From AP McCoy to Tommy Stack, the 22 champion jockeys captured in Neil Clark’s book
Yet this only tells part of the story. He is also just one of 22 people from Fred Rimell to Harry Skelton to have become champion jump jockey since the Second World War.
Only seven – including the legendary Stack – have a National to their name, a recurring theme in racing writer Neil Clark’s captivating new book Champion Jump Horse Racing Jockeys from 1945 to Present Day.
Clark’s earliest racing memory is of Red Rum’s first National win in 1973 when the little warrior, ridden by Brian Fletcher, came from a different parish to overhaul the leg-weary Crisp in the shadow of the Aintree winning post.
He became captivated by Red Rum, trained on a beach by second-hand car salesman Ginger McCain, and the other great horses of the 1970s. “They were there every other weekend on our TV sets,” says Clark. “I’m 55 so my earliest memories were Red Rum winning in 1973 – and then for a third time in 1977 under Tommy Stack.
“Great horses like Peter Easterby’s Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse were particular favourites. The whole sport has changed now – horses run two or three times a year and it is all geared towards the Cheltenham Festival in March. Yet the National Hunt title is decided over 12 months. And becoming champion jump jockey remains just about the toughest challenge in sport.”
This last sentiment recognises the great risks faced by all riders – the next obstacle could be their last and this was tragically the case with Lorna Clarke in April. It is also indicative of the longevity of Sir AP McCoy to win 20 consecutive titles and for Richard Johnson, his 16-times runner-up, to then land four championships of his own.
But Clark believes it is appropriate to celebrate every champion – and he will be at Wetherby on Charlie Hall Chase day this Saturday to sign copies of his superbly-produced volume.
Wetherby was also the scene of Stack’s first-ever winner in October 1965 aboard New Money. This, in itself, was an achievement after arriving from his native Ireland to work for veteran Ripon trainer Bobby Renton. “When the butler met off the plane, I knew nobody in racing,” recalled Stack who would quietly become a prolific rider before his own luck ran out when shattering his pelvis in 12 places months after his iconic win on Red Rum.
He was also a modest man who kept playing down his chances of first title in 1974-75 (he would become champion again in his annus mirabilis season of 1976-77). “I’m not so worried about the championship as jumping all those big black fences safely,” he told television crews at Doncaster.
Clark’s painstaking work reveals one surprising statistic – Stack was a dual champion jockey who never rode in the blue riband Gold Cup. “He was in the business of winners,” says the author. “He really was a winning machine. He didn’t win that many top races. What he did have is an incredible strike-rate. This in a decade when Ron Barry and Jonjo O’Neill, two other jump jockeys from the North, would also become champion. It was a great time for the North.”
This is attributed to Stack’s alliance with the dominant Arthur Stephenson and Clark says it is now impossible to be champion without the backing of at least one major trainer. The exception, he says, is 1970-71 title hero Graham Thorner who prevailed in an era when nine champions – or future champions – were competing. He did so in spite of his trainer Captain Tim Forster, racing’s most renowned pessimist, who would not alter his yard’s morning routine to enable Thorner to travel to races as the dawn of motorways made travel easier.
Thorner, says Clark, remembers how he was never allowed to go up to, or return from, the gallops – which were some way out from the stable – in Forster’s Land Rover to save time.
It meant Thorner was a one-time title winner in contrast to the likes of Tim Molony, the so-called ‘rubber man’, whose first championship was helped by a four-timer at Wetherby on Boxing Day 1948 when severe frost caused the cancellations elsewhere which scuppered his rivals. He repeated the feat the following year, going on to win five championships.
Clark believes North Yorkshire’s Brian Hughes, who became champion in 2019-20 for the first time, will regain his title this season and become a multiple winner. Like Richard Dunwoody and the aforementioned McCoy, Hughes hails from Northern Ireland and all three have a stubborn streak. Dunwoody believes this is a legacy of the Troubles and the resilience of their families in times when perseverance was all that mattered.
“I think Brian will become a multiple champion. The similarities with McCoy are so striking. Not just that they’re from Northern Ireland but very serious and dedicated individuals,” says Clark who contrasts this with the carefree lifestyles enjoyed by Champagne-drinking cavaliers like Terry Biddlecombe and Josh Gifford. On the night before the 1963 National, Biddlecombe invited his ‘attractive’ hotel receptionist out for a drive and borrowed a fellow jockey’s car. Yet, as they slept on the back seat after an amorous evening, they were woken by a slapping sound on the front wheels – the tide coming in.
Today racing is more serious – and Clark says there are many dedicated jockeys who would be worthy champions if they had sufficient backing. He cites Sam Twiston-Davies and Tom Bellamy. He is also of the view, shared by former trainer David Gandolfo, that all 22 post-war champions would have succeeded in any sphere of life because of their character.
But the author remains in awe of the challenge – 800-900 rides from April to April run on all grounds, in all weathers, and the need to cover 100,000 miles by road and a further 2,000 miles on horseback. And negotiate up to 10,000 obstacles – the point Tommy Stack made when told that he was 6-4 favourite to win his first title. “It’s stupid, isn’t it? We’re not even halfway through, and all sorts of things can happen in the way of injuries and so on.”
Champion Jump Horse Racing Jockeys from 1945 to Present Day by Neil Clark is published by Barnsley-based Pen & Sword Books, price £25.