I am presently reading Sir Gordon Richards autobiography ‘My Story’. Like similar books on horse racing it is now – the book was published in 1955 – very much a history book, with much that can be learned. What is very clear from the outset of the book is that alongside British Society horse racing has changed, perhaps less radically than society in general but the alterations are easily marked in the tone of Richards’ account of his career and within the racing scene he describes.
Sir Gordon was born into what we would categorise these days as poverty. He was one of eight children. His father a miner. Although intelligent Gordon had only a limited education, his family were strict Primitive Methodists and he was sent out to work for his living as soon as he was able. It was his mother he had to thank for his career as she was astute with money and saved earnestly so the family could own their own home, even buying other properties to rent out. She also built a range of stables so that Gordon and his siblings could have a pony. Gordon used the pony to earn extra money ferrying passengers to and from the local railway station by pony and trap. He was barely thirteen when he started the enterprise.
At the beginning of his career there were no horseboxes and horses had to be led to the nearest railway station for transportation to the races. Sir Gordon relates walking a horse 5-miles to Shrivenham Station, with the same 5-mile walk back to the stables after what might have been a journey to Ayr or Yarmouth. These days, of course, after a long journey by road horses are taken straight to their stables. Athletes, footballers, tennis players etc, have long warm-down sessions after competing and the thought struck me that perhaps the walk from the railway station to the stables was in effect what we would term a warm-down session and benefitted the musculature of the horse, allowing it to recover more quickly from its exertions.
Sir Gordon was small, something like 4ft 11 and weighed under eight stone. In his book he balances his success against the man whose record total of winners in a season he broke, Fred Archer, and although he felt that he was at a disadvantage having to carry so much lead in his saddle overall he thought Archer’s achievement was greater because of the physical disadvantages he had to overcome and the greater difficulty in getting to racecourses. He wrote early in the book that his story was that of a successful life ‘and so I suppose I shall not be able to escape giving, here and there, the impression of conceit’, he comes across quite modest in his achievements. He might have titled his book ‘Modesty To False For Words’, as his modest overtone is balanced by pride in all he achieved.
Sir Gordon rode for the majority of his career – certainly the most successful years of his career – as stable jockey for the man he termed ‘the master of Beckhampton, Fred Darling. There is, of course, a 1,000 Guineas trial at Newbury named after Darling, and given his successes perhaps deserved, though he does not come across, even though Sir Gordon is more praiseful than critical, as someone I personally would not get on with. Even Sir Gordon said of him: ‘Mr. Fred Darling was absolutely ruthless. He was ruthless with horses and with men’.
I will repeat two stories from the book that makes me believe Fred Darling is not the right kind of character for racing to commemorate. ‘I shall never forget one morning, out on the gallops. A horse called Justification suddenly went savage. He got one of the boys down and went for him.’ Darling’s response, once the horse was caught, was to hit him hard across the knees to bring him down. Then he got on the horse’s head and gave him a tremendous beating. Sir Gordon said it was the only thing to do, even though it seemed cruel, and thought Darling brave. I thought Darling a greater savage than the horse.
Darling’s head lad, described by Sir Gordon as ‘the best Head Lad I have ever known’, was in the Home Guard with Darling his senior officer. Fred Templeman was in charge of a post on the Downs. One evening finding all was quiet Templeman slipped into Devizes for a quick pint. When Darling visited the post and found Templeman absent he was far from sympathetic. In fact not only did he dismiss him from the Home Guard he sacked him as an employee. Templeman died shortly afterwards. Sir Gordon thought from a broken heart. As Sir Gordon described Darling, ruthless with horse and man.
In Sir Gordon’s day tyrannical behaviour was allowed to prosper, with selfishness and arrogance alloyed to respect and no doubt fear. It was a different time, perhaps in its way a better age in which to live and perhaps we should not make judgement on that we do not fully comprehend. But that does not mean we can gloss over cruelty to man and beast. Whereas Sir Gordon deserves to have a good race named after him, I just do not think we should flatter the reputation of someone like Darling, no matter how great his career.
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.