Racing world mourns passing of popular vet

Mike Ashton was a great character, a vet who treated  local Derby winners and other equines in one of the first specialist practices in the country
Mike Ashton was a great character, a vet who treated local Derby winners and other equines in one of the first specialist practices in the country

MIKE Ashton, for many years the chosen vet of West Sussex former racehorse trainers John Dunlop, Guy Harwood and Josh Gifford, has died at his Walberton home at the age of 95 following a lengthy illness.

He would have been 96 on February 1. His funeral takes place at St Nicholas Church, Arundel, on Tuesday, January 19, at 1.15pm.

He was born in Linton, Cambridgeshire, where he enjoyed a country life surrounded by horses and animals, later going to Haileybury Boarding School.

He had hopes of becoming a farmer but in January, 1939, he joined the 4th Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiments and on November 29, 1941, embarked with his regiment, arriving in Singapore on January 29, 1942, to support the defence of Singapore.

The following month he was cut off from his company and spent 36 hours hiding in the undergrowth before rejoining the others on the second day, when they were all left without food and water. His initiatives found sparse and unorthodox sources to help enable the men to stay alive.

By 1944, he was in a camp of 10,000 men on Tamuan, Thailand, where he was in charge of caring for cattle, ducks and other animals and was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for his wartime initiatives and bravery.

Mike returned to college and trained as a vet in Greenwich. He moved to Arundel, taking over the Fitzalan House Veterinary Group in 1951. He had married his first wife Betty and their children, Judy and Charles were born in 1952 and 1955.

In 1970, he established the entirely equine-based practice at Surrey House in Maltravers Street, Arundel, later working with Brian Eagles and Robert Allpress. He was the founder of the Arundel Veterinary Practice – which went on to become the existing highly respected Arundel Equine Hospital, a top facility of its kind in the country.

Mike later took on the management of Lavington Stud in West Sussex and was racecourse vet at Sandown, Epsom, Brighton and Goodwood. Throughout his lengthy career as an equine veterinarian he had guided the careers of horses such as Derby winner Shirley Heights, 2000 Guineas victor To Agori Mou and Grand National winner Aldaniti.

His first wife Betty died of cancer in 1982 and he later married his second wife Anne, and they had been married for more than 30 years when he died. He had five grandchildren.

A celebration to mark Mike’s career at the Zimmer Stewart Gallery in Arundel in 2005 – held even though he had retired many years previously. Racing personalities from past and present gathered that evening to celebrate Mike’s career and the fact that he still ‘kept his eye in’ and was maintaining his links with racing by assisting in the purchase and management of many thoroughbreds in Sussex.

One such horse was the grand old chaser Eau de Cologne, owned by Dr Margaret Evans who fondly referred to Mike as her ‘racing manager’. At that event he recalled how Funtington trainer Lydia Richards took him to Doncaster Sales, having gone through the catalogue looking for likely horses.

He said: “We saw Eau de Cologne, which looked a likely sort and when I looked at the pedigree, I saw that the granddam was Rosie Wings,the dam of some very good horses that John (Dunlop) had trained in Arundel. We had a 20,000 guineas limit but the horse was unsold at 30,000, having won just two moderate Flat races. I told Lydia she had better ring Dr Evans and increase the bid to 30,000 and the horse came back to Funtington.”

Eau de Cologne was just one example of his fine judgement, for the horse went on to win ten chases at top courses such as Kempton, Ascot and Newbury, and was placed 17 times when trained by Lydia Richards.

When he had been in the box with John Dunlop’s subsequent Derby winner Shirley Heights and Guineas and Oaks winner Salsabil he said there was a sense of being in a great presence. “I knew they were going to be good horses.”

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