Over the stable door: Fond farewells to some great characters

Jo Foster sorting out the tack at her stables at Menston near Leeds.
Jo Foster sorting out the tack at her stables at Menston near Leeds.
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Last week the annual jockeys award ceremony, The Stobart Lesters was held in Coventry. Champion jockeys Jim Crowley and Richard Johnson won the Stobart jockey of the year for flat and jumps respectively.

I was pleased to see Yorkshire-based Conditional jockey Colm McCormack was rewarded for his amazing win on Fiddler’s Flight in February for Barnsley-based John Norton. The win earned him a worthy title in Jump Ride of the Year.

Colm lost both irons when Fiddler’s Flight blundered at the last in a Sedgefield hurdle race but rallied his mount from three lengths down to win. The winner was chosen by viewers from At The Races.

It has been a difficult year with the loss of some great names in the racing world. Malton-based jockey turned broadcaster, journalist and racing coach Tom O’Ryan, who died aged 61 this year, was chosen by the flat and jump jockeys for their special recognition award.

Tom was dubbed the ‘Voice of the North’ from his long involvement with reporting from all the northern race tracks and had an eye for spotting raw talent long before others. He was also a jockey mentor and helped generations of young jockeys develop their careers.

Racing has also lost gifted men such as JT McNamara, a brilliant Irish amateur jockey who rode 300 winners but never recovered from his paralysing injuries after a crashing fall at Cheltenham in 2013.

In December we lost three-time Derby winning jockey Walter Swinburn who rode the infamous Shergar to victory in 1981. He was nicknamed The Choirboy for his youthful looks and was a genius of a rider in the saddle. At 5ft 7ins Swinburn battled with the scales and for all his genius in the saddle he was something of a tortured soul out of it, never quite settling in retirement. He was only 55 when he died at his London home having suffered from epilepsy for many years after a head injury sustained whilst racing in Hong Kong.

He and his choirboy complexion were wholly responsible for my horsey pal Carrie running off to Newmarket to work in a racing yard at the tender age of 15 in the hope she would get to meet her childhood heartthrob, Walter. She never did and was swiftly frogmarched home to Cowling in disgrace when her parents located her a few days later and returned to school.

Last week racing lost 76-year-old John Buckingham who won the Grand National aboard 100-1 shot Foinavon in 1967. Apparently, Buckingham was the fourth jockey to be asked to ride Foinavon in the race, whose owner had such little faith in his horse’s chances he had gone to Worcester instead. Buckingham was having his first ride in the great race and admitted he would’ve ridden a donkey rather than turn down a ride in the Grand National.

Events unfolded at the 23rd fence, when the pair were so far behind that Buckingham and his mount avoided the melee caused by a loose horse galloping up and down the fence which wiped out all of the other runners still standing. Buckingham was the only one to jump it first time. The others who could remounted but the 500-1 overnight shots were a fence ahead by then.

The image of the pair sensibly circumnavigating the carnage before jumping the Canal Turn a furlong clear has become synonymous with the race’s rich history.

Buckingham went on to become a jockey’s valet for 30 years and was well regarded by all in the weighing room. Regarded as the Godfather of Valets, he famously lent a pair of boots to a young AP McCoy, who was starting out as a fledgling jockey and is reported to have told him, “you’d do well to fill those lad”.