Sir Gordon Richards had 21,834 rides in his career, winning 4,870 races. He won the 2,000 Guineas 3 times, the 1,000 Guineas 3 times, the Oaks twice, the St.Leger 5 times and famously the Derby once. He was champion jockey 26 times, a feat no one is ever likely to equal. He considered Pinza the best horse he ever rode.
Trainers flocked to him and at one point in his career he had 5 retainers all at the same time. His character was as straight as a die and his word was his bond. His career straddled the careers of Steve Donoghue and Lester Piggott. At the start of the 2nd World War he wanted to enlist but he had been struck down with T.B. as a young man and the scars prevented him from active duty. Determined to do his duty for King and Country he bought a farm to help in feeding the population, made public appearances to raise morale, joined the Home Guard, and, though race meetings were zoned and limited, he continued to ride.
I just can’t imagine in similar circumstances Lester either wanting to enlist or buying a farm to grow potatoes.
Incidentally Sir Gordon was very supportive of young Lester, advising him and reminding people when trouble seemed to stalk his every move that he was a mere child in a man’s world, and in his autobiography he makes a point of reminding his readers that a lot of trash was written about Lester. He said that it was to Lester’s credit that despite everything written about him, both praiseworthy and critical, he remained ‘so natural, and in no way conceited’. He also made it plain that Lester was never cheeky in the weighing room, never referred to him as ‘Grandad’ and in Sir Gordon’s hearing was never rude to anyone. He liked Lester and wanted him to succeed.
He wrote that one day at Worcester – they had flat racing there in Sir Gordon’s day – when Lester was only thirteen or fourteen, he was riding a big horse in a 2-mile race. Going down the back stretch he thought Lester was going to fall off through exhaustion and passing him Sir Gordon offered the advice to ‘sit still and let the horse run round himself’ and Lester did as he was told and he was ‘alright’.
Interestingly, on the day at Ascot when Lester got one of his lengthy suspensions, Sir Gordon, Poincelet, Doug Smith and Rickaby all spoke up for him in the stewards enquiry, asking them to be lenient. Mind you, Sir Gordon expressed the view that it would be a sad day for racing if the public were allowed to view steward enquiries.
I am not sure if it is widely known but when Sir Gordon began training he was negotiating with Lester for him to take up the position as stable jockey but Noel Murless also wanted him, offering him the opportunity to take over from Sir Gordon as his stable jockey.
One of the many retainers he had was with the former Aga Khan and at the end of each season he would write to him to express his opinions on the prospects for the following season. Having so many top trainers and owners wishing to employ him no doubt allowed Sir Gordon to always be honest in his opinion and he told the Aga Khan that though he was breeding beautiful horses bred in the purple more and more they were lacking resolution at the business end of a race. The Aga Khan took his advice and brought in American bloodlines and culled a major portion of his broodmares. So the present Aga Khan has Sir Gordon to thank for his continuing success.
The surprising aspect of Sir Gordon’s story is that at the height of his career he suffered from what he called ‘nerves’ or depression as we would term the condition today. And not just for short periods but in prolonged spells, even taking to his bed and refusing to get up for days. Keeping it secret for the whole of his career is testament perhaps to the shame associated in those days with the condition and the integrity and loyalty of his friends and family.
And the secret of his success as a jockey, in his own words – ‘Briefly, I have never ceased to be on the job’. I think he meant he was 100% dedicated to his craft.
Sir Gordon was proud of his achievements, especially of beating Fred Archer’s record for the most wins in a season. Never boastful, mind you, but proud in the right sense of the word. Yet being the sort of man he was, if he were still alive in 2002 when A.P.McCoy rode 289 winners to take away his record, he would have been one of the first people to congratulate him. And A.P. would have been as proud of that handshake as he was of breaking the record.
And A.P. never did break his career record total, and I doubt if anyone will come close to 4870 winners.
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.