As racing hails Silvestre de Sousa as champion jockey Tony Lake looks back at the first non-British champion
When Enoch Wishard and William Duke decided to cross the Atlantic to try their luck in England with them was a cherubic looking 19 year old. Spending four seasons in England Lester Reiff went from a curiosity to champion jockey and from winning the Derby to being warned off. To some he was a cherub but to others he was far from an angel.
The rider from Americus, Missouri, was spotted by John McCafferty who took him to New York, where soon he was riding for Wishard and Duke. Fearing the anti-gambling laws in New York State, in 1896, the partnership boarded the steamship Manitoba bound for London. They took with them a dozen horses, including Ramapo, who it was hoped could land a decent handicap.
Lester’s “curious short rein style” was widely ridiculed before Wishard won the Wilton Welter Plate, at Manchester in May; providing a first success for trainer and jockey in England. More racegoers started to take Reiff seriously after Helen Nichol won at the Epsom meeting and Wishard lifted the Queen Anne Plate at Ascot. By mid-July the American had ridden seven winners from 24 rides.
Some viewed his riding with suspicion and in the July Handicap at Newmarket it was noticed that Romapo missed the break and made up late ground. The Liverpool Mercury remarked that “Reiff was seldom caught napping at the start and it gave rise to ‘more comment than if he had been ridden by an Englishman.’”
Two weeks later, Romapo was supported into 100/30 for the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood. The 24 runner handicap produced a blanket finish with Romapo finishing fourth. However, he caused much interference, swerving and interfering with Kilcock, Chasseur and Sweet Auburn. The latter two finished first and second but Kilcock, a class horse carrying 9st 12lb, was out of the money. Capt Greer and Jack Watts, owner and jockey of Kilcock, reported Reiff for foul riding.
He was suspended for a fortnight. The Yorkshire Herald thought the sentence light and that he was shown leniency because he was an American. The Liverpool Mercury though was scathing, “While Reiff was winning some races at Newmarket with 10lb in hand every time, a certain section of his admirers spoke and wrote of him as a horseman capable of giving a salutary lesson to our English riders and it was suggested that his seat on the horse’s withers was in accordance with common sense principles. Now, however, that he has demonstrated over and over again that he is quite helpless on a horse when his mount does anything other than gallop straight on, it may be that some credit be given to English riders for knowing as much as their American cousins.” The Glasgow Herald, not distracted by the riding, noted how Romapo “had improved upon his Newmarket running and was heavily backed.”
Whilst serving his ban the stable never had a winner and many questioned the abuse heaped upon Reiff. By the end of the season he had ridden 15 winners from 63 rides.
Home again, satisfied with the English adventure Wishard concluded, “Had we had good horses (we) would have won more races. The main thing over there is to know how to place your horses." The jockey said, "I like England, but I like America better. At first the jockeys over there treated me rather mean, but when we won races and they began to see that I was not a faker, they became better, and toward the latter end of the racing season the jockeys could not do enough for me."
It was thought that the trio would return to England in 1897 but they did not. Instead they were based at Washington Park, Chicago, where the jockey was noted for adopting the “English seat”. Lester did well, however, during a spell in California he was suspended and his popularity waned. When his licenced was re-instated in May 1899 he was ready to return to England with Wishard and Duke. This time he would be accompanied by his younger brother, Johnny, “the crack feather” who, perhaps prophetically, at Hawthorne Park was not “allowed to ride in a race wherein his brother (had) a mount”.
The brothers arrived at Albert Docks on Wednesday, 7 June, and rode at Brighton on the following day. By the end of the season Lester notched up 55 winners from 184 rides; an eye-catching 29% strike-rate. A year later he was the champion jockey.
The battle with Sam Loates, the reigning champion, for the championship had been close and the rivals went into the last week 135 to 137. Gradually, the American increased his lead and at Manchester, with victory aboard Spectrum in the Final Plate, the last race of the year, the gap became six.
Champion with 143 winners only tells part of the story as Loates took 809 rides against Reiff’s 553 i.e. Reiff had a 25% strike rate; Loates’ 17%. Johnny Reiff came third, with 124 wins from 604 mounts (20%). They were the only jockeys to have won more than 100 races.
Whilst Lester’s supporters acclaimed his handling of horses and his “very fine judge of pace” his detractors criticised his lack of strength in finish insisting he “lost more races by a head or neck than he has won by those margins”. Those who backed him in every race to £1 stake lost £27-12sh-11d.
Reiff’s first claim was still with Wishard, who now trained for Richard “the boss” Croker and some gambling Americans, and who with 54 winners trained most winners in 1900. Although he failed to win any of the Classics he won good prizes at Ascot, where he was aboard Good Morning in the Coventry Stakes, Bonarosa in the St James’s Palace Stakes, Solitaire in the Gold Vase and Gadfly in the Alexandra Plate. He also partnered Mount Prospect to victory in the valuable Duke of York Stakes at Kempton.
The Champion ended the season with great prospects for the coming year as he was on many of John Musker’s and Lord William Beresford’s decent two-year-olds. However, it came “on the assumption that the Stewards of the Jockey Club renew his riding licence.”
At Newmarket’s second October meeting, he was “hooted” by the crowd after he was beaten on two consecutive odds-on shots, Escurial and Americus. Lord Durham, for one, was unhappy with the riding of many of the Americans riding in England and made his views public in The Times. Reiff then surprised the public by refraining from bringing an action against Lord Durham for libel, but the Jockey Club completely exonerated him. The general opinion, repeated in the San Francisco Call was that Lord Durham and the Stewards of the Jockey Club, “piqued at the failure of the attack, would be watching, for an opportunity to make a case against Reiff.”
The 1901 season brought him 75 winners, including Volodyovski in the Derby for owner WC Whitney and trainer John Huggins. Other high profile successes included the Chester Cup on David Garrick, and the National Produce Stakes, the richest two-year-old race of the year, on Game Chick. Nonetheless suspect races were mounting up, including Volodyovski’s failure in the St Leger. Matters came to a head on 27 September at Manchester.
The day started well, winning the Friday Plate on Mr JA Drake’s Archduke II, and doubling up in the Autumn Breeders’ Foal Plate on Major Eustace Loder’s Game Chick. Then he rode WC Whitney’s colt De Lacy in the New Barns Plate over a mile. He was beaten a head by Richard Croker’s filly Minnie Dee, the 7/4 second favourite ridden by his brother.
On the Saturday, after riding another double, on Vanstella and Game Chick, the stewards called him before them. Lord Marcus Beresford, Lord Cole and Capt Fetherstone-Haugh stated they were dissatisfied with his riding of De Lacy and considered his explanation unsatisfactory. They referred the case to the Stewards of the Jockey Club.
Three days later, John Huggins, De Lacy’s trainer, told the hearing that he had not seen anything wrong, and that, after having trained the horse, he had watched him closely throughout the race, especially at the finish. Wishard, Minnie Dee’s trainer, gave similar testimony. On the contrary some of the English jockeys and others believed that Reiff pulled the horse. The Stewards voted to withdraw Lester Reiff’s license and warned him off Newmarket Heath.
Within a month of the warning off De Lacy was sold for 480 guineas at the Tattersall Sales. The Times reported that “he was expensive according to Capt Beatty as he always seems to run badly.” Ironic maybe but as “Vigilant” said in the Sportsman, “The warning off of Lester Reiff was only what was anticipated by those who had carefully watched his riding for the last few months.” His license was reinstated in 1904 but by then the cherub had flown.