Ascot Legends: Pat Eddery

Pat Eddery is inextricably linked the Ascot. Not only did the Royal course provide him with one of his first major wins when still an apprentice but it also saw him ride Dancing Brave and Warning to famous victories as well as winning the 'Race of the Century' aboard Grundy. Here, Rory Delargy looks back on the riding career of the Irishman, who also won five Victoria Cups at the course.

BORN INTO RACING

Pat Eddery was born into a racing family in March 1952. His maternal grandfather was leading dual-purpose rider Jack Moylan, who rode Slide On to win the Irish 2000 Guineas and Derby in 1944, and won the Derby again at the Curragh on Picadilly in 1945. 

Two decades earlier Moylan had been renowned as much for his success across country as on the level, and rode Fly Mask to finish second in the 1924 Grand National. A native of Churchtown in County Cork, he had a lifelong association with the O’Brien family, riding future Champion Hurdler Solford to win the 1938 Irish Cambridgeshire for Vincent’s father Dan.

In winning that 1944 Irish 2000, Jack Moylan was sharing the prize with the up-and-coming Jimmy Eddery on Good Morning, and Jimmy would go on to enjoy Classic success aboard Panaslipper in the Irish Derby and Silken Glider in the Irish Oaks for Seamus McGrath. 

He later became assistant at McGrath’s historic yard at Glencairn, Leopardstown, where young Patrick Eddery cycled to ride out with the McGrath string while still at primary school. At the age of 14, Pat signed his indentures at Glencairn, but the youngster finished last on his only ride for the stable in 1967 before it was decided that he should try his luck under the tutelage of the renowned 'Frenchie' Nicholson, who trained both horses and jockeys at his yard backing on to Cheltenham racecourse.

Nicholson was an exacting master, and his jockeys were instructed on just how to behave both in the saddle and out of it, a principle Nicholson had learned from another master of the craft, the redoubtable Epsom trainer Stanley Wootton. Eddery was one of a number of exceptional jockeys produced by Nicholson, with Classic-winning riders Tony Murray, Paul Cook and Walter Swinburn perhaps the best known of the others, along with Frenchie’s own son, David.

Eddery’s first year at Cheltenham saw him fail to win, although the 70 losers he rode provided an education, and despite his lack of success, he was impressing his guv’nor more than the latter would like him to know. 

His big break came when Oxfordshire trainer Major Michael Pope asked Frenchie if he had an apprentice who could ride his Ascot maiden winner Alvaro in an apprentice handicap at Epsom in April 1969, ideally one who had yet to ride a winner. “This boy is the best I’ve ever handled, and will be champion jockey one day” replied Nicholson, and the die was cast from that moment. Alvaro didn’t just score at Epsom, but added wins at Newmarket, Kempton, Salisbury and Doncaster before the end of May to launch the 17-y-o apprentice into the public consciousness. Pope had bought Alvaro and another horse, Sky Rocket, for a combined 6,000 guineas at Newmarket’s Horses-In-Training Sales in the autumn of 1968 despite being told they were “too slow to catch a cold” and “the biggest dog in Newmarket” respectively, by those supposedly in the know.

As well as getting Alvaro to win his first six races in 1969 (Bill O’Gorman was on board for his maiden win in a race confined to amateurs), Pope also produced the previously disappointing Sky Rocket to win Royal Ascot’s Wokingham Stakes, where he made all the running under Eddery, who was already considered too good a rider to waste in apprentice races. By the end of 1970, he’d won just three races against other apprentices, but had scored 77 times in open competition, and only a couple of bans for trying too hard – the other jockeys started calling him ‘Polyfilla’ as he had a habit of pushing into tiny gaps – stopped him being crowned champion apprentice that year.

EDDERY AND ASCOT

In 1971, Eddery, still apprenticed to Nicholson, finished ninth in the senior jockeys’ title at the age of 19, and climbed to seventh the following season. 1972 was something of an annus mirabilis for Pat, whose good fortune was in contrast to the bad luck which faced Duncan Keith. Keith had ridden Rock Roi to a facile success in the Gold Cup at Ascot in 1971 only to lose the race months later after Peter Walwyn’s stayer failed a dope test. If that wasn’t bad enough, Rock Roi won the Gold Cup again in 1972 as an overwhelming 4/11 favourite, only to be disqualified again, this time for causing interference to runner-up Erimo Hawk, ridden by one Patrick James John Eddery. 

When Keith, who struggled with a thyroid problem and the after-effects of a couple of crashing falls, gave up the unequal struggle to control his weight that autumn, who should Peter Walwyn turn to for his new stable-jockey? Step forward Pat Eddery, whose association with the then Master of Seven Barrows was to yield success at the highest level and make him champion jockey from 1974 to 1977 inclusive.

The records show that from the time of his first association with Peter Walwyn, Pat’s success was stratospheric, and he later added another seven jockeys’ titles to the four he won while based at Seven Barrows, as well as an Irish championship in 1982, which was the only year between 1973 and 2001 that he didn’t ride at least 100 winners in Britain. His British tally over the years rose to 4,632 by the time he retired in 2003, and including his international tally, that figure rises to around 6,000.

Many of his most memorable wins came at Ascot, which he nominated as his favourite track, and he was leading rider at Royal Ascot in 1973, when an inspired ride to win the Britannia Handicap on Tudor Rhythm saw him pip Lester Piggott for top honours in what was the penultimate race of the meeting. 

It wasn’t always plain sailing at the Berkshire venue, and there was a sting in the tail after one of the most controversial races ever run at the Royal meeting the following year. The Queen Anne Stakes, then a Group 3, saw a thrilling finish in which three horses, Confusion (Greville Starkey), Gloss (Eddery) and Royal Prerogative (Mick Goreham) separated themselves from the field before a climax which saw plenty of bumping and boring. 

Ascot patrons were braced for some amendment to the result given the nature of the incident, but no-one predicted what transpired, with all three disqualified and their riders banned for improper riding. If that took the gloss (pun intended) off the meeting for Pat, he had the comfort of becoming champion jockey for the first time that season, as well as riding his first Classic winner, a fortunate one as it transpired, on board Polygamy in the Oaks, while this was the year in which he began his association with Dr Carlo Vittadini’s chestnut colt Grundy.

GRUNDY AND THE RACE OF THE CENTURY

Grundy enabled Pat to match the achievement of his father and grandfather by winning the Irish 2000 Guineas, but better was to come as he added the Derby and Irish Derby to his haul. That preceded a much-anticipated clash in Ascot’s King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes with St Leger and Coronation Cup hero Bustino, a relentless galloper and fierce competitor, trained by Dick Hern, who had lowered the course record when winning at Epsom. 

Major Hern ran two pacemakers who were deployed with the precision for which he was rightly famed, and the race was run at a lung-bursting pace from the second the stalls opened. This allowed Bustino to lead before the home turn and kick on under Joe Mercer to test Grundy’s mettle. What transpired was a compelling duel between the pair up the length of the Ascot straight which Grundy won by half a length under a vintage Eddery drive and a finish which saw the contest dubbed the “Race of The Century”.  

It has become fashionable to claim the 1975 King George was over-hyped as a contest, but you won’t hear that opinion from anyone who was there. “Only those with iced water for blood could remain aloof from the excitement which flooded through the stands”, wrote the great sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney of the atmosphere, and it remains one of the most enthralling races ever to be run on Ascot’s hallowed turf.


THE JUDDMONTE YEARS    

Pat Eddery rode the winner at least once of almost every great race at Ascot, and while it is hard to find a race as thrilling as the Grundy/Bustino battle, his association after the Walwyn years with Vincent O’Brien and then Prince Khalid Abdullah, provided him with some memorable moments in the saddle, such as the victory of the latter’s explosive miler Warning in the 1988 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, when Pat was able to coast to a long-looking five length win over a field of proven Group 1 milers. Warning carried a penalty for that win to an equally facile win in the Queen Anne Stakes the following year, and was described by Guy Harwood as being in a different class to Guineas winner Dancing Brave at a mile, an assessment which bears careful consideration given the almost-legendary status of the latter.

Pat landed a retainer to ride for the prince in 1987, the year after Dancing Brave lit up the racetracks of Europe with his brilliance, although the partnership was forged when Greville Starkey’s association with the owner of Juddmonte Farms came under pressure in the summer of 1986. 

Starkey was aboard Dancing Brave for most of his runs in 1986, and contrary to popular opinion, it was injury, and not censure from the owner, which saw him give up the ride in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, where Eddery proved a more than able substitute, steering Dancing Brave to revenge over Derby winner Shahrastani, although his rider’s contemptuous look around for non-existent dangers pre-empted the result, and Dancing Brave rather scrambled home, showing that he barely stayed the trip ridden conventionally. 

Pat learned his lesson, and his nerves-of-steel delivery of the son of Lyphard in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp is still the most breathtaking piece of race-riding I’ve ever witnessed. Horse and jockey were spectacular that day, and another ten thousand winners could not have added any more to his reputation. He was peerless that day in Paris, and always will be in my gilded memories of that day.

Ascot Legends: Pat Eddery