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29 October 2014

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Sporting Heroes

Gordon Richards

Sir Gordon Richards - Racing's greatest Jockey?

It's over 50 years since the famous win of Shropshire jockey, Sir Gordon Richards at the Epsom Derby. With 4,870 wins during his career, he is arguably the most successful jockey in racing history.

Fact file

It took 28 attempts for Sir Gordon Richards to achieve his one and only Epsom Derby win.

He had 4,870 victories during his horse racing career.

Sir Gordon Richards is the only jockey to have been knighted.

The son of a miner, Gordon Richards was born on 5th May 1904, and was raised in a family of eight brothers and sisters in the Shropshire village of Donnington Wood, now part of Telford.

His father reared several pit ponies at their home, and it was in this environment that Sir Gordon fostered his love of the equestrian.

He rode the ponies bareback from an early age, then from the age of seven, drove the pony and trap passenger service his family ran between Wrockwardine Wood and Oakengates station.

It was at that age no doubt that he developed his unique riding style, using a long rein and an upright stance.

Sir Gordon Richards wins the Lincolnshire Derby
Sir Gordon wins again in 1940

"I can't remember ever being told how to ride," Sir Gordon once said.

"I just got on a pony's back and away I went."

Sir Gordon left school at the age of 13, and initially worked as a junior clerk in St George's often riding a pony to work, then leaving it tied up in a nearby field for the day.

Even then he knew that his ambition was to work with horses, and made several unsuccessful applications to nearby stables in the hope of becoming a stable boy.

After a tip off from work colleagues who recognised his passion for horses, he finally got his foot on the first rung on the ladder to his dream of being a jockey, becoming a stable boy at Foxhill Stable near Wanborough in Wiltshire, owned by Jimmy White.

"This article is based on information first published by Alex Byles in the Wellington News"

Despite the inevitable difficulties a young lad of 15 years would experience with such a huge move away from his family, it wasn't long before his riding skills were noticed by his new employer, but in the competitive world of racing, he still needed a big break.

Bizarrely, a football match against the workers at neighbouring Osbourne Stables was the unlikely turning point in his fortunes, and provided the break he desperately wanted.

Fox Hollies stable-owner White had money on his lads to win the match, and with only five minutes remaining, the score was three-all, with his team to take a penalty.

White insisted the young Sir Gordon should take the penalty, and offered him the opportunity to ride in the race at Lincoln the next day - if he scored.

Given such an incentive, Richards scored the goal, and the game was won. The elated stable- boy, rode well in Lincoln.

Now there was no stopping him and not long after his debut he won his first race at Leicester in March 1921.

With the determination and single-mindedness that was his trademark, he achieved his dream of becoming a fully-fledged Jockey in 1925, and went on to become champion jockey in his first year, notching up 118 wins.

The winners' enclosure
The winners' enclosure

Five years after Sir Gordon's racing debut, disaster struck the Shropshire jockey.

He contracted tuberculosis and had to take time out from racing. But it was while he recuperated from the debilitating disease in a Norfolk sanatorium he met Bill Rowell, a fellow patient who was to have a major influence on his life.

Rowell proved to be something of a mentor, teaching the young jockey how to cope with the riches that would come his way, as well as his popularity with high society in the class-ridden system that prevailed in Britain between the wars. The two became firm friends.

By December 1926, Sir Gordon was back in the saddle, and returned to winning ways in the 1927 racing season.

In 1932 with 259 victories under his belt, he broke the record for the greatest number of wins in a year, a record which had stood for nearly 50 years.

Achievement followed achievement, with Richards winning the Newmarket 2000 guineas in 1947 by an unprecedented margin of 8 lengths.

Despite these huge successes, there was still one race where a win had always eluded him: The Derby at Epsom.

Sir Gordon Richards and trainer F.T Templeman
Sir Gordon Richards and his trainer

In 1942 he won 4 of the 5 'Classics' on horses owned by King George V, but still the big Derby win he craved remained out of his grasp.

The 1953 Derby occurred on a week of great national, and personal celebration for Richards himself.

Elizabeth II had been crowned the new Queen in Westminster Abbey, the first successful ascent of Everest had taken place, and plain old Gordon Richards had become Sir Gordon Richards - the only jockey to be knighted.

This time Sir Gordon rode Pinza, a huge horse for a flat-thoroughbread at 16 hands high - and he rode a terrific race.

Champion Jockey in Donnington
The Champion Jockey in Donnington

And it was a tough race, with Pinza in second position through much of the one and half mile course, competing against the Queen's own horse Aureole, and sweeping past the Aga Khan's horse, Shikampur, into first place with just two furlongs remaining.

The long-awaited win was accompanied by thunderous cheers from the frenzied crowd.

Winning The Derby was undoubtedly Sir Gordon's crowning victory, and he was promptly summoned from the winners' enclosure to be congratulated by the Queen.

Sir Gordon's riding career ended in 1954 following a pelvis injury, but he continued to indulge his passion for racing, by becoming a horse trainer and advisor.

Sir Gordon after receiving his knighthood
Sir Gordon receives his knighthood

Sir Gordon Richards died on 10th November 1988.

His legacy lives on in Shropshire today, with the Champion Jockey pub in Donnington is named in his honour, and the Pinza suite in Oakengates Theatre, named after his winning horse.

Not until 2002 was his record number of victories exceeded, by Jump Jockey Tony McCoy, and Sir Gordon Richards will be remembered for being a kind and down-to-earth man, who never lost touch of his Shropshire roots.

last updated: 08/06/07
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