Noted racehorse trainer and sheep breeder

Date: Tuesday 12th March 2019

TRIBUTES have been paid to “larger than life” Eden farmer and racehorse trainer Ken Slack, of Heatherbank, Brackenber, who has died, aged 51.

Ken made a fast impact as a trainer — with only a small string of horses, at Stoneriggs — after taking over a permit to train the family horses from his mother, Evelyn.

She had held a permit trainers’ licence for 30 years, and Ken used to help her with that, but after being encouraged to take it over himself he became the holder of a full trainer’s licence in 2015.

His first winner came in a handicap hurdle at Catterick, in March, 2015, when Grand Vintage, in the colours of his father, Arthur, scored in game style. It was these “little races”, as Ken called them, which became his bread and butter as he racked up 48 winners over jumps and 14 on the Flat.

He was also proud to have been involved with Swaledale sheep and never more so than when winning interbreed sheep championships at both Penrith and Cockermouth shows with a ewe he had bred himself. He even delayed his final cancer treatment to attend the tup sales at Kirkby Stephen and Hawes last October.

In a fitting tribute at Kirkby Stephen auction mart on Wednesday night, Andrew Skidmore, from Flakebridge Farm, Tebay, offered a Swaledale gimmer hogg to be sold in Ken’s memory, with the £1,200 proceeds from the sale to Tom Bousfield, Brough, shared between Cancer Research and Hospice at Home.

Ken first beat the odds at 18 months old when he battled cancer for the first time. He was the happiest of children, despite his tough start, and that was how it stayed throughout his entire life — his big smile being a welcome to all.

He attended Appleby primary and grammar schools, making many lifelong friends, and that trend continued at Newton Rigg College, Penrith.

A happy childhood attending trotting meetings up and down the country led him to become a very capable harness racing driver and trainer. He enjoyed trips to Canada to watch horses exported by the family win numerous harness races before turning his attention to National Hunt and Flat racing.

Ken and Nicola married in 1992 and built a home together at Heatherbank, Brackenber, and went on to have two children, George and Anna.

At Sedgefield on Sunday — where Ken had notched a notable treble of successes on 15th March, 2016 — there was an emotional start to the day as all the jockeys gathered in the parade ring to observe a minute’s silence. In total, Ken had 22 winners at the track, with Legalized being his last, in January.

His sister, Dianne Sayer, who is a trainer at Hackthorpe, said Ken was diagnosed with lung cancer in June, last year, and was determined to give it the best possible fight he could.

“His family and his horses were what kept him going. He had time for everyone and was a big character who made a lasting impression on anyone he met,” said Dianne.

She said Ken loved his racing and certainly made a big impact when he arrived on the scene — managing 23 jumps winners from 69 runners in his first full season with just a handful of horses — an unheard of 33 per cent strike rate.

Ken ripped up the manual when it came to training, tailoring diets and training techniques to each horse in his care, always looking for that edge in order to keep one step ahead of the competition.

He gave his horses goat’s milk, honey and Guinness and spent many hours a day working them in an arena while driving his quad bike — getting his horses fit by making them go slow.

Beeno, who was Ken’s highest rated jumps horse, provided the trainer with some wonderful successes.

Highlights included the horse’s win in a £5,000 necklace race at Cartmel — with his niece, Emma Sayer, holding the reins — and his triumph in the 2017 Cartmel Cup.

Nine-time winner Tonto’s Spirit also helped provide many days to remember. Ken loved the challenge of buying a cheap horse and improving it, never more than with Italian Rivera who won four of his first five races for Ken.

Flat trainer David Loughnane paid tribute to his friend, saying he was a positive person and would brighten up a room with his smile. He will be remembered as a happy-go-lucky man and an absolute gentleman. He did things very differently to everyone else, but knew his horses inside out and was very shrewd.

Plans are in place for the Stoneriggs stable to continue to operate with daughter Anna assuming the role of assistant trainer and the horses running under Dianne Sayer’s name.

Ken had many strings to his bow, and, when time had allowed, made many friends metal detecting. He liked a lively debate about stocks and shares and anyone interested in the ancient Romans or Star Trek was immediately added to his long list of friends.

His wealth of knowledge meant he could hold a conversation with anyone and that was what he liked doing most — always keen to learn from other people’s experiences and more than happy to share his latest ideas.

Ken is survived by wife Nicola, son George, daughter Anna, father Arthur, mother Evelyn, and sister Dianne.