Jimmy Uttley and Persian War - Cheltenham Glories and More

15th March 2016

1967Victory in the 1967 Triumph Hurdle was only the prelude to the pair's glorious future at Cheltenham. Persian War went on to join the immortals of the hurdling ranks while Jimmy established himself as one of most highly respected jockeys within that discipline. By the time the two of them retired Persian War was a triple winner of the Champion Hurdle, the first since Sir Ken in 1954, Jimmy meanwhile had also ridden two more winners of the Triumph Hurdle and finished top jockey at the Festival in 1968.

Those are the main headlines but the journey was far from straight forward.

The 1967/68 season started with a twenty five length win at Newbury but was followed by a crashing fall at Cheltenham at the second last in the Landsdown four year old hurdle. A race won by future chasing star Spanish Steps. Prone to the occasional jumping error, in atrocious conditions the gelding slipped on takeoff banged his head on the top bar and fell unconscious. It was a few minutes before he fully recovered and got to his feet.

Alper then decided to move Persian War across to France, partly because of the onset of foot and mouth disease in the country which wrecked the racing industry for over a month. (There was no National Hunt racing after 25th November until the 5th January.) A disagreement between the owner and trainer Brian Swift over his racing plans resulted in a parting of the ways and Colin Davies a 43 year old Welshman from Chepstow was appointed as Alper's new trainer. Prior to being a racehorse trainer Davies had been a motor racing driver and amateur jockey and had ridden his own horse Claymore into 13th place in the 1964 Grand National.

Jimmy recalled going out to Chantilly with Davies in November to see the horse. "He wasn't well, he was passing blood, he was in a right state, and I said to Colin that you need to get him home as quickly as possible". And within three days the horse was back in the UK at Davies's Oakgrove yard which ran parallel to Chepstow racecourse.

Persian War flourished on his return to home shores and after a couple of seconds, at Doncaster (27 January), and Kempton (3 February), he lined up in the Schweppes Gold Trophy at Newbury on 17 February. Then regarded as the greatest handicap hurdle in the country worth £6,751 to the winning owner, Persian War carried the burden of 11st 13Ib in a 33 runner field. "They don't have fields like that today" joked Jimmy who remembered the race was "Ryan Price's race". Price with stable jockey Josh Gifford had won four of the first five runnings since the race was established in 1963. The Findon based partnership also had a leading contender in 1968 with Major Rose who was backed down during the week form 8/1 to 11/2. Persian War was sent off the 9/2 favourite.

Persian War, always prominent, took the lead three flights from home and in a driving finish just held off Major Rose by a half a length. It was a remarkable achievement by a five year old, arguably his greatest victory in view of his physical condition less than two months before. It remains the biggest weight carried to victory in this competitive handicap since inception in 1963. The Times racing page headline simply read "Persian War Superb". It was a tribute to the handling of Davies, who after the race praised Jimmy's role "I learned that Jimmy Uttley's judgement of Persian War's racecourse performance is absolutely perfect. He knows exactly what to do and when to do it with the horse. His understanding of the horse is positively uncanny".

Our conversation then passed on to Persian War's three glorious Champion Hurdle victories. Asked which was the easiest Jimmy paused and said "they were all hard". But what was the best way to ride him? "He liked a lead horse and wanted a good strong gallop". Indeed in all three wins Colin Davies ran a stable mate to set the pace to ensure the race was a true test of Persian War's stamina.

In 1968 Duncan Hughes rode Straight Point, a six year old owned by Davies's father John, and the horse led the field until Jimmy took the initiative at the sixth flight. Thereafter, Persian War's main rival was the 1967 winner Saucy Kit, who made, as Jimmy said, "a right mess of the second last and nearly landed on all fours". Persian War then ran on well up the hill to beat the Newmarket trained favourite, Chorus, by four lengths to become the first horse since Clair Soleil in 1955 to complete the Triumph/Champion Hurdle double.

The following day was a special one for Jimmy winning both the Triumph Hurdle and the County Hurdle. "Not bad for someone who only raced over hurdles" joked Jimmy as he took the top jockey crown for the meeting. England's Own (pictured below jumping the last) took the former prize for the Staff Ingham stable by ten lengths whilst Jolly Signal the County Hurdle for Earl Jones.

Jimmy

Twelve months later the Champion arrived at the Festival after an injury interrupted campaign following a fall in his first run of the season at Worcester in late October. The injury to his femur kept him off the course until February;he was lame for six weeks and in his box for almost a month. Although two comeback runs in February confirmed his leg had fully recovered he was beaten in his preliminary race, the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton at 1/4, but that was mainly thought to be because he had been off colour with a high temperature twenty four hours before the race.

Come race day Davies had assured punters that all was well with his star hurdler, who was made the 6/4 favourite in a field of seventeen to retain his crown. Amongst his rivals was a future National Hunt superstar, the Irish six year old L'Escargot ridden by Tommy Carberry (11/2 2nd favourite). Davies again provided a pacemaker for Jimmy and Persian War, this time the aptly named Bobby Moore, (then the captain of West Ham) a five year old chestnut ridden by Duncan Hughes, who took the running up in very heavy going, leading until the 5th obstacle.

Jimmy had Persian War on the rails just behind the leaders but rounding the home turn the Ken Oliver trained Drumikill led the Champion by at least two lengths and as Jimmy recalled "In that year Drumikill with Barry Brogan should have won, who was well in front going to the last". But a serious error by the leader together with a giant leap by the favourite saw Jimmy cruise home to victory by four lengths. L' Escargot finished 6th.

The Persian War roller coaster was in full swing during the 1969/70 season. His hurdling reappearance was delayed until mid December at Sandown mainly due to the after affects of his run on the flat in the Newbury Autumn Cup over two miles. Alper, against the advice of his trainer, felt with the low weight of 7st 2Ib together with apprentice Pat Eddery in the saddle claiming 5Ib the race was too good an opportunity to miss. Sadly he came fourth of the eleven runners but much worse he was very sore afterwards and wasn't sound again for nearly a month. More significantly the Sandown race, where he finished a five length 2nd behind the Queen Mother's four year old Escalus was the first time he experienced some respiratory problems.

He failed to win in five starts before his 18 March 1970 date with destiny and was now running with a tongue strap to help his breathing. Asked about his failure to win a race Jimmy said, "I used to look after him; I didn't knock him about in the other races". It certainly paid dividends as taking up the lead from the fifth hurdle Persian War (5/4 favourite) held off his fast finishing adversary Major Rose by one and a half lengths with Escalus third at 25/1. It was a brave performance by a brilliant horse, considering the setbacks during the campaign. Indeed in early May the horse was sent to the Newmarket Equine Research Centre for a soft palate operation.

The three time Champion's last major triumph came on 28 December 1970 in the valuable Irish Sweeps Hurdle at Fairyhouse when he ploughed through the heavy going to win by a commanding eight lengths. The win propelled Persian War to the front of the Champion Hurdle ante post market. The horse was now trained by Arthur Pitt at Epsom after a fall out between Alper and Davies during the summer.

By now a new young rival had emerged in the shape of Bula. In February, the Fred Winter trained gelding easily beat the Champion in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. At the 1971 Festival he confirmed the form. "He had gone" according to Jimmy as he summed up the old warrior's attempt to win an unprecedented fourth Champion Hurdle, although he ran on bravely up the hill to come 2nd four lengths behind Paul Kellaway's mount.

"I got off Persian War at the beginning of the next season to ride Boxer" said Jimmy. Trained by Ron Smyth, Boxer had won the Daily Express Triumph Hurdle for Jimmy in 1971, his third individual win in the juvenile Grade One race. (Only Barry Geraghty with four wins has won more Triumph hurdles.) Martin Blackshaw took the ride on Persian War for the season though there was no ill feeling between Jimmy and Alper.

While the old Champion failed to win in five starts Jimmy rode Boxer to 4th place in the Irish Sweeps Hurdle before coming 2nd eight lengths adrift of the new Champion Bula in the Cheltenham showpiece.

"I was still friendly with Mr Alper and at the end of the season he asked me to ride Persian War in a conditions race at Stratford" I nursed him round, his tongue was hanging out, he just managed to hang on" It was a poor race but it was nice to have another win on him" said Jimmy. The 2m 6f Latecomers Hurdle on June 1972 was the last of Persian War's eighteen hurdle victories. The horse had now been switched to Denis Rayson's Harraton House yard at Exning.

Persian War's last race was at Cheltenham on 3 January 1973 when he finished unplaced in the Broadway hurdle. He was officially retired in March 1974 when he injured himself in a gallop when being trained by his final trainer Jack Gibson for the County Hurdle on the eve of the Festival. At the end of the same season his accomplished companion Jimmy decided to retire on doctor's advice. "I had had some bad falls on my head, one bad one on the flat but I never broke a bone in my body" He said.

A modest man Jimmy said "it was a good life but a hard a life" and with regard to his three Champion Hurdle wins "none of them were easy".

Jimmy now enjoys walking his dog, holidays with the Injured Jockeys Fund and time with his family. A quiet unassuming man it was a pleasure to be in his company, to relive the stories of a Cheltenham hero.

Stephen Wallis

I would also like to thank Willie Snaith, a friend of Jimmy's for over fifty years for arranging the interview and for the assistance of his son John.

The photo of Persian War is by kind courtesy of Gerald Segasby www.segaspicturegallery.co.uk