WHEN it comes to dividing opinion, the honours system is guaranteed to inspire heated debate. For example, a knighthood for John Redwood – best remembered for his embarrassing failure to remember the words of the Welsh national anthem while Welsh Secretary – was always likely to stir emotions.

But it’s hard to think of anyone who would begrudge 76-year-old Raye Wilkinson his MBE in the New Year’s Honours list. Raye is not a high-profile politician or celebrity, he’s just an unassuming, down to earth Yorkshireman who’s one of the most genuine people anyone could meet.

And had it not been for a quirk of fate at the end of a cricket match 50 years ago, he admits his life could have taken a very different direction.

Instead, he came to Middleham, and became part of the Wensleydale racing community, not as a jockey or trainer, but as a welfare officer, looking after the interests of countless stable lads and lasses.  

“Strange when you think I started out not knowing one end of a horse from the other,” says Raye.
Raye was born in the village of Barnoldswick, just outside of the Yorkshire Dales, near Skipton. In those days, it was just to say in Yorkshire, though now the boundary says it belongs to Lancashire.

He set out to become an accountant and drifted across to Jersey to work for the Channel Islands Glass Company. A “midfield grafter”, he played a decent level of football for Jersey Wanderers and made the 14-man squad for Jersey’s annual encounter with Guernsey, though he wasn’t selected for the final 11. 
“I was nearly an international but not quite,” he sighs.

While in Jersey, he also started volunteering at a local children’s home and, when a job vacancy came up, he made the move into social work, which was to become his vocation. With a lack of training opportunities in Jersey, he moved back to England to enrol on a course at a London polytechnic and found a job with better prospects at a children’s home Bradford.

One of the youngsters at the home had developed a passion for horse racing from watching it on TV and had talked to Raye about wanting to work in the industry.

Raye didn’t know where to start – until that quirk of fate while he was playing cricket in Gargrave and his skipper, Maurice Merrington, took him to one side and asked: “Do you back horses?”

“I didn’t have a clue about horses back then but he told me to back a horse called Sundown Sky, trained up in Middleham by Ernie Weymes, the next time it ran,” recalls Raye. “I kept looking out for it and it won at Beverley – I think I had sixpence on it.”

The name Ernie Weymes instantly became Raye’s only connection to horse racing. He tracked him down in the phone book, told the trainer about the ambitious young lad at the children’s home, and he was duly given a three-week trial.

“I drove him up to Middleham and the rest is history,” says Raye.

The lad got the job and Raye is still in touch with him all these years later. “He’s a grandad now,” he laughs.

An affection for both Middleham and racing blossomed, and Raye moved to Wensleydale with wife Kathleen in 1978 to use his experience as a social worker to run the local branch of the Stable Lads Welfare Trust, later rebranded as Racing Welfare.  He had two children of his own, Helen and Andrew, but for 30-years he was a second father to the steady stream of lads and lasses trying to make a living in racing.

“I’ve never been a gambler – I’m in a sweat if I have a fiver on a horse – but it’s been a great life,” he says. “And I can honestly say, if it hadn’t been for Maurice Merrington asking me if I backed horses, I’d probably still be stuck in some politically correct, cash-strapped local authority, having a nervous breakdown.”

Instead, he’s been awarded an MBE and the first person he told was the man who became his best friend, Ernie Weymes, now living in retirement in Leyburn. 
Raye will soon be off to the Palace to receive his MBE – and it’s a racing certainty that all those who’ve benefited from his care, and experienced his cheery willingness to help in any way he can, will applaud him all the way to London.
It’s an honour to know him.

WHEN Raye stepped down from his role at Racing Welfare in 2008, record-breaking trainer Mark Johnston was the first to seize the opportunity.
Johnston is known for his forward-thinking and he immediately offered Raye a job, looking after the welfare of his army of employees. It’s a role Raye continues to fulfill.
As for Johnston himself, 2018 was the year he broke the record for training the most winners in British history. From scratch, he’s transformed Middleham’s fortunes.
It was a surprise that there was no honour for Mark Johnston, above, this time round, but these things take time. Surely, it’s in the starting stalls and coming up on the rails.

FINALLY, thanks to Hutton Rudby Ladies Luncehon Club for a warm welcome as guest speaker at The Wainstones Hotel in Great Broughton last week.
I was rather chuffed when one member came up at the end and said: “You really remind me of what’s his name – Thor.”
“Really?” I replied, inwardly glowing at being likened to the hunky superhero from the Marvel Comics.
“Yes, you know, that John Thaw, from Inspector Morse,” she replied.