The Northern Echo: GOLDEN DAY: Denys Smith, with a portrait of Red Alligator, the horse he trained to victory in the 1968 Grand National

HUNDREDS turned out on Friday for the funeral of Grand National-winning racehorse trainer Deny Smith. Peter Barron was among the mourners

PERHAPS it’s rather fitting that the man who brought Grand National glory home to the North-East should have a few obstacles to overcome before reaching the finishing post.

On the day of Denys Smith’s funeral, a fractured gas main outside St Andrew’s Church, in South Church, Bishop Auckland, caused traffic disruption and threatened to lead to the evacuation of residents as workmen dug up the road in a race to remove the danger.

But just as Becher’s Brook, Valentine’s and The Chair didn’t stop Red Alligator coming home first in the 1968 National, a couple of holes in the road, traffic lights and a diversion didn’t stop hundreds of people making it to the picturesque County Durham church to pay their respects to “a genius and a gentleman”.

The Northern Echo:

Mourners arrive at the church on Friday. Photo: Chris Booth

Born in Hurworth, in 1924, Denys dabbled with the taxi trade before moving into farming, cattle-dealing, then horses: trotters at first, followed by point-to-pointers and, finally, racehorses.

He and his beloved wife Jean made a formidable team. The first winner, Owen’s Mark, came at Sedgefield in 1958 and he went on to train 1,674 winners – Flat and National Hunt – in a glittering career. But it was Red Alligator’s Aintree victory which turned him into a legend. An army of ecstatic locals - many having paid the rent with their winnings – lined the streets for the home-coming. Within two years, The Crown and Anchor down the road had been renamed The Red Alligator.

Until his death at 92, following a fall at home, Denys had been a daily visitor to the Red Alligator. He was given his own spot in the bar, with a silver plaque engraved with the words “Denys’ Corner”.

Hours before his funeral yesterday, a “Reserved” label had been left on his table, alongside a candle.

“We can’t have anyone sitting there today,” said Barbara Appleby, wife of pub manager Dave.

Someone bought a glass of the old lad’s usual drink - a half of John Smith’s – and left it where it would have been within arm’s reach.

Bill Spowart, 66, respectful in black tie and suit, sat at the next table. As a kid of 16, he’d been Red Alligator’s stable lad and blacksmith. “Aye, I led him up and put his shoes on,” said Bill, still puffed up with pride. “I had a fiver on at 100-8 so it meant I could treat me family.”

It was the kindness of Denys that Bill remembers most. “A bus spooked a horse in Eldon Lane and it kicked seven bells out of me,” he recalled, still wincing at the memory. “I was in hospital for weeks but Denys looked after me and my family all the way through it. He’d do anything for anyone.”

One by one, well-known faces trooped into the pub to toast Denys before the final farewell. They included former top jockey Bruce Raymond and wife Jenny, who’d travelled from Newmarket; trainers Peter Easterby, Jack Berry and Michael Dods; and racing presenter Derek “Tommo” Thompson.

When he left school in 1968, Tommo worked for Denys as assistant trainer. “It was unpaid but I’d have given a fortune to be there because I learned so much. If it wasn’t for Denys, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he said.

“Of all the funerals you go to, this is the one I’d have to be at above all others - he was that special to me.”

In the church, half a furlong from the Red Alligator, there was standing room only by the time the cortege negotiated the roadworks. Canon John Bell recalled “a remarkable man who had gifts to make things happen”.

Beautifully and bravely, Caroline Smith read a poem she’d written for her celebrated grandad’s retirement party a few years back. He’d been so touched, he’d insisted she should read it at his funeral. “So I’ll do as I was told,” she said, before beginning with the line: “There was no one quite like Grandad…”

Further tributes were read by Judge Darling and Paul Darling QC OBE, sons of the trainer’s longest-serving owners and family friends, Bill and Ann Darling.

“Denys and Jean were the most astonishing team,” said the judge. “Not quite Batman and Robin but somewhere close. A team who more than anything cared about people.

“Denys was simply the kindest, finest, slightly eccentric, all-round lovely man that I knew.”

How appropriate that the final hymn should have opened and ended with the verse: “Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son; Endless is the victory, thou o’er death hast won.”

Denys Smith, the man who brought Grand National glory to Bishop Auckland, may have reached the finishing post. But the memories will run and run.