Lord Oaksey, or plain John Lawrence as he was then known, said of Anthony Bingham Mildmay, 2nd Baron Mildmay of Flete, as co-author of the History of Steeplechasing, ‘Anthony Mildmay carved for himself a place in the hearts of the racing world which has not, since his death, been filled’. Of course, though he would be too modest ever to accept the accolade, it was John Oaksey himself who was to occupy that place in the hearts of the racing world from the early sixties until his death, and who likewise agonisingly came close to achieving glory in the Aintree Grand National. Both were members of the upper set, yet neither were begrudged a single winner by the professionals they rode against.
It was said of Lord Mildmay that he was the same unaffected man when talking to royalty, his fellow riders or to anyone he met on the street. Herbert Tree said of him, ‘A gentleman is a man whose courtesy is not regulated by interests. By that definition, or by any other, Anthony Mildmay was a gentleman, for his courtesy was unlimited.’
In 1936 he was leading in the Grand National at the 2nd last fence on the 100/1 shot Davy Jones when the buckle of the reins broke and the horse ran out. If the same had happened when riding Cromwell in 1948, rather than Lord Mildmay suffering from a severe attack of cramp from a persistent neck injury, rendering him useless to assist Cromwell, I believe the horse would have jumped the last two fences unaided and no doubt gone on to win. Incidentally, although it is difficult to be exact as his riding style, due to his height, being rather stooped, watching the Pathe News footage of the 1948 Grand National it appears Lord Mildmay was affected by his injury from at least 2nd Bechers onwards, which explains his great affection for Cromwell.
As with so many jockeys, amateur and professional, of the pre-war years, Lord Mildmay fought for King and Country, enlisting in the Welsh Guards and rising to the rank of Captain by the cessation of war, and for whatever reason acquiring the nickname ‘Nitty’. As soon as racing restarted Lord Mildmay returned to his great love and was leading amateur with 32 winners in the 46-47 season.
The year before his luckless ride in the Grand National he suffered a fall at Folkestone that seemingly dislocated his spine and was no doubt the cause of the neck cramps that troubled him during his subsequent riding career and were considered the reason for his untimely death in 1950. He rode in steeplechases at a time when health and safety was a cork hat and yet died taking an early morning swim in the river close to his home. From May 12th till June 7th when his body washed up at Falmouth he was presumed dead. I suspect the racing world hoped and prayed during that time, rather like another local resident of the time, Agatha Christie, he had only gone to ground for personally reason. Christie returned; alas Lord Mildmay did not.
Quite possibly the greatest service he provided for the sport he loved was introducing the Queen, as she was at the time, to steeplechasing, buying for her Monaveen and then with Peter Cazalet M’as-tu Vu. He also sourced the most famous horse her majesty owned, Devon Loch, the horse that continued the bad luck at Aintree that would not stop associating itself with Lord Mildmay even after his death. In his will he left all his horses to his friend and trainer Peter Cazalet, who passed on Manicou to her Majesty, the first horse to run in her own colours and who seven months after that fateful early morning swim won the King George at Kempton.
He is remembered at Aintree with the Mildmay course and Sandown honour him alongside Peter Cazalet with a memorial chase. Sadly commercialism has dictated that the Mildmay of Flete is no longer run at the Cheltenham Festival where he rode three winners, though as he only had steeplechasing’s best interests at heart I dare say he would not have lodged an objection. And at least in his honour on his death a pub in Holbeton, Plymouth, changed its name to ‘The Mildmay Colours’ and to this day displays the Mildmay racing silks in a frame on the wall of the public bar.
Although in the main he had nothing but bad luck at Aintree, he did win the Grand Sefton on Lecale Prince, though the Stanley Chase of 1947 rather summed up his riding experiences at his favourite racecourse. There were 16 runners and though it would not happen now at Aintree it was a race for maidens. Only 5 were still in the race at Becher’s, of which three fell. This left Billykins and Tim Molony and his lordship on Watchit. Unfortunately for Lord Mildmay, Billykin fell and on his own Watchit lost interest in proceedings. After several attempts at refusing he finally succeeded four from home. Tim Molony remounted and won by fifteen minutes, with a Mr.Blacker, on being told ever other horse had fallen, remounting and finishing the course, disbelieving everyone who told him he was only second. Aintree has that persona; it doesn’t believe it owes any man anything. Even greatly loved members of the aristocracy.
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.