Family Numbers Sire Lines Breeders As It Were Genealogy
A B C D EF G H IJK L M NO P QR S T UV W XYZ
|Sir Gordon Richards|
Classics winners ridden by
Had there ever been an occasion quite like this? The crowd that had gathered at Epsom that day had swelled to a quite incredible number. The Derby, one of the five gems known as "The Classics," was the most important race in the flat racing calendar, open only to three-year old thoroughbreds. The race always attracted a big crowd, but this year's event was more popular than ever. Earlier in the week, to great rejoicing, the Kingdom had crowned its new Queen in Westminster Abbey. The Queen, a great racing fan herself, was to attend the Derby and her horse, Aureole would run as one of the favourites. That same week, Gordon Richards had been made a Knight of the Realm, the only jockey ever to attain the honour. A career that had made him the most successful British flat jockey of all time, Sir Gordon was to ride in his last ever Derby, a race he had never won. The atmosphere in the crowd was electric, and their loyalties were divided between supporting Royalty and the peoples hero, who may just have well have been Royalty in their eyes that day.
Pinza was to be Sir Gordon's horse for the Derby. A high-spirited colt, he was considered unfit for Newmarket's 2000 Guineas, one of the Classics held the month previous, but his condition for Derby day had improved greatly. Pinza was joint favourite in the betting ring, along with a horse named Premonition. Aureole, the Queen's horse, was a stable companion of Premonition and was also highly favoured at odds of 9-1.
Pinza was a massive colt of over 16 hands, a huge size for a flat thoroughbred, and he looked in tremendous shape as he was led around the parade ring. He had fined down considerably and was in the peak of his life, but Premonition also looked to be in excellent form, whilst the impetuous Aureole was as bad tempered as ever. The jockeys mounted and their steeds were led onto the famous Epsom Downs to the start of the one and a half mile course, to the delight of the crowd.
The field lined up at the tape and the starter sent them away. City Scandal, a rank outsider set the early lead, but after a quarter of a mile the Aga Khan's horse, Shikampur was in front. Shikampur was making a brave attempt, and he still led coming down the Epsom hill, but the rest of the field were four lengths down, some biding their time, some just trying to stay on terms. But Premonition, the joint favourite, was badly placed, and down the hill coming round the famous Tattenham Corner, Richards guided Pinza through an opening on the rails to move up into second place. But they had already gone round the turn for home, and the baying crowd along the home-straight were beginning to grow in fervour, excited, beginning to shout for their horse. Still Shikampur led, a gallant attempt, and whilst his effort was showing and his pace began to falter, Richards on Pinza was still in second place. Pinza was gaining, Richards' unique style in evidence as his iron will pushed the mighty Pinza on, but Aureole was coming from behind, and at three furlongs remaining it looked as if the Queen's horse was still in with a mighty chance.
The crowd were now in full cry, "Come on Pinza! Come on Gordon!" were the shouts from the crowd. Shikampur battled on, his coat glistening from the effort, and as the roar of the crowd made almost all else inaudible, still the two front runners could hear the wrath of the King's horse, Aureole, bearing down on them. But Pinza, running as fast as he had ever had done, swept past the Aga Khan's valiant horse with two furlongs left. Aureole, his nostrils flared under the immense effort, moved into second place, but Pinza, guided by the incredible will of Richards, galloped on, his hooves pounding like thunder on the Epsom turf. Aureole could not catch them. Sir Gordon knew that he and Pinza were unstoppable, an irresistible force, as they raced for home. They crossed the post to the huge cheers of the public. The peoples champion had won the greatest prize; the Derby, at last, was his. Led through the frenzy of the crowd, Pinza and Richards made their way to the winners enclosure, before being summoned for congratulations from the Queen and the adoration of the public.
Such was the story of the Donnington Wood born jockey, who won his greatest prize 50 years ago this month.
Fairy-tales are often told, without the explanation of the years of effort before the hero finds their riches. Gordon Richards was born in Ivy Row, known to the locals as Potato Row in Donnington Wood, on 5 May 1904. The son of a miner, Gordon attended Donnington Wood Infants school before the family moved. His mother was a shrewd lady, and with money they had saved they moved the family of eight brothers and sisters to a four-acre plot in Wrockwardine Wood and built three houses which were later known as the Limes. The investment would mean that they would be able to live in number one, which still stands today on Wrockwardine Wood's Plow Road, and let the remaining two houses out. It was here that the young Gordon fostered his love of horses, for his father kept several pit ponies and Gordon would ride them bare-back from an early age. He admitted himself that he was always fond of being with the horses whenever possible and his small size added to his promising talent.
Gordon shared with his family a very happy home life. Along with his brothers, of whom Colin and Clifford also held Gordon's love of horses, the family used to run a pony and trap service from Wrockwardine Wood to Oakengates railway station. Gordon was still only a young boy of seven, but his passengers always felt comfortable with him at the reins. By the time he was 13, Gordon left school and began working for the Lilleshall Company at its New Yard Works in St. Georges. He worked as a junior clerk and found it a very happy place with many friendly people. Sometimes, he even used to ride a pony to work and leave it tied up in a nearby field, before riding it home again at the end of the day. The others who worked at the Lilleshall Company noted Gordon's love of horses. At 15 he had unsuccessfully written to a racehorse trainer for an interview to be a stable lad, but in the same year two of his young colleagues, Stella Plant and Chrissie Crofts, spotted an advert in a local paper for a stable lad with the racehorse trainer Martin Hartigan at Foxhill, Wiltshire, and persuaded Gordon to apply. Gordon had made up his mind exactly what he wanted to do with his life; he wanted to be a jockey like his hero Steve Donoghue, a great champion of the day. Chrissie and Stella helped Gordon compose his application, and without a word to his family, he sent his letter away. Gordon had a reply, and it was good news. He was to report to Mr. Hartigan in the New Year of 1920 for a month's trial as a stable lad. Life often has its turning points, and it is such events that make real the belief that life is influenced by fate.
"The two girls put their heads together and wrote my application for me. I shall never forget them. You see, in a way they started my career for me," Gordon was to say in later life.
On 1 January 1920 Gordon walked through the cold with his father to Oakengates train station. The walk was a very emotional one. His parents had only recently discovered his ambition to move away, and whilst he was determined to fulfill his dream, he was very sad to leave his happy home life behind. His move was made all the harder, for Gordon had never been away from home before for any period of time. Whilst leaving home was difficult for the young Gordon Richards, he soon found his feet with Mr. Hartigan. It was a Mr. Jimmy White who owned the stables where Hartigan trained, and as a wealthy entrepreneur Mr. White filled his house every weekend with his guests. This must have been an interesting time for a young son of an Oakengates miner. In the cut and thrust world of racing, getting a mount was no easy job, but Gordon managed to get one of his earliest rides through his fortunes at another game that was close to his heart: football. A match had been arranged between Martin Hartigan's stable lads and Martin's brothers' team from the nearby Ogbourne stables. Mr. White had his money on his home team, but with five minutes remaining the score was three-all. The Foxhill stable gained a late penalty, and Mr. White insisted that Gordon to take it. As an incentive, he promised him a ride the following day at Lincoln if Gordon should score. Gordon must have been thinking about the Wolves, his favourite team, as he struck the ball. It flew straight into the net. The game went to Foxhill and Gordon got his ride. He wasn't placed at Lincoln the following day, but he rode well and it wasn't long before his first win came on Gay Lord at Leicester on 31 March 1921.
A will to win is all very well, but it must also be enforced with a single-mindedness to prepare. It was with this attitude that Gordon went into his first season as a fully-fledged jockey in 1925, after a move to the stables of Tommy Hogg under the ownership of Lord Glanely. Gordon notched up 118 wins and became Champion jockey in his very first year, the jockey who had been most successful that season. Things could hardly have gone better for a young jockey in his first year, a 21 year old with the world at his feet. But the following year, disaster struck for his career. Gordon had been feeling unwell, and under examination abnormalities were discovered on his lungs and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Any disappointment he might have felt at having his career cut short was overtaken by the realization that he needed to get well. Gordon was sent to a sanatorium in Mundesley, Norfolk, in May of that year in an attempt to improve his condition. Again, fate had an impact on the life of Gordon Richards. Whilst at the sanatorium he met a gentleman by the name of Bill Rowell, a fellow patient. Rowell was older than the young Richards, but he was to have a great influence on his life.
"I was a youth who was still rough at the edges," noted Gordon, who despite his claim had still managed to shoot to fame by his incredible success the year before. But Bill Rowell taught Gordon how to live, and in Gordon's words, "how to live graciously". This especially helped Gordon to cope with the riches, popularity and high society that he would live with in future. Rowell was even made a Godfather of one of Gordon's children, his daughter Marjorie, such was his regard. By December, Gordon had largely recovered and began his preparations for the racing season ahead.
The next season in 1927 was as successful as his first, and Richards regained the title of Champion jockey, a title in fact he held thereon every year until his retirement in 1953 with the exception of two seasons racing. Richards' riding style was said to be unorthodox, with a long rein and upright stance; he would turn almost sideways when he was pushing his horse at its hardest. It can be said that this style was developed whilst riding his fathers pit ponies at an early age. "I can't remember ever being told how to ride," said Gordon, "I just got on a pony's back and away I went". By 1932 Gordon began riding for the famous Fred Darling, the Beckhampton trainer who was the leading trainer of the day. Such was the success of the partnership that in the following year Gordon managed to notch up 259 wins and beat the record, held by the great Fred Archer, that had stood since 1885.
Gordon was noted as being kind and generous, and to commemorate his achievement, he returned to the area from his home in Wiltshire to present the schoolchildren of Wrockwardine Wood with a celebratory mug. Richards could only improve, and whilst success in the classics didn't come easy, in 1942 he won four of the five classics, all on horses owned by the King. It was reputed that Gordon never lost touch with his roots, and was a down to earth and honest man, unchanged by his incredible success. As his victories increased, so did his fame and popularity. Everybody from fellow jockeys to the press and the public loved Gordon for his ability and his standing as a man. "Wherever we went, people stopped him for his autograph," recalls his daughter Marjorie, "although he was very down to earth, very modest and never wanted publicity".
Gordon had grown up with a very happy home, and his own family life reflected this. "He was strict," says Marjorie, "but we always had fun, and my father loved playing jokes". Like his time developing as young man at the estate of Mr. Jimmy White, the Richards' family home was often busy with trainers and owners and during the war he even organized concerts for the effort featuring the likes of the Crazy Gang. And they say that behind every great man lies a great woman. "My mother Margery was a great support to him," notes his daughter. "He wouldn't have got anywhere without her, she supported him in everything he did."
In 1947 Gordon Richards won the Classic race the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket again, this time riding Tudor Minstrel to a record margin of eight lengths. As a result, Tudor Minstrel was obviously highly favoured for the pinnacle of the season, the Derby, to take place the following month. Whilst Tudor Minstrel had dominated the straight one mile race held over Newmarket's historic Rowley Mile, he failed to stay the extra half mile for the Derby. It was starting to look like the greatest prize in racing would elude the greatest jockey of the day. Richards' trainer Fred Darling retired at the end of the same year, so Gordon moved under a new retainer to the trainer Noel Murless. Whilst his success continued, still the Derby eluded Richards, and for the next five years he remained unplaced in the greatest race of all.
The Epsom Downs always had a sporting tradition, and as well as hunting; King Charles II enjoyed racing horses across the grassy plain. The tradition continued, and as a result of a "roystering party," held by the downs at the country house of Lord Derby in 1780, the race as we know it today was created. Its history and tradition demanded respect, and no other race was held in the same esteem. As a boy who would have dreamed of someday riding in such a race, let alone winning it, it is easy to imagine the passion and romance of the Derby that captured Gordon's heart. He planned to retire in 1954, but as it happened an accident left Gordon with a broken pelvis which ended his career. The 1953 race would be his last.
1953 had seen a great many events: the Queen's Coronation, the first successful ascent of Everest, Stanley Mathews' FA cup winners medal and Sir Gordon's Knighthood. It was very fitting that Sir Gordon would cap the year, and indeed his career, with his greatest victory. But the occasion and romance of the Derby continued: Fred Darling, the previous trainer and partner to the success of Richards and the man who had bred Pinza, died just four days after the race.
And as his riding career ended in 1954, the next year he began his new vocation as a trainer. Sir Gordon always had his work cut out if he was going to achieve the same success at the track-side as he did as a rider, but he did train Pipe of Peace, the champion two year old colt of 1956, and Reform, who was the leading miler of 1967. He retired from training in 1970 but continued to work in an advisory role for some years.
Throughout his life Sir Gordon never abandoned his roots. He worked hard for success throughout his life, and whilst fame and fortune failed to change him, he remembered to help those who had helped him through his life. He mentioned how he dreamt of fame as a boy, and how he wanted to provide his parents with the comfort they deserved. His generosity also extended to the local area, as his funds helped to create the Dispensary for Sick animals in Oakengates. Sadly, the dispensary was later forced to closed owing to a lack of funds, though certainly not through the fault of Sir Gordon. He is also still celebrated around these parts: the Champion Jockey pub at Donnington is named after him, and the Oakengates theatre has its Pinza suite.
Sir Gordon died on 10 November 1988, and his record number of victories in a season has only recently been beaten by jump jockey Tony McCoy. Whilst it must be acknowledged that McCoy is a great jockey, modern jockeys can use aircraft and helicopters to get to many more races than was previously possible. In Sir Gordon's early days he even had to walk his steed to the train station before each race! Through his career Sir Gordon Richards won 14 Classics, rode a record number of 12 consecutive winners and attained a career tally of 4,870 victories, a figure unlikely ever to be beaten.
So whilst watching the Derby this month, let us remember one of the great heroes of our area, and his achievements on the horse and also his achievements as a man.
This article was
first published in "The Wellington News" and appears here with
its kind permission.
© 1996-2008 Thoroughbred Bloodlines. © 1999-2008
A B C D EF G H IJK L M NO P QR S T UV W XYZ
Family Numbers Sire Lines Breeders As It Were Genealogy
Home Contact Us FAQ Links Race Results Archives