Birtwistle, Major John

Major John Birtwistle


Born in Lancashire in 1920, Major John Norman Drew Birtwistle was well-known and respected within the equestrian community. He was a Fellow of the British Horse Society (FBHS), which is a riding instructor qualification. In racing circles he is best remembered for his association with that good northern hunter chaser Leyton Orient (left), which he rode in all his races.

A successful point-to-point rider, Major Birtwistle rode his first winner under National Hunt rules on his horse Mazawattee in a Bangor-on-Dee hunters’ chase on April 3, 1954. However, it would be another eight years before he rode his second.

Leyton Orient made his debut for his owner-trainer-rider in 1960 when finishing a distant second in the Holcombe point-to-point’s Maiden race. He then beat the only other finisher a distance in the Pendle Forest Hunt race. In 1961, he showed useful form in point-to-points, winning the Derwent Open, the York & Ainsty Open and the Holcombe Adjacent and finishing second on his other three starts.

Leyton Orient’s 1962 debut was delayed until mid-April but he made up for lost time by winning the Vale of Lune Open and the High Peak Open (right). He was then saddled for the Heart of All England Hunt Cup at Hexham, for which he started the 4/1 second favourite in a field of 20 and won by two lengths, beating the favourite Sea Knight. Their next race was another hunter chase, the South Durham Open Hunt Perpetual Challenge Cup at Sedgefield, which they also won. In their last race of the season, they finished second to the useful Rosie’s Cousin in the North Lonsdale Open Hunters’ Chase at Cartmel.

In 1963 Leyton Orient resumed winning ways when landing the Derwent Open point-to-point and thereafter ran in hunter chases. Having finished second to the useful Prince Tarquin at Bangor, Major Birtwistle and Leyton Orient rattled off a four-timer, winning the Igmanthorpe Hunters’ Chase at Wetherby’s Easter fixture, the United Border Hunt Chase at Kelso, the South Durham Hunt Cup at Sedgefield for a second time, and the Adam Scott Memorial Cup at Hexham. They then took on the big guns in the Final Champion Hunters’ Chase, better known as the Horse and Hound Cup, at Stratford, where they stayed on well to finish third, beaten three lengths and two lengths by Baulking Green and Rosie’s Cousin.

Leyton Orient ran purely in hunter chases in 1964, dead-hearting with Freddie at Doncaster on his first outing of the season, but was then beaten 20 lengths and 10 lengths by Freddie and Comforting Wave in the Vaux National Hunters’ Chase (left) at Catterick. He then finished five lengths second to old rival Rosie’s Cousin at Ludlow and a well-beaten fifth behind Freddie in the Cheltenham Foxhunters. He then repeated the previous year’s victory in Wetherby’s Igmanthorpe Hunters’ Chase and made all to win the Bryn-y-Pys Hunters’ Chase at Bangor, the race in which Major Birtwistle had ridden his first winner ten years earlier. They were beaten three-quarters of a length by Royal Reynard at Bogside on their final appearance of the season.

Leyton Orient again ran solely in hunter chases in 1965 but was soundly beaten on his first start at Catterick. He then ran a lifeless race in the Past and Present Hunters’ Chase at Sandown and was subsequently found to have contracted equine flu. He finished last of five at Wetherby on his comeback run but returned to winning ways at Ludlow next time out, then won by 20 lengths at Market Rasen.

In his next race he finished a close third behind Sizzle-On and Saxine in Sedgefield’s South Durham Hunt Cup. Following that, Leyton Orient again finished third, beaten three-quarters of a length and two lengths by Royal Phoebe and Minto Burn in the Fraser Cup (right) at Cartmel, having led on the flat until appearing to be hampered, and unable to regain the advantage. Tragically, he collapsed and died in the paddock after the race. It was a sad end for a fine jumper who won eleven hunter chases in the hands of his owner-trainer-rider.

Major John Birtwistle ran the Harrogate Riding Centre at Burnbridge, Harrogate, North Yorkshire. He died on December 1, 2004, aged 84, leaving two sons, Tim and Drew, and two daughters, Gay and Dawn.

Major John Birtwistle’s winners under National Hunt rules were:

1. Mazawattee, Bangor-on-Dee, April 1, 

2. Leyton Orient, Hexham, May 7, 1962

3. Leyton Orient, Sedgefield, May 19, 1962

4. Leyton Orient (above), Wetherby, April 16, 1963

5. Leyton Orient, Kelso, May 2, 1963

6. Leyton Orient, Sedgefield, May 18, 1963

7. Leyton Orient, Hexham, June 1, 1963

8. Leyton Orient (above), Doncaster, February 1, 1964 (dead-heat)

9. Leyton Orient, Wetherby, March 30, 1964

10. Leyton Orient, Bangor-on-Dee, April 4, 1964

11. Leyton Orient, Ludlow, April 29, 1965

12. Leyton Orient (above), Market Rasen, May 8, 1965