Shropshire Star

Great lives – Sir Gordon Richards

Through his long career, there was one achievement which eluded legendary champion jockey Sir Gordon Richards.

Racing legend Sir Gordon Richards.

He set record after record, and was noted for his consistency and iron will to win.

But it seemed he was destined never to win the Derby.

In the other Classics he had enjoyed considerable success, winning the St Leger five times, the 2,000 Guineas three times, the 1,000 Guineas three times and the Oaks twice.

Yet when it came to the Derby, Sir Gordon told a Shropshire sportsmen's dinner that an old woman in Sheffield had put a curse on him, saying that if he did not send her a fiver he would never win it.

And he must have wondered if the curse was real because he seemed to have a Derby jinx. Until, that is, in 1953.

By then in the twilight of his career, suddenly everything seemed to come together at once. On June 1, 1953, he was knighted in the Queen's Coronation honours, on the eve of Coronation Day. He was the first jockey to be honoured with a knighthood.

Just a few days later, Sir Gordon finally won the Derby for the first time riding Pinza.

Pinza was a colt of over 16 hands, a huge size for a flat thoroughbred. The atmosphere in advance of the race was electric.

It was his 28th attempt. The Queen herself was there at Epsom to see the crowning achievement of his illustrious career, with Pinza beating her own horse Aureole into second place.

Victory in the Derby at last in 1953.

He is up there in the pantheon of great jockeys of all time, and many reckon he was the greatest of all in flat racing (as opposed to over the jumps).

There was for a long time a widely held belief in racing circles that his 1947 record of 269 winners in one season would never be broken.

It was certainly difficult to break, as it stood for 55 years until 2002 when Tony McCoy at last surpassed it by recording his 270th win of that season's campaign at Warwick.

Racing legend Sir Gordon Richards.

Sir Gordon's astounding statistics speak for themselves.

In a racing career spanning 34 years he rode a record 4,870 winners from 21,834 races and was champion jockey 26 times.

By comparison, Pat Eddery rode 4,633 winners between 1969 and 2003, Lester Piggott rode 4,493 winners between 1948 and 1994, and Tony McCoy rode 4,358 winners.

In 1933 he surpassed even his own achievements with two astonishing records. The first was 259 winners in a season, breaking Fred Archer's record which had stood since Victorian days.

Secondly, an extraordinary feat towards the end of that amazing season. On October 3, Richards won the final race at Nottingham before winning all six events at Chepstow the day after. The following day, October 5th, he rode the first five winners at Chepstow again – only narrowly losing in the last race – to ride 12 winners in succession.

The remarkable record stood for 68 years before little known Canadian Tim Moccasin, riding at Marquis Downs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, scored 14 consecutive victories between August 24 and September 1.

Between 1927 and 1940 Richards was champion jockey on the flat in every year but one (1930, Freddie Fox).

When he died in 1986 Lester Piggott said: “Sir Gordon was the best of his era. He had the strongest will to win and the best balance of any jockey in my time.”

The late Lord Oaksey, chairman of the Injured Jockeys Fund, said of him: “He was the most wonderful character and an example throughout his career, which was in itself unique.”

He used to cheer on Richards in his racing days and then got to know him when he became a trainer.

“Nowadays it would be remarkable for somebody to ride 200 winners in a season. He used to do it again and again."

He singled out consistency as Richards' greatest asset.

“It was said of him that no-one ever lost fewer races which they should have won. He certainly won many races which no-one else would have, or at least very few other jockeys would have.

“He was of course the ideal weight. Gordon never had to waste or worry about his weight. And he had a combination of strength, brain – tactical brain and knowledge – and the most unconquerable will to win.

“He would often keep on and on riding a horse where other people would have given up, and would pull the race out of the fire."

Lord Oaksey said that as a jockey or as a trainer, which he later became, nobody had a bad word to say about him.

“He was a first rate after-dinner speaker, humorous and had lots of stories. He was extremely convivial and party-minded, but on the other hand not at all a drinker.

“He loved winter sports – not skiing so much as curling. He used to go to St Moritz every winter, partly to get fit and partly because he loved curling.”

The Gordon Richards story began at Ivy Row, Donnington Wood, which was always known as Potato Row. He was one of eight children – a further four died.

Sir Gordon's long-disappeared birthplace at Ivy Row, pictured here in 1933.

His father Nathan was a miner at Granville pit who rose to become an underground mining contractor and his mother Elizabeth, a clever and ambitious woman, was a dressmaker. Both were strict Primitive Methodists.

With an eye to the future, she bought four acres of land on which three houses were built – 1, 2 and 3 The Limes, Wrockwardine Wood. The Richards lived in number 1 and rented out the others. The houses, in Plough Road, still stand.

The family home was destined to be named Bonita, either after his first winner, or one of his successful mounts – accounts vary.

They built stables and kept ponies which were worked for their keep. Even as a little boy Gordon would drive a pony and trap to meet people at the station. It was on the family's old mare, Bess, that he learned to ride.

Aged 13, he left school. His mother refused to let him go down the mines so he worked as a junior clerk in the warehouse of the Lilleshall Engineering Works at St Georges.

But because he was so small and loved horses he applied for a job as a stable boy at Foxhill, near Swindon, and was taken on a month’s trial.

On New Year’s Day, 1920, the 15-year-old walked with his father the two and a half miles to Oakengates Station.

During his increasingly successful career as a jockey he kept up his Shropshire links, always going home for Christmas and also when at Wolverhampton races, and walking over the old pit mounds, his childhood haunts. His adopted home became Marlborough but Shropshire went wild with delight when he broke Fred Archer’s 48-year-old record of 246 winners in a season.

The young jockey in 1926. It was about this time he caught tuberculosis.

Richards, who overcame tuberculosis in the 1920s, returned in triumph to special celebrations in December 1933.

He was greeted by roars and cheering at the Market Square, Oakengates, which a contemporary newspaper report noted was quite inadequate to accommodate the large number of people wanting to pay tribute to him.

Local children were given a holiday.

He told the masses it was the greatest moment of his life.

In the evening over 250 people attended a banquet at the Forest Glen Pavilion, followed by a victory ball at the Palais-de-Danse, Wellington.

A huge crowd turned out to welcome home Gordon Richards in December 1933. This is a still from a British Pathe newsreel showing Steve Donoghue presenting a silver casket to Gordon during a civic reception

As it happened he was not the only jockey in the family, as his brothers Clifford and Colin also rode. Two other brothers were Eric and Ewart, while his sisters were all nurses – Vera in Wolverhampton, Rhoda in London, and Barbara in Manchester.

One of Gordon's great regrets was that his mother did not live to see the extent of his success – she died in about 1926.

Gordon writes a note or perhaps his autograph at a special dinner for Shropshire sportsmen held at the Forest Glen at the foot of The Wrekin in December 1949.

His climactic win in the Derby on Pinza saw him once more feted on his return to Shropshire, with three days of celebrations.

Sir Gordon’s decision to retire in 1954 was accelerated by a bad fall at Sandown Park and he began a new career as a trainer, having turned down an offer to stand as the Tory candidate for the Wrekin constituency.

He gave up training in 1970 to become racing manager to Lady Beaverbrook and Sir Michael Sobell.

After his racing career the champion jockey became a trainer.

Today his name is often associated with Oakengates, but in fact he hailed from Donnington Wood and Wrockwardine Wood. Sir Gordon officially opened Oakengates Town Hall (now Oakengates Theatre) in 1968, and the Pinza Suite there was named after his Derby winner. A pub, the Champion Jockey in Donnington, was named after him, but was demolished in 2009.

In April 1972 Sir Gordon returned “home” to open two blocks of flats named after him – Gordon House and Richards House – in Cordingley Way, Donnington, which were built on the site of Ivy Row, his birthplace, which seems to have been demolished in the late 1950s.

Sir Gordon Richards (left) opens Oakengates Town Hall on May 25, 1968.

Sir Gordon died at his home in Kintbury, Berkshire, on November 10, 1986.

Speaking immediately after his death lifelong friend Bill Kelly, from Newport, then in his 70s, shone a light on why Sir Gordon was held in such high regard off the track as well as on.

"It was his integrity – it was second nature to him. He was an exceptional chap and nobody knew the good he did. Every year round Christmas I took presents from him round to old people he had known in his youth. If he heard of someone he knew round here who had fallen on hard times he would ask me to go and see so-and-so and see what we could do to help

"People don't realise how much money he gave away round here. He always wanted it kept quiet."

Kelly, an agricultural seed merchant, recalled how he accompanied Gordon annually to an old men's home at Ellesmere, to which he had given a colour television and where he always gave a talk on racing.

"He set them up with a bank of money and, when he was training, he used to advise them what to bet on with the money in it. At the end of the year, if the bank was showing a loss, he would top it up for them."

Kelly's friendship with the jockey grew from the fact that Kelly's father had a drapery and boot and shoe business in Newport, and Gordon's father, Nathan, used to call in and talk.

"I used to hear about all the winners Gordon was riding and it went on from there," said Kelly, who travelled thousands of miles with Gordon and witnessed hundreds of the winners that made him a legend.

"I will always remember that when he came out of the weighing room to ride in a race, he would sometimes say 'I'll see you in a minute, Bill' . Then I knew I could always have my bob on him because I knew he fancied his mount.

"I never knew him lodge an objection in any race. There might be a stewards inquiry, but he would never object on principle,'' says Kelly, who telephoned Gordon every Sunday for years and last spoke to him shortly before his death.

"People talk about who was the greatest jockey. They don't know what they are talking about – he was the greatest of the century.

"Lester made his name mainly by riding Derby winners, but he never rode 200 winners in a season.''

Bill Kelly added that after Gordon's wife died, Gordon became very lonely at his home in the village of Kintbury.

Sir Gordon's endearing modesty was as famous as his superb skill in the saddle.

"He was himself all the way through life. He could talk to the lowest and highest – and he was still himself.''



BORN: Ivy Row, Donnington Wood, May 5, 1904.

EARLY YEARS: Brought up at The Limes in Plough Road, Wrockwardine Wood. Left school at 13 before leaving home just two years later to join stables near Swindon as a stable boy.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Leading rider in flat (thoroughbred) racing for 26 of his 34 seasons. Record career total of 4,870 victories, including 269 in one season, a record which stood for over half a century. Won the St Leger five times and the 2,000 Guineas on three occasions. Famously won the Derby in 1953. Retired in 1954 after injury and became a trainer.

HONOURS: Knighted in the Queen's Coronation Honours in 1953 – the first jockey to receive that accolade.

DIED: From a heart attack at his home in Kintbury, Berkshire, on November 10, 1986.

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