The Ultimate Derby!
By guest blogger John Carter
Whilst writing 'Warriors on Horseback, the Inside Story of Professional Jockeys', I suppose it was inevitable that I mused over how jockeys from different eras compared against each other. Of course any judgement on who was the best of the best can never be satisfactorily resolved. Horse racing has changed, equipment has changed, the world has changed. But that didn’t stop my imagination from wandering. What if, say, the ten most influential and iconic jockeys to have competed on the flat in Britain competed against each other over the downs at Epsom - The ultimate Derby!
In my imagination each jockey was at the peak of his powers and rode horses of similar ability. I know my choice for the top ten is open to debate - no doubt many other worthy candidates do not appear on the following list - but I think it’s an impressive bunch:
Samuel Chifney Senior – Perhaps the first jockey to attract public interest. Won five classics, four in the Oaks.
Frank Buckle - 27 classic wins, nine in the Oaks, the last at the age of 60
Jem Robinson – 24 classic winners, nine in the 2000 Guineas
George Fordham – Champion jockey for 14 years, 16 classics
Fred Archer – Champion jockey for 13 consecutive years, 21 classic wins
Tod Sloan – American who revolutionised riding styles in Great Britain, won 1000 Guineas
Steve Donoghue – Champion jockey 10 times, won Derby six times
Sir Gordon Richards – Champion jockey 26 times, only jockey to be have been knighted
Lester Piggott – Champion jockey 11 times, 30 classic winners
Frankie Dettori – Italian. 16 classic winners, rode all seven winners at Ascot in 1996
Their careers spanned across more than two centuries and they feature regularly on the list of winners.
Go back to 1789 and you’ll find Samuel Chifney Senior’s victory on Skyscraper. Fast forward 226 years to 2015 and, in comparison the ink is scarcely dry on Frankie Dettori’s most recent Derby success on Golden Horn. In between there have been five wins for Frank Buckle and Fred Archer, six for Jem Robinson and Steve Donoghue and a surely unsurpassable nine for Lester Piggott. Yet only a single win for George Fordham and Sir Gordon Richards, who won the Derby at the 27th opportunity.
Usually the iconic jockeys of each generation became a role model to the next one that was destined for greatness and a place in the legends. And so the baton was passed on down the ages.
They would certainly be a fascinating bunch to observe as the prepared for the race within the confines of Epson’s changing room. Away from the cameras and the spectators the manner in which they went about their last-minute preparations would reveal much of their character and nature.
My guess is that observers’ eyes would be drawn to the tallest of the group, Lester Piggott and Fred Archer, both absorbed in a bubble of concentration, oblivious to what is happening around them. Few have been more focused, driven by an extreme desire to be the best.
In the lead up to this race Piggott would have followed his normal Spartan regime featuring cigars, fresh air and just the odd square of chocolate. Archer would, as usual, rely upon swallowing a secretive, potent and toxic concoction that become known as ‘Archer’s Mixture’. Gradually Archer’s frail and gaunt body become used to the deprivation and the potency of this mixture but to the unaccustomed digestive system it was dynamite.
Most likely the ones making the most noise and expanding the most nervous energy in the changing room would be Samuel Chifney Senior and Frankie Dettori. Although they bookend the ten icons – with Chifney born in 1753 and Dettori in 1971 – they were both extroverts who enjoyed banter and the limelight. Chifney was certainly a bit of card; a show-off with an ego the size of his home county of Norfolk. I can visualize him entering the weighing room dressed like a mannequin, changing racing gear with ruffles and frills on his silks, lovelocks hanging down from beneath his cap and bunches of ribbons adorning his boots.
Once the race had begun we would have been able to observe the different riding styles and strategies. Surely the front runner (‘on his tod’) as the field rose up a hill the height of Nelson’s Column in the early stages of the race would be the American, Tod Sloan. He took Britain by storm when he brought his distinctive approach here. He rode aggressively from the start of races, pushing hard, spreading the field, low-slung over the neck of his mount.
The all action riding styles of George Fordham and Jem Robinson would also have caught the eye; perhaps we would be less inclined to notice stylists such as Sir Gordon Richards and his role model, Steve Donoghue. Donoghue’s impressive record at Epsom marked him out as a course specialist and one newspaper article of his era stated, “the reason why Donoghue always distinguishes himself at Epsom is that he is so clever at getting off and gets going so well that he is rarely if ever bunched in going downhill … Donoghue knows every inch of the track at Epsom and his presence on a horse is the equivalent of lightening the animal’s weight by at least seven pounds.”
Richards came to the fore just after Donoghue’s dominance had begun to wane. His riding style was textbook; few have looked more at one with a horse or more equipped to ‘get a tune’ out of it.
Oh, what a joy it would be to watch these skilled practitioners fight it out.
My imagination can picture the race but not the winner, perhaps because, in truth, I don’t feel sufficiently qualified to make such a controversial and weighty judgement.