Sixty years ago, on the 28 July 1954, one of the museum’s dearest friends, Willie Snaith, won the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on the Queen’s horse Landau. Stephen Wallis’s blog pays tribute to Willie.
First run in 1841, the Sussex Stakes over one mile is now regarded as the highlight of the meeting. The roll of honour is an illustrious one with the mighty Frankel being the only dual winner (2011 and 2012). This year saw the John Gosden trained Kingman deliver a blistering turn of foot in the last furlong to defeat the 2013 winner Toronado by a length.
I had the great fortune to chat to Willie in the museum’s garden a couple of weeks ago about Landau and his famous victory on the Sussex Downs. However, being Willie the conversation didn’t stop there and he mixed in some of his many funny stories during his time in world of racing.
Short in stature he may be but he retains an infectious enthusiasm for racing and people. His bubbly personality makes him the museum’s most popular visitor and even during our short interview he had time to share a picture with a youngster, who had just been round the museum and had experienced the racehorse simulator.
Willie was born in Gateshead in 1928 and apprenticed to Sam Armstrong from 1943 to 1950 before becoming his stable jockey. “Pocket Hercules”, as he became known, rode his first winner in 1946 and was the leading apprentice jockey in 1949 with 31 winners. He later rode as a light weight jockey for leading trainers of the day, including Noel (later Sir) Murless (1910-87) and Captain (later Sir) Cecil Boyd Rochfort (1887-1983). Despite a very bad injury in May 1961 at Lingfield, he recovered to ride a total of over 900 winners before retiring in 1971 winning his final race on the Scobie Breasley trained Skyroben over Newmarket’s Rowley Mile course. It was at HQ in 1953 when riding the filly Bebe Grande he finished 2nd in the 2,000 Guineas and 3rd in the 1,000 Guineas only two days later. That was one of the many highlights of his career and another followed one year later with his famous trilogy of rides on Landau.
Landau was a horse leased by the Queen from the National Stud. Impeccably bred, his sire Dante had won the 1945 wartime Derby at Newmarket whilst his dam, Sun Chariot, also bred at the National Stud for King George VI won the Triple Crown in 1942.
As a two year old Landau won three of five races and was ridden by Sir Gordon Richards (1904-88). Although sixth of fifteen in the Windsor Castle Stakes at Royal Ascot in his second appearance the colt won his last three races in some style. Willie said “Sir Gordon had great faith in the horse and thought he had a great chance to win the 1954 Derby”.
The view of Sir Gordon was supported by bookmakers, who made Landau 10/1 for the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby in their winter ante post market, and the handicapper , who rated Landau at 9st 4Ib’s, only 3Ib’s below the top rated The Pie King, in the Free Handicap.
Prior to the Derby Landau ran three times: finishing 3rd in his opening outing at Newmarket, a moderate 11th of 19 in the 2,000 Guineas where he started as the joint third favourite and a promising 2nd, beaten only one length in the Lingfield Derby trial behind Rowston Manor. The latter trained by Henry Peacock at Middleham was considered one of the major fancies for the Epsom classic.
Sir Gordon Richards was booked to ride Landau in the Derby (June 2) but a fall when Misty Night was brought down at Salisbury on May 19th meant he was unable to ride the Queen’s colt. In stepped our Willie, who told me he had only had one gallop on Landau before the Derby.
Willie held Noel Murless in the highest regard. “He was a gentleman and a great man” he said. On his Derby orders, Willie remarked that “Mr Murless very rarely gave orders but had said he wanted me to make the running and everyone would get excited being the Queen’s horse. The horse only really got a mile and quarter”.
The Queen, Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill were all at Epsom on what was a chilly overcast day. Twenty two runners went to post with Rowston Manor the 5/1 joint favourite whilst the Queen’s big hope was 100/7.
Willie followed his trainer’s instruction to the letter and from the start Landau was always prominent. By the time they rounded Tattenham Corner he was upsides with Rowston Manor with Doug Smith on board. With the colt’s stamina running out he failed to hold his place in the last two furlongs to eventually finish 8th.
Reunited with Sir Gordon, Landau then won his next two starts. Dropping back in trip to a mile he scored a comfortable start to finish triumph by four lengths in the Rous Memorial Stakes at Royal Ascot before a less than impressive three quarters of a length win in the Ellesmere Stakes at Newmarket over 1m 4 furlongs. Despite finishing only 3rd in his next outing, in the Eclipse beaten a length and half and a head by winner King of Tudors (1953 Sussex Stakes Winner) and Darius (1954 2,000 Guineas winner), it was considered a decent performance and a big prize still seemed within his reach.
Significantly in the race after the Eclipse Sir Gordon suffered a bad injury. When leaving the paddock with the filly Abergeldie (owned by HM Queen) she reared over backwards and rolled on him, breaking his pelvis and dislocating four ribs. Although last year’s Derby hero had already decided to retire at the end of the season this incident resulted in the immediate end to his wonderful career.
Once again Willie was given the call to replace the champ and ride Landau in the Sussex Stakes. Willie remembers Landau as a lovely kind horse, very dark in appearance, big in stature over 16 hands who was looked after at Warren Place by his great friend Cliff Lines. Cliff later moved to Sir Michael Stoute’s yard where he was the work rider for the mighty Shergar. Nowadays Cliff trains a few horses at Exning.
The 1954 Sussex Stakes was contested, like this year, by a field of only four, but, also like this year, it was a quality field. Festoon had won the 1,000 Guineas. She had failed to stay the Oaks distance, where she came 5th, however, she proved herself the best filly of her generation by winning the prestigious Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot on 16 June in her last race before Glorious Goodwood. The speedy Big Berry, (whose sire Big Game had won the 1942 2,000 Guineas) who had finished second in the 1,000 Guineas two lengths behind Festoon and in her latest run at the end of June was runner up in the July Cup. The final member of the quartet was the colt Orthopaedic, who in his previous race had ran second in a six furlong handicap at Newcastle. He was therefore not up to the standard of the classic threesome, though as a two year old he did come a promising second in the Gimcrack Stakes at York behind the top two year old of 1953 The Pie King.
Orthopaedic later won the Ayr Gold Cup over 6 furlongs in 1954 and interestingly was trained by John “Towser” Gosden, father of this year’s Sussex Stakes winning trainer.
Wednesday 28 July 1954 was blustery day on the Sussex Downs but it proved as Willie remembered “an easy race for him”.
Willie recalled that Mr Murless had said “do your own thing; you know the horse and that he gets the mile well”. Landau was sent off the 6/4 favourite with Festoon conceding 3Ib’s to him at 2/1, Orthopaedic 7/2 and Big Berry 6/1.
Everything went according to plan, all three opponents giving him a six lengths start in a slowly run race and Willie was able to dictate the race. On entering the straight Scobie Breasley challenged on Festoon which had no effect and the Queen’s horse won easily by 5 lengths. Orthopaedic ridden by Joe Mercer was 2nd, Festoon 3rd and Big Berry (Eph Smith) 4th. Making all the running Landau’s Sussex Stakes victory was probably his finest as he had beaten the top filly of her generation over a mile. Next stop America.
Held at Laurel Park, Maryland, the Washington DC international was then the leading international turf race for middle distance colts. In fact the horse was a trail blazer for the Queen as he became the first to carry the royal colours in the United States. An arch royalist, Willie could not have been prouder to represent the young monarch.
Although, the horse flopped in his prep race before his passage to America when he finished last of four, at odds of 8/15 in September’s Old Rowley Stakes over a mile at Newmarket connections still had hopes of a bold show.
However, that confidence was knocked on the eve of the race when Landau suffered a heel infection and was a major doubt. But he recovered to line up on 3 November in a field of seven, which also included his old rival King of the Tudors. In soft going Landau led for the first six furlongs but faded to finish last, twenty lengths behind the winner with the other English horse King of the Tudors sixth. Remarkably Willie’s memory was undimmed as he recollected the wining horse and jockey, the American colt Fisherman ridden by Eddie Arcaro (1916-1997).
Following his trip to America Landau was sold in December to an Australian, Mr E Underwood from Melbourne for £20,000 Guineas. There he proved to be a successful stallion producing 16 stakes winners and 43 stakes wins. My research has revealed that he died in 1968.
Meanwhile after retiring as a jockey Willie then worked for many years as a work rider for Sir Noël Murless and his Warren Place successor Henry (later Sir) Cecil before a bad asthma attack forced him to finish his riding career. Willie then utilised his infectious enthusiasm for racing to become a well respected and convivial Newmarket tour guide, where he took parties along to all the town’s major racing establishments including the National Horse Racing Museum.
However his proudest ever moment came in 2005 when he was awarded the MBE by Her Majesty the Queen for services to the community. Willie remembered the day fondly and remarked that the Queen greeted him with the words “hello how are you after such a long time”. He particularly remembers his late wife Silvia saying to him what on earth have you been talking about as he reminisced with the Queen about Landau and his life as a Newmarket tour guide.
Sadly his wife Silvia passed away in 2012 after 62 years of marriage, the same year he survived a very serious illness. However, Willie is now fighting fit, still able to fit into those racing silks and lives in a flat overlooking the famous Warren Hill gallops. He is a frequent visitor to the museum and like the day of our interview he can always be seen chatting away to visitors of all ages, because he truly is a Glorious Geordie.
Thank you Willie for sharing your time with me it was a great pleasure.