DEATH and injury is a constant companion to those who race horses for a living. Thankfully, human tragedy is rare, though the sport is sadly never short of stories of jockeys battling serious injury.
So it seems almost incomprehensible that Campbell Gillies, the jockey who only as recently as March gave Scotland a rare Cheltenham Festival winner, should have succumbed to a swimming pool accident while on holiday in Corfu well away from the race tracks where he so often put life and limb to the test.
That famous and unforgettable win at Cheltenham came aboard Brindisi Breeze, trained by Lucinda Russell at Milnathort, in the three-mile Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle on 16 March. In what can only be seen as a bizarre and tragic coincidence, Brindisi Breeze himself was killed in an off-track incident five weeks ago after he got out of his box and was hit by a lorry.
Gillies would have celebrated his 22nd birthday today, but it is more than the fact of his passing at such a young age that is so profoundly shocking. For while he will be rightly mourned as a lively, personable and highly talented individual, as well as a much-loved son, brother, friend and colleague, it is the demise of his potential which in time will resonate.
For he truly was a young star on the brink of something magnificent, having already shown the natural horsemanship, courage and charisma that makes a truly great jockey which, had he been spared, he would undoubtedly have become.
The sense of loss throughout the racing world is palpable, and it is the very definition of tragedy that he has lost his life when he was really just arriving into an adulthood that would surely have been wonderfully fulfilled.
His precocious talents in the saddle had already seen him ride 131 winners from just over 1,100 rides under National Hunt rules. He also had two winners on the Flat, one of them for legendary Scottish jockey-turned-trainer Peter Niven whose Scottish record feat of riding more than 1,000 winners he might well have surpassed in time.
Gillies came from an East Lothian sporting family. It was on his sister Rita’s pony Honey that he first learned to ride at the age of ten. His mother Lesley famously gave him a leg up for the first time on Honey only for Gillies to fall over the other side and swear he would never get on a horse again.
His mother and sister survive him and he is also survived by his brother Finlay, who played hooker for Haddington rugby club and Heriot’s before being snapped up as an elite development player by Glasgow Warriors. Finlay has been capped by Scotland at several junior levels and now, as a full-time squad member at Glasgow, is tipped as a future full international.
Educated at Knox Academy in Haddington, Gillies seemed almost destined to be a jockey, and overcoming that first encounter with Honey, he soon learned to ride and would often be seen on his own horse after school accompanied by his great friend and fellow jockey Alexander Voy.
Gillies first rode out for trainer Willie Amos’s yard near Hawick at the age of just 15. He moved to Scotland’s leading National Hunt trainer, Lucinda Russell, a year later.
Having attended the British Racing School with Voy, as an apprentice jockey Gillies made an immediate impact, achieving a remarkable strike rate of 20 per cent – 11 winners from 55 runners – in his first full season.
Gillies formed a strong bond with Russell and her partner Peter Scudamore, the former champion jockey. In time he would surely have succeeded their very fine stable jockey Peter Buchanan, whom he often described as his mentor.
One notable success from his early career was Culcabock, a 40-1 winner at Cheltenham back in December, 2008. He also rode winners for other trainers in Scotland and the North, notably Willie Amos for whom he rode the classy Lie Forrit to seven victories.
His cheery personality soon made him popular among his fellow jockeys, but many shrewd observers saw that there was a determined winner under that outward bonhomie, and so it proved.
His best season was last year when he rode 38 winners, and he had already gained four winners when this season was only weeks old. His last win came aboard Fog Patches for Russell at Hexham just 11 days ago.
There was no doubt about his greatest performance, which was at Cheltenham’s National Hunt Festival this year. In the prestigious Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, Gillies always had Brindisi Breeze up in the front two, and as the field went onto the back straight for the final time, the pair were going noticeably well and jumping superbly.
Taking up the running at the top of the hill, Brindisi Breeze forged ahead, and turning into the home straight, they were ahead of Meister Eickhart ridden by Tony McCoy and the hot favourite Boston Bob under Ruby Walsh. The latter closed on Brindisi Breeze, but the six-year-old gelding owned by Sandy Seymour responded up the closing hill.
The Racing UK commentator exclaimed, “Brindisi Breeze wins for Scotland” as Gillies exulted in the saddle when they crossed the finishing line. Having ridden the race to perfection, the jockey’s verdict was that the win was ‘fantastic for Scottish racing’.
Indeed it was, just as his passing is so very terrible for the sport in Scotland.
From the greatest in National Hunt, such as Tony McCoy, to the humblest fan, the news of his death came as a devastating blow. McCoy and many other top jockeys and trainers have paid their tributes, while those fans who simply admired his skill and will to win have recorded their shock and grief on the internet.
As it always does, racing will find a way to commemorate Gillies, perhaps by naming a race or trophy in his honour. That will be one way of remembering him, and it will be a fitting and appropriate manner to keep his name alive. Yet it will be in the memories of those who knew, loved and admired him that Gillies will be best remembered. And no man truly dies who is never forgotten.