Two of the greatest jockeys of all time were Sir Gordon Richards and Willie Shoemaker. While the former is the sole member of his fraternity to be knighted, the latter had ridden his 8,700th winner before his 40th year.
Although the great Sir Gordon (born in 1904) rode over 200 winners in a season as many as 12 times, he won the much coveted Epsom Derby only once in his illustrious career atop a horse called Pinza in 1953. On an afternoon at Nottingham, the phenomenon known as Gordon Richards rode 12 winners in succession. It was a fantastic jaw-dropping display of saddle artistry that left all and sundry who witnessed this feat in a trance.
Gordon was the son of a miner from a large family with as many as a dozen siblings. He started his career as a clerk but soon pursued his passion. In his first three years, he rode only 10 winners but the figure jumped to 118 in a season after completing his apprenticeship which was sufficient to give him the championship. In 1932, Richards linked up with Fred Darling and stayed on with the stable when Noel Murless took over in 1948.
In a brilliant career spanning 35 years, Richards rode as many as 4870 winners and he was champion jockeys 26 times.
It was said that horses ran their hearts out for him as such great was his balance that they felt totally unencumbered. Despite being beaten 27 times atop his Epsom Derby rides, he was still installed as the 5/1 favourite astride Pinza in his last ride in the classic and he did not disappoint his large following. A nasty fall in 1954 forced him to retire with a broken pelvis. He tried his hand at training for a short while before managing horses for some renowned owners.
Across the Atlantic, Willie Shoemaker was an out ant out all-American genius.
At 4ft 11ins and with a body-weight of about 45 kg, Shoemaker had no problem riding the lightweights which most top jockeys of his era failed to capitalise on – shades of our very own Aslam Kader wouldn’t you say.
At the age of 27, Shoemaker was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame. He broke Johnny Longden’s record of 6033 winners in 1970 and passed the 8000 mark in 1981. In 1985, Shoemaker became the first rider to reach $100,000 in career earnings. This was truly amazing for a man whose first monthly pay packet was 75 dollars.
He spent part of his youth with his grandfather who was a ranch foreman in Texas. There, he took his first lesson in riding astride a pony. Little did anyone realize that history will be made and records broken by this very boy.
His first Kentucky Derby winner was atop Swaps in 1955. Then came Tommy Lee (1959) and Lucky Debonair (1965).
He became the oldest jockey to win this prime event, when at the age of 55, he rode Ferdinand to victory in 1986.