Percy Woodland

23rd June 2015

Tony Lake asks “Who does Vincent Cheminaud think he is, Percy Woodland?”


When the champion French jump jockey, Vincent Cheminaud, won the Prix du Jockey Club to add to his victory in the Grand Steeplechase de Paris thoughts turned to Percy Woodland. Not only did the English champion jockey win two “French Derbys” and two Grand Steeples, his glittering career also included two Grand Nationals. Still in his prime when the Great War broke out, he then volunteered to do his bit and then... reports of his death were exaggerated.

As soon as the son of the Hendon trainer started race-riding he started being noticed. “a word of attention is due”, wrote the Standard's correspondent, “a juvenile member of the Woodland family...won” the Cowden Selling Chase at Lingfield “cleverly” on 3/1 joint favourite Crepu. It was 16 December 1895 and Percy Maurice Woodland was 13 years old. (A late starter compared to his brother Herbert, who rode his first winner at nine.) Within eight years, in 1903, he was the youngest ever champion NH jockey, with 54 winners.

Early in his career he teamed up with the horse that he was to say was the best he had ever ridden: Leinster. In 1903, Leinster won the Grand Sefton Chase under 12st 7lb, and three other races, and the next season was unbeaten in four races, including Liverpool's Champion Chase. In France, the partnership won two steeplechases in the 1904-05 season, and in 1910, they won three races, including the Valentine Chase and the Champion Chase for the second time.

Woodland first tasted big race success in the 1903 Grand National. Drumcree, the runner up in 1901 and favourite in 1902 only to finish outside of the top four, returned as favourite again at 13/2. With his booked jockey Hugh Nugent injured, Woodland was hired as deputy. Giving a textbook ride, he hunted around the first circuit, then steadily made ground to join the leaders at the last to run out a cosy winner. Percy followed up by winning two of the three jumping events the following day; steering Hearwood to victory in the Liverpool Handicap Hurdle and Rose Wreath in the Champion Chase.

In those days it had become customary for top jockeys to leave England after Manchester's Easter meeting to ply their trade in Europe. Woodland went further than most, however, by setting up a training yard in France. He sampled big race success in France for the first time in 1904. M Eugene Fishcof had supplemented Dandolo in the Grand Steeplechase de Paris and booked Woodland to ride. “Beautifully ridden” he took up the running fully a mile from home in the 4 mile contest worth £5,000 to win by a length from Gascon II and Spa III.

In the 1905 renewal, Woodland was aboard Canard owned by one of France's premier owners, M Jean Stern. Following a downpour the Auteuil surface was slippery and seven of the 13 runners came to grief, including Dandolo. Canard was always running well though and “finished in excellent style” to win by three lengths. Cheered to the echo, Woodland was then presented to King of Spain and the President of France.

Woodland's first Prix du Jockey Club victory came the following year on Maintenon. After WK Vanderbilt's colt had finished second in the French 2000 Guineas he was made a 7/1 chance in a field of 17. In a driving finish Woodland got the better of Johnny Reiff on Querido.

Within days Woodland was back in the winner's enclosure after a big race, this time taking the “French Champion Hurdle”, the Grande Course de Haies, with Fragilité. Remarkably, Percy was not only the rider of Fragilité but the owner and trainer too.  Sold to André Delbos, in 1907,  the horse and rider went on to win the Prix du President de la Repubique at Maisons-Laffitte.

The Grand Course de Haies was a feature race of "Grande Semaine d'Auteuil" and there, as well as Longchamp, Deauville and Nice, or wherever elegance reigned in France, the English jockey was in demand. Described in the Encyclopaedia of Steeplechasing as a “loved character of dry wit, suave manner and debonair appearance,” he featured as much in the gossip pages as the racing pages.  This culminated in 1906, when he married Emilienne d'Alençon who was one of the “three most notorious courtesans of the age”.

Woodland won his second “French Derby” in 1910, on the Willy Carter trained Or du Rhin II. Winning the £7045 prize for M Gaston Dreyfus, the partnership came home a length clear of Renard Bleu.

Although spending most of his time in France, when Ernie Piggott injured his hand days before the 1913 Grand National, Woodland was called-up to deputise on Covertcoat. Owner, Sir Charles Assheton-Smith, was seeking his third National, after success with Cloister and Jerry M, and Covertcoat obliged. Only two of the 22 runners had clear rounds and the joint second favourite coasted in by a distance. An advocate of the American style of riding, he rode short and had superb balance. He “put his horse in most painstaking fashion at every fence” and it has been said that he had the “smallest percent of falls” of any steeplechase jockey riding.

At the call to arms in August 1914, Percy, along with weighing room colleagues including George Heasman, Jack and Owen Anthony, Jack Drake, Peter Roberts and Lord Torrington, went to London to enlist in the 19th Reserve Squadron of Hussars.

Promoted to corporal within a month he clearly took to military life. By March, he was attached to an armoured motor car division and on his way to Gallipoli. At the Dardanelles, he was shot in the foot by a sniper, however, by June, when this was reported in the Sporting Life, he was not only “practically well again” but promoted to lieutenant in the RNAS.  Indeed he must have made a good recovery because we next hear of him amongst the winners again, somewhere in Egypt, riding “in races got up for the general amusement”.

It was in Egypt that he was put in charge of a naval motor contingent and took part on a raid that resulted in reports of his death. In December, the Sporting Life carried the headline ‘Death of P. Woodland. Famous Cross County Rider Killed in Egypt’.

In January, however, the Sporting Times clarified that he had been taken prisoner in Palestine. “He had been flying some 25 miles inland from Alexandretta, in the neighbourhood of Aleppo, on a hydroplane. Flying at a height of 5,000 feet, he suddenly became the object of heavy anti-aircraft fire. His plane was riddled, and his propeller shot away. Bullets tore into his knee; such was the agony that he fell into a merciful unconsciousness. He should have died, but astonishingly woke up in a Turkish hospital instead. Apart from a fractured knee, his only other injury was a broken collarbone.”

Lieutenant Woodland spent the rest of the war as a POW but was “in very comfortable quarters and is being well-treated by his captors” according to the Sporting Life. In July, from his camp at Cozgad, in Asia Minor, he wrote to his sister and her husband, Vic Tabor, the Epsom trainer, claiming to be “fit and happy, but longing to get home”.  However, by August, he was wondering “if he will be able to ride at all again, as he has not seen a horse at all for six months, except a few ponies in the district, mounted by old men in dressing gowns.” He seemed in good spirits though admitting “to learning all sorts of trades, plain needlework, boot mending, etc.”  A man from Mexico, said the Sporting Life, “is also trying to teach him Spanish.”

He was a prisoner for 18 months and his weight fell to eight stone.  On his return to England he convalesced with the Tabors and by the middle of February it was reported that “P. Woodland was getting fit.”

A fortnight later, 4 March, he was back in the winner's enclosure  - but his mount attracted more attention than him. By winning (actually dead-heating) the seller at Wolverhampton, Wild Aster was proving to be an exceptional horse as he was winning as an 18-year-old.  The jockey was renewing an association that went back to 1905, when he first won on the son of Victor Wild at Leicester.  In 1909, the combination dead-heated for a £4000 prize in Nice and around that time Charles Assheton-Smith's gelding was considered the best hurdler on both sides of the Channel.

Gradually, Woodland wound down his riding career and eventually, settled at Grateley, near the Hampshire-Wiltshire border, to train.  Although his training career was not as successful as his riding career – it was never going to be – he had plenty of winners.  After finishing runner-up (partnered by Woodland) in the 1920 Champion Hurdle (run at Gatwick), his dual-purpose colt, Furious, pulled off a 33/1 shock in the Lincolnshire Handicap.  Reviving his military connection he trained three winners of both of the premier military races – the Grand Military Gold Cup and the Royal Artillery Gold Cup. Foxtrot (1926), Scotch Eagle (1927) and Drin (1929) winning the former and Snapper (1926 and 1927)and St Roy (1929) the latter.

He trained two horses of immense promise but both came up against all-time greats. Gib, after shouldering 12st 9lb and thrashing some decent horses in the Troytown Chase at Lingfield, was well-backed at 13/8 to maintain a year-long unbeaten sequence and beat Easter Hero in the 1930 Cheltenham Gold Cup. Ridden by Fred Rees and after going a cracking gallop, he was still upsides at the second last when he fell.  He was never the same again. French import El Hadjar, after some sparkling form in France, was well-fancied at 11/4 to beat Golden Miller in the 1934 Cheltenham Gold Cup. However, the 75,000Fr purchase was no match for The Miller and fell when weakening at the second last; next time out, in the Champion Chase, he suffered a fatal fall.

Woodland's training career was curtailed by the Second World War and he died in 1958. “Field Steward” in the Sporting Times said, “In his heyday, Percy Woodland, was the best steeplechase rider I had ever seen.” In over a century no one has come near to matching his good luck to Vincent Cheminaud.