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Obituary: Robert Alner

Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer who also schooled several other leading steeplechasers in a distinguished career


SUCCESSES: Robert Alner. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

SUCCESSES: Robert Alner. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

PA Archive/PA Images

SUCCESSES: Robert Alner. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

Robert Alner, who has died aged 76, was a British racehorse trainer who confounded most bookmakers and punters by producing Cool Dawn to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1998.

It was one of those moments that makes National Hunt racing so compelling. Here was a gifted, but relatively low-profile trainer, who secured jump racing's most coveted prize with a horse that few had even considered when filling in their betting slips.

Owned by Dido Harding (now Baroness Harding of Winscombe), the hunter chaser Cool Dawn (who had once pitched its owner headfirst into a river while out hunting) had been at Alner's yard for only a couple of years, and in 1997 had been beaten by almost 50 lengths in an unremarkable handicap at Wincanton.

Yet, under Alner's tutelage, Cool Dawn steadily improved, winning a trio of races at Ascot in the build-up to his run in the Gold Cup; and despite a late injury scare he prevailed at Cheltenham by one and three-quarter lengths from Strong Promise, with the favourite Dorans Pride in third. He had been sent off at 25-1.

Six years later, Alner came close to pulling off an even bigger shock in the same race when his 33-1 shot Sir Rembrandt lost by only half a length to the great Best Mate.

In 2007, however, Alner's career came to a sudden and distressing end when he broke his neck in a car crash. Paralysed, he spent several months in intensive care, and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair.

His doctors feared that he had only a couple of years to live, but he showed remarkable resilience and acceptance of his fate, never complaining, and winning the admiration and affection of staff at Salisbury District Hospital, Odstock, which he visited regularly for treatment.

He once said: "I was in a ward with teenagers in wheelchairs who were all paralysed. It broke my heart to watch these young lads, yet they never moaned and were so positive."

After his accident he continued to train under a joint licence with his wife, Sally, until they retired in 2010. His interest in racing remained undimmed, and he even found a new enthusiasm for football.

Robert Henry Alner was born on the family's dairy farm at Droop, near Sturminster Newton in Dorset, on November 21, 1943. Although he showed himself a bright pupil at Beaminster School, his father insisted that the farm was where his future lay - and as it turned out, Locketts Farm would remain his base when he eventually became a trainer.

First, though, he combined milking the cows with riding at point-to-points (he would be champion rider in 1992 at the age of 48), and as an amateur jockey under rules, winning 51 races, including the 1970 National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival on Domason. He took out a trainer's licence in the early 1990s.

Alner's other training successes included the 2007 Welsh Grand National with Miko De Beauchene (a victory that came only weeks after the accident that would end his career); the Whitbread Gold Cup with Harwell Lad (1997); and the Cleeve Hurdle with Kates Charm (2002). With The Listener he won the 2006 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown and the 2008 Irish Hennessy, while Kingscliff took the Betfair Chase at Haydock in 2005, seeing off the top Irish challengers Beef Or Salmon and Kicking King.

In all, he sent out 538 winners under rules.

Robert Alner married, in 1970, Sally Coleman, with whom he had two daughters, Jennifer and Louise. Louise is married to the trainer Robert Walford, and their horse Walk in the Mill finished fourth in last year's Grand National.

Robert Alner died on February 3, 2020.

Sunday Independent