The stoutly built Willie Carson was one of the best that Scotland has produced – and we are not talking of their whiskey for once. Though a late starter, Carson came into his own in the early seventies and never looked back thereafter. Born in 1942 in Stirling, Scotland, Carson rose from humble beginnings in war-torn Britain to great heights – never more emphasized than in the year 1979 when he rode Troy to a grand quadruple – the 200th Epsom Derby, The Irish Derby, The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Benson and Hedges Cup.
We were fortunate to see him in India on several occasions. In the early eighties, he flew down to Calcutta and showed his class while riding for veteran trainer Shri Charan.
On Derby day, Carson notched up a lucrative double with Tiffany (in a seven furlong sprint) and Beat The Distance in the big race itself. And who can ever forget his ride astride the 50/1 outsider La Bonne Vie in the Indian Derby in Bombay where Aslam Kader had to pull out all stops atop the half-money favourite Astonish to land the spoils in the last stride. La Bonne Vie was on a start-to-finish mission which came undone at the post.
When questioned as to how he extracted the very best from a filly who was not given an iota of a chance by the bookmakers and punters alike, Caron’s brief reply was that “ She was going so well, I merely gave her a free rein” – typically refusing to take any credit for the filly’s brilliant performance.
Rather surprisingly, Carson had very poor apprenticeship.
In four years with Gerald Armstrong, he had only one winner. It was only after losing his apprentice claim that Carson started dazzling with his saddle artistry. He joined Bernard van Custen to ride for Lord Derby.
What a partnership that turned out to be. He snatched the jockeys’ title from Lester Piggott in 1972 with 132 winners and went even better in 1973 with 164 winners.
The very next year, he claimed the Irish Oaks and Yorkshire Oaks with Dibidale. Had Carson not suffered a saddle-slip, he might have picked up the Epsom Oaks as well. He finished the course without the saddle and was disqualified as the weightcloth dropped out.
Royalty always held a special spot in Carson’s heart and he claimed that the highlight of his life was aboard the Queen’s filly Dunfermline who won the Oaks and the St Leger. The year was 1977 – the Silver Jubilee year of Queen Elizabeth II.
He won the jockeys’ championship once more in 1978 with 182 winners. Though Troy was the icing on the cake in 1979, Carson was not satisfied to sit back on his laurels. In 1980, Carson piloted Henbit to the winning post of the Derby at Epsom. Two Derby triumphs in as many years made him the rage of the ring wherever he went.
In 1988, Carson rode a horse in the Epsom Derby called Minsters Son.
The colt was bred by Carson himself and it would have been a unique performance had he won. However, though he failed to place at Epsom, he went on to win the St Leger in style.