In the first of a two-part feature, Andrew White speaks to Bill Blenkinsopp – a man with a remarkable story.

"I'VE wanted to be a jockey ever since I was ten-years-old. I've never wanted anything else."

Bill Blenkinsopp is speaking from the front room of his home in the village where he was born, bred and still lives.

Now aged 72, Bill has been representing Aycliffe Village on Great Aycliffe Town Council for more than 30 years and is a well-known figure in County Durham.

But far fewer people are aware of his sporting pedigree and the chain of events which could have taken his life in a very different direction, were it nor for a terrible accident when he was aged just 18.

Young Bill was mad about horses and his fledgling ambitions to forge a career in the saddle were given a boost in 1966, thanks to an innovative careers scheme at Marlowe Hall School, in Newton Aycliffe.

The school found him a job as a stable lad with a renowned trainer in Newmarket – known as the headquarters of British racing.

An excited 16-year-old Bill got on a train at Darlington station to head off for his new life – but his new career was to get off to a stuttering start.

"I was supposed to go to Tim Thomson Jones in Newmarket," says Bill.

"I was supposed to be met off the train at King's Cross in London, but he didn't turn up.

"So I found out where the Newmarket train was and caught that. I got off at Newmarket and there was nobody there either. So I found out where Tim Thomson Jones's stables were and went there."

He bowled into the office at Newmarket, where the secretary told a bemused Bill he was in the wrong place.

He was supposed to be linking up with Geoffrey Brooke, who used the same secretary as Jones – which explained the initial mix-up.

Although now in the right place, a homesick Bill was unable to settle.

"It was a complete shock," he says.

"It was my first job, I was a long way from home and the northern lads weren't liked by the southern lads. I was there for six weeks and I didn't like it one bit."

Bill's misery was ended when the stable's blacksmith found him a job at Ernie Davey's yard in Malton, North Yorkshire.

But his career stalled yet again when Ernie retired. His son Paul took over the yard, but was soon offered a lucrative job in Newmarket.

Paul Davey went on to forge a highly successful career – but young Bill was out of a job again.

He returned home to Aycliffe Village, but he caught another break when jockey's valet Arnie Robinson found him another job.

This time Bill was off to Richmond, North Yorkshire, as apprentice jockey to trainer George Oscar Fenningworth - known ubiquitously and affectionately as 'Buster'.

The Northern Echo: Buster Fenningworth at his Richmond stablesBuster Fenningworth at his Richmond stables

Buster Fenningworth was an established trainer, the 'master' of Bell-Isle and Hurgill Lodge stables at Richmond.

He knew the racing game inside out, having started as an amateur rider in 1936, before turning professional. He started his training career in Kirk Yeltolm, near the Scottish Border, in 1951 and took over the string of his father-in-law, Harry Peacock, at Richmond, when Peacock retired at the end of 1961.

Rarely seen on course without his good luck charm – a battered trilby hat – among his owners were the Marquess of Zetland, Lady Sassoon, Major Lionel Holliday and the film star James Stewart.

By 1966, Fenningworth boasted the largest string in the north, with 80 horses in his care and was looking forward to a successful season, Northern Despatch racing expert Jim Lynch describing his prospects as "very rosy indeed".

The Northern Echo: A Northern Echo article on Buster Fenningworth from The Northern Echo in 1963A Northern Echo article on Buster Fenningworth from The Northern Echo in 1963

Bill had finally landed on his feet with a respected and well-liked trainer, who believed in giving young lads a chance.

"Good lads can make horses," Fenningworth told The Northern Despatch's Max Presnell in 1964.

"You begin a young lad on one of the older horses who has been through the routine to the extent that he can teach the rider.

"But mainly the youngster has to have the ability to absorb the experience gained in actual races and learn to follow riding instructions."

Bill enjoyed working for Mr Fenningworth, "the Guv'nor", who he describes as "hard, but fair".

"After about six weeks, he came over and said 'get yourself changed, you're riding at Catterick. It was my first race and I was only 16. I rode Painter's Boy and finished seventh, I think.

"Things went very well after that. I was getting ride after ride, I was being used quite a bit."

He rode his first winner, Summer Pride, at Ayr in June 1966, prompting a letter of congratulations from the horse's Glasgow-based owner, Sandy Grant.

Grant wrote: "I hope you will have many easy wins such as you had on Summer Pride." And he enclosed a "little present" of £50 for Bill to start a bank book.

As well as becoming a promising jockey, Bill was also getting noticed in the boxing ring. He used to train at a gym in Catterick Garrison, to maintain his fitness and keep his weight down – he was riding at seven stones.

That year, the Stable Lads' Boxing Association organised its first national championships, backed by the powerful Anglo-American Sporting Club – and Bill saw his chance.

"The trainer asked if there was anybody in the stable who was interested and I put my hand up straight away," he says.

"The semi-finals were at Catterick Garrison, where I fought a lad called Billy McCaskill and I beat him.

"That put me through to the finals, which were held at the Hilton Hotel in London."

The finals were a swanky affair, with high-profile guests from the world of racing and a posh dinner where comedian Charlie Drake was the guest of honour.

Bill was fighting in the final of the seven stone division – and he wasn't short of confidence.

"I expected to win," he says.

"I was pretty good mind. My brother Jim was a good trainer, because he used to give you one if you dropped your guard. He kept me on my toes."

And win he did – "easily", he says, against his Welsh opponent.

The Northern Echo: A triumphant teenage Bill Blenkinsopp, above, after winning the national Stable Lads’ Boxing Association titleA triumphant teenage Bill Blenkinsopp, above, after winning the national Stable Lads’ Boxing Association title

There was a magnificent trophy for the winner, but because Bill's opponent had lost his brother in the Aberfan coal mining disaster a few weeks earlier, the organisers presented it to him as a gesture.

"I didn't mind," says Bill, who was instead presented with a replica which he still has to this day.

Bill's success in the ring was so impressive that he was approached by the manager of the Scottish boxer Walter McGowan, the world flyweight champion who also held the British and Commonwealth titles.

"He said he had just watched me and asked if I would like to turn professional afterwards," says Bill.

"But I didn't want to know. All I was interested in was horse racing, it was my life and always had been."

So Bill returned to his day job at Richmond, where his career appeared to be on an upward trajectory.

He had some high-profile rides for Mr Fenningworth, he was looking forward to defending his stable lads' boxing title and everything was looking 'very rosy'.

But everything changed for Bill on Saturday, April 22, 1967, when he was involved in a horrific accident.

* We'll bring you the story of that fateful day – and what happened to Bill after that – on The Northern Echo's website on Sunday.