As we endure real National Hunt weather, Tony Lake reminds us of a genuine National Hunt great…
In March 1893, a walk-over on Dora at the South Berks meeting heralded the start of a distinguished career in National Hunt racing for the 24 year old jockey, Frederick Edward Withington. At his prime as a jockey he achieved a remarkable strike rate, and as a trainer, he not only sent out the winner of the inaugural Cheltenham Gold Cup, but also achieved a unique Grand National record. Perhaps more significantly, he also elevated the status of trainers from owners’ servants to social equals.
Born 18th February, 1869, and brought up at Fringford Lodge, near Bicester, Frederick was the son of the local parson, Edward. His father took his duties very seriously and played an integral part in Oxfordshire life, from attending to parishioners’ needs to enjoying Hunt Balls, and from showing poultry at Agricultural Shows to presiding as a JP at Ploughley Petty Sessions. At Oxford University, Edward had been a contemporary of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and reputedly rode some of his horses. Consequently, it is not surprising that after completing his education at Eton, Fred soon joined the ranks of gentlemen riders.
As he sought to become an established rider he benefitted from another’s misfortune. Mr J C Dormer, who had for seven seasons rode for the mighty Arthur Yates, suffered a crashing fall in the Mammoth Hunters’ chase at Sandown. Losing his right eye, his promising career was brought to a premature end. When he recovered, he established a racing yard at Cokethorpe Park, and turned to Fred to be his jockey.
The Dormer-Withington partnership consistently produced winners and Fred enjoyed his best season in 1897 when he rode 22 winners from 56 rides (39% strike rate). He was prolific around the Midlands circuit, but also rode winners on the metropolitan tracks, and he even went as far as Lanark to ride a winner. Fred could bond with a horse and enjoyed multiple successes with The Sapper, Lady Gundrede and Graig Olway.
Graig Olway, on whom Fred won nine times from twelve starts, also provided him with his first success over Aintree’s big fences. In a driving finish, Fred defeated Dick Challoner, on March Hare, by a short head, to win the 1896 Champion Chase. Further Liverpool success followed later in the year in the Valentine Chase. Riding Major Orr-Ewing's Ford of Fyne, for master Irish trainer Henry Linde, Fred overturned the George Williamson ridden favourite, Ballet Girl, with a well-timed challenge after the last fence.
In 1897, Ford of Fyne became his first mount in the Grand National. Although quietly fancied, the 25/1 hope was no match for Manifesto and, outpaced in the closing stages, he finished a well beaten third. The partnership returned for the 1898 renewal and, in the absence of Manifesto, started 11/2 favourite. However, in the race run in a snowstorm, they could only manage fifth place behind Drogheda.
Significant races that did fall to Withington include the £400 Great Bangor Open ‘chase, with Prioress, and Warwick’s Leamington Grand Annual ‘chase, with Furze Hill. He also won, in 1897, Newmarket’s Grand Military ‘chase, on Green Hill, which sweet revenge for his defeat two years earlier, when he went down by a neck, on Fetlar, to Mr F B Atkinson on Knight of Rhodes.
As well as his skill he was also known for his pluck. In December 1894, at Lingfield, after breaking a leg, he actually rode Graig Olway to victory wearing a plaster cast. On another occasion, he rode The Sapper, with a broken collarbone and with his arm strapped to his side, and got the better of Mr Gwyn Saunders-Davies, on Minstrel Boy, in a desperate finish. Then in 1898, he won Manchester’s Trafford Park Handicap aboard Ford of Fyne, whilst enduring excruciating pain. His foot had swollen so badly after injuring it at one of the fences that, after the race, his boot could not be taken off … and had to be cut off.
Although he continued to race-ride for another year, Withington turned to training in 1899. Patronised by Lord Fitzwilliam, Lord Grosvenor and Mr Larnach, his stable at Fritwell, near Banbury, produced a steady stream of winners and within ten years he required larger premises. Consequently, he based himself at Danebury, Hampshire, the place made famous by the Days and the Cannons. His mixed-string swelled to forty and his patrons now included Lord Derby, Lord Coventry, Sir Simon Lockhart and Mr J J Astor. In 1908 he added his own chapter to the Danebury history with Rubio and Mattie Macgregor.
Rubio who had been foaled in California became the first, of only three, US-bred horses to win the National. He was a fine stamp of a horse, even winning in the show ring, but he had broken down as a five year old. In order to strengthen his legs, his then trainer, Bernard Bletsoe, put him to pulling a bus for the Prospect Arms Hotel in Towcester. Unorthodox as it was, (but an ideal occupation for a potential “Aintree legend”), by the end of 1906 he was put back into training with Withington.
Although returning to race fitness, Major F Douglas-Pennant’s ten year old was Withington’s second string at Liverpool and unconsidered in the betting at 66/1. Relatively better fancied, at 25/1, was six-year-old mare, Mattie Macgregor, the mount of stable jockey William Bissill.
The stablemates were in the vanguard throughout and Rubio, ridden by Bryan Bletsoe, led past the stands with a circuit to go. As fancied horses including Kirkland, Tom West and Springbok fell away, his only danger was Mattie Macgregor, but, relishing the heavy going, he romped home by ten lengths. When “All Right” was shouted the bookmakers joyfully sang “Pay! Pay! Pay!” knowing full well there were only a few to collect. Indeed none was more shocked than the trainer who had just written a chapter in the Grand National’s history.
Withington had returned to Fringford by the time he won the inaugural running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The 1924 race, however, was not the “blue ribbon” race of today and did not attract the top chasers. Unquestionably, Red Splash’s hard fought victory under Dick Rees is more significant today than it was then.
Red Splash was the fourth of Withington's five Cheltenham Festival winners. He first scored in 1911 when Another Delight (Alf Newey) won the Prestbury Park Handicap Chase; and he had a double in 1915 with Gay Mac (C Kelly), in the Maiden 5 year old Chase, and Full Stop (George Duller) in the County Hurdle. His final festival success came in 1930 when, his 1928 Irish Grand National winner, Don Sancho, secured the National Hunt Handicap Chase under J Moloney.
After retiring from training, in 1930, the below average height and slightly stooping figure continued to be a familiar sight on racecourses. Usually attired in a blue suit with narrow trousers, a stiff collar, Old Etonian tie and a bowler hat, he acted as a member of the National Hunt Committee and the Jockey Club, and acted as a steward at Cheltenham, Sandown and Kempton.
His boundless energy and public spirit was recognised beyond racing. In 1935, he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Oxford and five years later he became Sheriff of Oxfordshire. In turn he was also vice-chairman of Oxfordshire County Council and chairman of the Oxfordshire Agricultural Committee.
He died 6th December 1951, aged 83, in Oxford hospital. Five days later his funeral service was held at Straton Audley where his father had officiated for many years.
A gentleman trainer in the George Lambton mould, Fred Withington raised the status of trainers whilst commanding respect. He was known as one of the kindest of men, always ready with a helping hand or good word. Ultimately, it was the manner with which he dealt with everyone that earned him his unrivalled reputation. He believed in keeping people out of trouble instead of getting them into it. There’s a lot to be said for it.
See Fred Withington's profile at Horseracing History Online