Born: 21 March, 1929, in London. Died: 5 September, 2012, in Oaksey, Wiltshire, aged 83
“Between the stirrup and the ground, I mercy asked, I Oaksey found.” These words so familiar to jockeys, and first spoken by the late trainer to the Queen Mother, Sir Peter Cazalet, will stand along with the jockeys’ rehabilitation centre Oaksey House in Lambourn as testimony to the finest part of the illustrious career of one of the greatest men of the turf of recent decades, Lord John Oaksey.
His death at the age of 83 after a long illness has provoked genuine mourning among the racing public who loved him for his charm, brilliant journalism and broadcasting talent, knowing him also to be a fine jockey and the man who created the Injured Jockeys Fund (IJF).
Those involved in the sport know what a colossal legacy Oaksey leaves, having worked tirelessly over 40 years to build the IJF into the best charity of its kind anywhere in the world. More than 1,000 riders have received assistance of one kind or another from the IJF, and any jockey who has ever hit the unforgiving ground and succumbed to injury, especially the most serious, will tell you the truth of Cazalet’s words – when they needed help, they found Oaksey there, often in person. His legacy also includes the Grand National itself. In the 1980s, Major Ivan Straker, then chairman of distilling giant Seagram, stepped in to avert Aintree racecourse from being sold to property developers after reading a typically trenchant Oaksey piece in the Telegraph. Straker said later: “I was reading John’s article, which I always did because I thought he was the best racing journalist I ever read. He wrote that it looked black [for the National], which was the understatement of the century.” Straker raised nearly £1 million in a day, saving Aintree and the National.
Mr John Lawrence, as he was originally known to racegoers, was bred to the law and the turf. His grandfather, Sir Alfred Lawrence, was Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, becoming Baron Trevethin – reflecting the family’s Welsh antecedents – on his appointment in 1921. Oaksey’s father Geoffrey was the third son of the first baron, and was himself a leading judge who was appointed Baron Oaksey in his own right after presiding meticulously over the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
The first Lord Oaksey, who succeeded to the Trevethin title on his brother’s death in 1959, passed on his love of the turf to his only son. After education at Horris Hill, Eton and New College, Oxford, plus a stint at Yale Law School, Oaksey passed up a law career for a life in the saddle as an amateur jockey after national service with the Lancers. He later joined the RAF Volunteer reserve.
A natural wordsmith, Oaksey jumped at the chance to write about racing for the Daily Telegraph, and from 1957 on he combined superb reportage and comment on the sport with actual participation as a jockey. Some of his reports from the saddle are among the finest sports writing in the English language, and his Audax column in Horse and Hound magazine was compulsory reading for everyone in the sport.
He was champion amateur in season 1957-58 and, in April of the latter year, he rode Taxidermist to win the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown, before his greatest win aboard the same horse seven months later in the Hennessy Gold Cup, then run at Cheltenham.
He was second aboard Carrickbeg in the 1963 Grand National, leading the race until “Ayala’s head appeared like Nemesis at my knee” as he famously wrote in the following day’s paper.
He finished second in the Scottish Grand National aboard Proud Tarquin in 1974, noting ruefully years later that it was “just my bad luck” as the horse who beat him was the mighty Red Rum, the only horse ever to win the Aintree and Scottish Nationals in the same year.
In all he rode more than 200 winners before a bad fall at Folkestone in 1975 ended his career, but by then Oaksey had already found another metier in broadcasting, first for a Pay TV channel then ITV and Channel 4. He brought a real knowledge of jockeyship to his craft, though he was no tipster as he often acknowledged. Fellow Channel 4 pundit John McCririck would often refer to “My Noble Lord”, eliciting yet another gentle put down from Oaksey.
His raised trilby, gentle laugh and patrician accent – though he never sounded condescending – were his trademarks, but so was his knowledge. All the time he combined his journalism and broadcasting with work for the IJF which had begun in 1964 when he joined a fund to help jockeys Tim Brookshaw and Paddy Farrell, who had suffered paralysing falls at Aintree. He worked tirelessly for the fund, and donated all his income from after-dinner speaking, at which he excelled.
Away from racing he loved jazz music and skiing. He was appointed Justice of the Peace in 1976, and the Queen conferred an OBE on him in 1985 for his charity work. Oaksey was endlessly charming and witty but could be pugnacious – he had been captain of boxing at Eton – in pursuit of his causes, such as his campaigns against whip abuse.
His personal life went somewhat awry when his first wife Victoria left him for the artist Maggi Hambling, with Oaksey himself marrying Rachel “Chicky” Crocker, who left her husband for him.
Oaksey found time to write several books, including The History of Steeplechasing, The Story of Mill Reef and Oaksey on Racing, a collection of his best columns. His 1999 autobiography Mince Pie For Starters – his first pony was called Mince Pie who had an unfortunate gaseous problem – ended with the hope that the first foal he had bred from his mare Plaid Maid would be at the centre of his future in racing.
That foal was Carruthers and, knowing how ill Oaksey was, the racing world rejoiced when the gelding, trained by his son-in-law Mark Bradstock, won the Hennessy Gold Cup of 2011, some 53 years after the man himself won it.
Lord Oaksey is survived by his wife Chicky and his children from his first marriage, Peter Lawrence, who assumes the twin baronetcies, and Sara Bradstock.