Obituary: Pat Eddery, champion jockey and racehorse trainer

Pat Eddery: Former champion jockey recognised as the best of a brilliant generation on the Flat. Picture: Getty
Pat Eddery: Former champion jockey recognised as the best of a brilliant generation on the Flat. Picture: Getty
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Born: 18 March, 1952, in County Kildare, Republic of Ireland. Died: 10 November, 2015, in Buckinghamshire, England, aged 63

They called it the race of the century. They still do.

Arguably the greatest finish in racing history was fought out by two magnificent colts, Grundy and Bustino, in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot in July, 1975.

Grundy was the winner of that year’s 2,000 Guineas and Irish and Epsom derbies. Bustino was the previous year’s St Leger winner and looked to be making good use of all his stamina as he entered the final straight under legendary veteran jockey Joe Mercer. Aboard Grundy, however, was a 23-year-old Irishman who had ridden the Peter Walwyn-trained colt in all his races.

The racing world already knew that Pat Eddery was its young star, a talent of extraordinary potential, and that day he proved it.

Coming from four lengths behind, Eddery smoothly moved his horse to the front inside the final furlong and then somehow cajoled an exhausted Grundy to stay in front as Bustino renewed his challenge. Eddery and Grundy had set a course record by more than two seconds – an astonishing feat. The colt became Horse of the Year, and Eddery was on his way to greatness. That race began his legend.

For the rest of the 1970s and on into the 1980s and all the way to 2003, Eddery was always at the top of the list for owners and trainers who wanted a proven winner in the saddle.

It almost beggars belief how many wonderful jockeys were plying their trade on the Flat in Britain during that long time – Mercer, Scotland’s Willie Carson, Greville Starkey, Michael Roberts, Ray Cochrane, Walter Swinburn Jnr, Frankie Dettori, Keiren Fallon and the most famous of them all, Lester Piggott. Yet Pat Eddery beat them all to finish his career in second place in the all-time list of winners, second only to Sir Gordon Richards himself with 4,632 winners in Britain – with dozens elsewhere, including four Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes, two American Breeders Cups and the Arlington Million – and he was also Britain’s champion jockey 11 times, a feat matched only by Piggott.

Born into a racing family in Newbridge, County Kildare, in Ireland, Pat Eddery was the fifth of 12 children of Jimmy and Josephine. Jimmy was a top jockey who finished second in the 1955 Derby on Panaslipper, before winning the Irish Derby on the same horse. Eddery’s maternal grandfather, Jack Moylan, was also a prominent rider – amazingly the two – father and grandfather – dead-heated for the Irish 2,000 Guineas in 1944.

At the age of just eight, Eddery began riding horses at the yard of trainer Seamus McGrath, near Leopardstown racecourse. He had to wait until his 14th birthday to be formally apprenticed to McGrath, but there was never any chance of him being anything other than a jockey, even after finishing last on his first ride in public.

At 15, Eddery moved to England to further his apprenticeship with the trainer Herbert “Frenchie” Nicholson at Cheltenham, one of the greatest tutors of young jockeys. He deliberately held back the precocious Eddery, but told plenty of people Eddery could be the greatest riding prospect of all.

So it proved. On 24 April, 1969, after 78 unsuccessful rides, the 17-year-old Eddery rode his first winner, Alvaro, at Epsom. In an extravagant acknowledgement of his talent, Nicholson avoided the usual “apprenticeship” races and put Eddery into the main events from the off. A few weeks later, Eddery won the first of his Royal Ascot races, aboard Sky Rocket in the Wokingham Handicap. He became champion apprentice in 1971, and the following year became stable jockey to Peter Walwyn.

Shy and withdrawn, Eddery was never fond of the limelight that soon came his way. He was the top jockey at Royal Ascot in 1973, and the following year won the first of his 14 British Classics, the Oaks, aboard Polygamy, when he also won his first jockeys’ championship with 148 winners.

The winners simply flowed, and by the start of the 1980s, Eddery was recognised as the best of a brilliant generation, so much so that when the man considered to be the best trainer of all time, Ireland’s Vincent O’Brien and owner Robert Sangster needed a replacement in the saddle for Piggott, they chose Eddery.

He rode his first Arc for Sangster on Detroit in 1980, and won the 1982 Derby on Golden Fleece for them but was somewhat unfairly blamed for the narrow defeat of El Gran Senor by Secreto in the 1984 Derby.

The following year saw Eddery win Britain’s first Breeders Cup title aboard the brave filly Pebbles. In 1986, he linked up with owner Khalid Abdullah who gave him the ride aboard Dancing Brave in that year’s Arc, the middle of three consecutive wins in France’s biggest race, Rainbow Quest in 1985 and Trempolino in 1987 completing the treble. He also won the Japan Cup in 1986 aboard the Clive Brittain trained Jupiter Island, again a first for British racing.

Eddery won his third Derby on Quest for Fame in 1990, his most successful year with 209 winners, and completed the full set of British Classics with Bosra Sham in the 1,000 Guineas of 1996, the year he won his final Jockeys’ Championship. His last Classic came aboard Silver Patriarch in the St Leger of 1997.

Eddery raced into his 50s, finally retiring in 2003. He set up an owners’ syndication business and took out a training licence with mixed success, though he did train Hearts of Fire to win the Group 1 Gran Criterium of Italy. His training career was also marred by a bitter fallout with his jockey brother, Paul, who left his employment with Pat in unpleasant circumstances.

As an Irishman, Eddery qualified only for an honorary OBE, awarded in 2005. There were many who thought it should have been an honorary knighthood.

Eddery married Carolyn Mercer, the daughter of jockey Manny Mercer, in 1978. They divorced in 2009. He had a long relationship thereafter with Emma Owen. He is survived by the two daughters of his marriage, Nichola, a well-known equestrian artist; Natasha, and his son, Harry.