TRAINER TALK: PETER MASON

by Jake Exelby

The name Mason is one of the best known and longest standing in South Midlands point-to-pointing. My own first memories of the sport are of attending the VWH meeting as a teenager watching the famous yellow and blue colours being carried to victory in numerous races.

Peter and Jennifer, who train at Manor Farm in the beautiful Cotswold village of Ablington are the latest to carry the Mason name to success, as owners, trainers and riders. I asked Peter to recall his early days. “My grandfather trained and my father Alex rode, including under rules, as well as training point-to-pointers. My first ride was Perryman for Susie Goess-Saurau at Barbury Castle in January 2003 and my first winner was Master Grass for my late father at Dunthrop later that same month.”

Peter than branched out from home to go and work for Richard Kelvin-Hughes and Ben Tulloch - “the best horse I rode there was Run For Moor, he was so gifted” before setting up as a trainer himself in 2008 back at Manor Farm. His first runner was the talented but temperamental Beat The Bandits and his first winner was Milesian King at Lockinge on Easter Monday, ridden by younger brother Richard.

So was there any sibling rivalry between the two Mason brothers? “Only in the VWH Members Race at Siddington,” said Peter with a smile. “He won it twice, both times on Alpheus and I’ve only won it once so far, with Port Talbot. The latter, who went on to win a Hunter Chase at Newton Abbot, holds a special place in the affections of the Masons. “I sold him to Peter,” explains Jennifer. “We’d met before, but that’s how we really got to know each other.” The sale obviously worked out well, as they’ve been married since 2010 and have an 18-month old daughter, Molly.

Jennifer’s background is also with horses, but mostly in eventing. She had a few rides in point-to-points, being placed on Shannon Springs but, as she says honestly: “I enjoyed it but I found it hard to mix the eventing with pointing and when I do something, I want to do it properly – my main focus was wanting to train racehorses.” She is now licensed as a National Hunt trainer, in a separate yard from her husband’s at Manor Farm, with a small yard of mostly young horses.

Her best-known horse is Shy John, a close second at Ludlow recently and formerly trained by Peter to win five point-to-points and two hunter chases. He explained the secret of his success with a horse who was once regarded as quirky but became good enough to finish close-up in the Cheltenham Foxhunters. “He’s very easy to train, just quite headstrong in a race and we learnt to drop him out so he would switch off.” Shy John has a strong Mason family connection, being the last horse bred by father Alex and a son of Shy Lizzie, on whom Peter won a Maiden in 2004.

The current flagship bearer for the yard is Icthec (pronounced “I see the sea”), who won a Maiden at Black Forest Lodge first time out then dead-heated in a competitive Restricted with the progressive Jepeck before finishing second to the useful Tiger Rag in an Intermediate. “He tweaked his back in his last race, but is over that now,” confirmed Peter. “We’ve no immediate plans for him but may run him in the Intermediate Final at Cheltenham in May.” 

Peter also trains Time for Spring for Gavin McEchern, owner of the brilliant former chaser Young Hustler. “He came to us from Charlie Longsdon,” explains his new trainer “and took some time to come right.” But he’s done nothing wrong this year and has already finished second twice, behind the useful Quinz and Double Bank. Also in the yard are 2014 Maiden winner Kilcrea Mill, who will be ridden by novice Jamie Brace, and 2014 Restricted winner You Too Pet, as well as some promising unraced youngsters. “We’ve got 8-9 in at the moment,” laughs Peter, “although we could always do with more!”

Of course, we mustn’t forget that as well as farming 700 acres of arable and cattle which he took over from father Alex, training and acting as Clerk of the Course at Siddington for the VWH point-to-point, Peter also rides most of his own horses! So how does he balance such a busy life? “Race day is almost the easiest part!” he admits. “It’s the daily galloping and schooling that takes up most of the time. As a result, I don’t take many outside rides. Jennifer, Jamie Brace and I manage the horses and Bella Lowes comes in to ride out two lots a day.” Manor Farm has a one-mile grass gallop through the valleys around Ablington, as well as a schooling ground and outdoor arena with showjumps, and they have access to nearby all-weather facilities if needed.

Unsurprisingly for a couple steeped in horses, Peter and Jennifer have strong opinions on the sport. I ask their views on the current debate surrounding high-class former National Hunt horses running in Hunter Chasers and point-to-points. Jennifer is particularly forthright: “I think it’s good for point-to-pointing, as it keeps the level high. And if too many high-class horses are running, the fault lies with the rules. What do you do with horses that are still handicapped too high to win National Hunt races? In eventing, there are more restrictions, but it’s tricky to get the guidelines right. It’s great to keep the older horses doing what they love, but we should have some special races for horses who have won a certain amount of prize money. Racegoers like to see familiar horses and extra races”

Peter continues in similar vein. “It’s really hard to frame races. For the VWH Hunt Members Race, we wanted to give novice riders an allowance (like they do in professional racing), but were told that we couldn't, although we could give experienced riders a penalty! Surely, for our own race, we should be allowed to set our own rules?” Another type of race he favours would be one for horses that have not run under National Hunt rules. “There are a few non-rules Maiden Races, but what about non-rules Opens, or Hunter Chases?” he asks rhetorically.

Having tried (and failed!) to put the world to rights and we look round the yard, an interesting-looking inmate of the corner stable catches my eye. “That’s Molly’s pony,” confirms Peter. “We got Thumper from Charlie Longsdon when his youngest children grew out of him.” So will there be a third generation Mason on the local point-to-point courses in 2030? It may be too early to tell, but she certainly has the right genes!