I derive great pleasure from reading books on racing’s past. These days there are as many books on great racehorses as jockeys and trainers. It was not so in the distant past, though R.C.Lyle’s excellent book on Brown Jack proves the exception to the rule. I have recently read ‘Post Haste’ the autobiography of the Australian jockey Edgar Britt, a book that dovetails conveniently with Charlie Smirke’s autobiography ‘Finishing Post’, a book I have had in my possession for quite some time.
Britt and Smirke were contemporaries who fell out with one another many times during the course of their careers. Before becoming a jockey Charlie Smirke nearly took up boxing for a profession and as he made this known to all and sundry very few of his colleagues had the nerve to remonstrate with him if they thought he had cut them up during a race. Indeed if you read either autobiography it is made pretty clear by both that cutting across, discrete bumping and boring and keeping opponents hemmed in on the rail were considered perfectly legitimate riding tactics.
Sadly, in Britt’s and Smirke’s day there is little doubt that corruption was rife in racing, with jockeys, who were not so well paid when compared with today’s jockeys, not adverse to bending or ignoring the rules entirely for financial gain. Britt tells of a race at Nottingham when Charlie Smirke beat him narrowly and on pulling said to Britt. “That’s lovely. I had a thousand quid on this one.” Britt, too, admitted having small bets now and again on horses he thought certainties, so it must be assumed it was widespread and not just confined to the few.
An interesting corruption case I had not heard about until reading Britt’s book is what would now be termed ‘the Peaceful William case’. Britt rode ‘Peaceful William’ to win races at Lanark and Alexandra Park – the horse won a further race at Carlisle – though Peaceful William turned out to be the more talented Stellar City. Britt did not name the owner or trainer, though both served eighteen-months imprisonment for conspiracy.
Doping, too, was rife, and Britt gives an instance of a French horse doped to lose who died from the drugs used on him.
Britt did not have as high an opinion of Smirke as Smirke had of himself, though he thought him a top rider, though not as good as Gordon Richards. As he wrote, ‘everybody knew Smirke was good – and so did Charlie’!
Britt also writes about the use of a ‘battery’ being used by jockeys to cajole extra effort from a horse. This device seemed to be two terminals situated in the handle end of a rider’s whip. Britt does not fully describe how the terminals connected to the battery but he does describe a race he rode in in Australia where all the jockeys were summoned back to the weighing room from the start so they all could be checked to see if any of them were carrying ‘a battery’. It was virtually a strip-search and was only brought to an end when one of the senior jockeys – Jim Pike, a jockey Britt reckoned to be one of the best he ever rode against – offered his backside for examination. Britt wrote matter-of-factly, as if at the time the book was published, 1969, the use of batteries was well-known, and he even described an event when a trainer had one used during a gallop. Britt, to his credit, thought the device cruel and unnecessary and claims never to have used one himself.
Though his book had need of a good editor (I can talk) he comes across as a genuine and honourable man who made the most of his opportunities. Smirke comes across as quite full of himself. There is no justification in defending Smirke by saying that he came from the slums of London and to achieve what he achieved – 4 Derby wins, for example - through hard work and dedication allows him to blow his own trumpet as Britt too came from humble origins and yet comes across as more sporting and appreciative of others.
Britt displayed no bitterness toward Smirke, for instance, when he wrote about the events that led him to losing the retainer for the Maharaja of Baroda’s large string to Smirke and cost him his cherished ambition to ride a Derby winner when Smirke triumphed on My Babu for the Maharaja. In his book Smirke claims the Maharaja decided on the change when he saw him out-ride Britt one day at Ascot. To read ‘Post Haste’, though, it is clear that Britt was of the opinion that Smirke had done all he could to get Britt sacked.
Remarkably, given the on-off animosity throughout their careers, Britt and Smirke retired at the same time, with their fellow jockeys, perhaps thinking it a good joke to play on them, organising a joint retirement party for them.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.