When the 26-year-old Peter Willett came back from an eventful war, spent chiefly in North Africa and Italy, he needed to find a profession. By all accounts his father, who had been a career soldier and was holder of a Military Cross, was not best pleased when informed that his son had accepted a job as a racing journalist with the Manchester-based daily Sporting Chronicle. The young man had long been a keen follower of events on the Turf, but it was one thing to pursue that interest as a hobby, quite another to try to earn a living by writing about such an esoteric and rather trivial subject.
As it turned out, Willett was to become one of the most distinguished and respected members of his chosen profession, renowned world-wide as an authority on the sport and on the business of bloodstock breeding. From the status he acquired as a writer on those matters, he progressed to fill important roles in the governance of racing, proving immensely influential in the way the sport developed, not just in Britain but globally, and long before his death in November, at the grand old age of 96, he had become recognised as an outstanding innovator, responsible for much that had changed for the better.
Willett’s initial venture in book form came in 1966 with An Introduction to the Thoroughbred, which for my money still ranks as the most important treatise on the subject
Of course, it was the writing that came first, and in that field he soon established himself as one of the few racing journalists whose columns were obligatory reading for professionals and for serious students of the sport and of thoroughbred breeding. He understood the game from every angle and informed his readers with the aid of a lucid prose style, providing me and many others with an education for which we were profoundly grateful. I used to cut out and keep – and still have – the weekly columns on breeding which he contributed to Horse & Hound.
Willett’s initial venture in book form came in 1966 with An Introduction to the Thoroughbred, which for my money still ranks as the most important treatise on the subject, the work that anyone seeking to understand the mysteries of breeding should turn to first. I bought it as soon as it appeared, and felt that I had never spent 50 shillings (£2.50) so wisely. I read it and re-read it countless times, and, almost half a century on, it bears reading again. Nothing achieved in the researches conducted over the years since its publication – not even the historic breakthrough to sequence the horse genome – has invalidated anything in that perfect piece of work.
Further valuable additions to any student’s library came with The Classic Racehorse in 1981 and Makers of the Modern Thoroughbred in 1984. The earlier volume was truly global in scope, elaborating on the development of the breed in all the major countries that had adopted thoroughbred racing and had established breeding industries to serve the sport. In the later work, Willett wrote extensively on the policies and achievements of a number of prominent breeders, including the 17th Earl of Derby, Marcel Boussac, HH Aga Khan III, Federico Tesio and Bull Hancock. His knowledge was vast and he imparted it in a pleasing style that could only evoke admiration for his wisdom and insight.
There was, however, one curious anomaly about that book, as he devoted the first – and longest – chapter to Bernard, 16th Duke of Norfolk, a man whose impact on the breed was slight, to put it at best. I taxed the author on that matter and received a typically good-humoured response in which he admitted that Norfolk was out of place in the company of others he had featured, and that if he had an excuse for including him, it was to acknowledge his role as an administrator in racing, rather than his achievements as a breeder. In truth, Willett flattered Norfolk even in that respect and was all too modest about his own part in effecting beneficial changes in the sport.
His Dick Hern biography was beautifully written, punctuated with the humour characteristic of the author, and it brought to life the many great horses and personalities who had featured in the subject’s eventful career
An earlier book bearing Willett’s name as co-author was the Biographical Encyclopaedia of British Flat Racing, a 1978 publication long overdue for an updated edition. He collaborated on that venture, which sought to provide brief biographies of the most celebrated horses and horsemen of the previous two centuries, with Roger Mortimer and Richard Onslow, two others with an abiding interest in the Turf past and present. Which author penned which word-portrait was not indicated, so whom to blame for the not-infrequent errors was impossible, though from personal experience I know Willett to have been the most assiduous researcher of the trio.
Willett was commissioned to write The Story of Tattersalls in 1987, producing an extremely readable account of the company’s business and the characters involved over more than two centuries, and in 2000 he was responsible for Dick Hern – The Authorised Biography. The life story of one of the outstanding British trainers in recent times was bound to hold plenty of fascination for legions of racing fans, and I don’t suppose it disappointed many. It was beautifully written, punctuated with the humour characteristic of the author, and it brought to life the many great horses and personalities who had featured in the subject’s eventful career.
But I dreaded its publication when I first heard that it was in the offing, and my worst fears were realised when I came to read it. I have often wondered whether the author would have been happier to pen an unauthorised biography of his subject, but, of course, that would never have been on. Hern would not have provided the material for a book whose content he might not approve.
My early education in bloodstock breeding was derived largely from the articles written by Willett in the Sporting Chronicle and Horse & Hound, and by John Hislop in The Sporting Life and The British Racehorse. Both men were to become valued friends whose company I enjoyed, and I was always conscious of my indebtedness to them.
I never ceased to admire Willett as a gifted writer who had been my mentor, and for his huge, immensely important contribution as the well-documented driving force behind the instigation of the Pattern
But I had long been aware that there had been a major falling out between Hern and the Hislops – John and Jean – subsequent to their great triumphs together with Brigadier Gerard. As Hern’s official biographer, Willett was bound to recount his subject’s animosity towards his former patrons, who were no longer around to defend themselves. And that was just what happened; only one side of the story appeared, when I knew that there were faults on both sides.
Willett no doubt felt that he had an axe to grind himself, as the Hislops were vocal opponents of the European Breeders’ Fund, a scheme that he was active in promoting, but he scarcely needed to belabour that point over several pages in a biography of the man who had trained their best horse 30 years earlier. It simply was not relevant to his subject, and I derived no pleasure from reading a verbal assault by one of my friends on two of my other friends.
For all that, I never ceased to admire Willett as a gifted writer who had been my mentor, and for his huge, immensely important contribution as the well-documented driving force behind the instigation of the Pattern and of the EBF, where his marvellous diplomatic skills proved crucial. He was also tremendously good fun to be around, always ready to find humour in any situation.
Blessed with long life and the retention of his mental faculties to the last, Willett surprised one and all by producing a final book, covering his memories of war service in the Queen’s Bays, at the age of 96. I was delighted to learn that when he was asked, just weeks before his death, how he had managed to remember the names of all his wartime colleagues, he replied: “I made most of them up. They’ll all be dead anyway.” I can see the twinkle in his eye as he said that.