die a death. At the moment, it looks like it's on the way out. I hope and wish its future is rosy, but I don't think that's the case. Apart from everything else, it's too expensive. Every year, new regulations are bought out: jockeys need a new standard of hat or body protector but nobody thinks that they are part-timers, that ‘pointing is their hobby. The way point-to-pointing has become so professional has put off many owner-riders – it now costs so much because it's done in such a professional way.

Chris with Citizan Band and the East Anglian Owner-Trainer-Rider trophy in '98

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Gavin Squire
Gavin Squire
May 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great blog Jo-Jo. What a multi-talented Top Man he is.

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