DESPITE once being dubbed the ‘Avenger of Bannockburn’ by the dear departed Sporting Life because he kept taking Scottish prize money south, George Duffield remains an enduringly popular figure among racing fans north of the border.
Yet again Britain’s oldest jockey broke a few Caledonian hearts at Musselburgh on Wednesday, foiling a big gamble on favourite Heir to Be in the 25,000 Tote Showcase Handicap with a typical Duffield ride on Affaire D’Amour for his guv’nor Sir Mark Prescott. Three furlongs out he moved the 12-1 shot into contention before opening the throttle at the furlong pole and winning cosily.
Somehow punters tend to forgive the veteran Duffield when he foils a gamble. For more often than most jockeys, it has been Duffield who has won money for the public, usually on board a Prescott horse landing yet another betting coup. Wily, wiry and strong, Duffield’s strength in a finish has been a welcome sight for punters over four decades.
Born on St Andrew’s Day, 1946, Yorkshireman Duffield feels at home in Scotland, and acknowledges his affection for Ayr, Hamilton and Musselburgh in his newly-published autobiography Gentleman George? - the question mark is deliberate because Duffield’s dark side emerges in the book.
"I have always enjoyed riding in Scotland," said Duffield, "as the Scottish crowds have been good to me. I like to think it’s because I have given them value for money over the years."
There have been many of those years - it is 36 years since his first racecourse appearance as an apprentice jockey, his first win coming a year later on June 15, 1967, aboard Syllable for the legendary Newmarket trainer Jack Waugh.
As an apprentice at Waugh’s yard, the boy from a mining family learned the riding trade and also the good habits which have allowed him to still be fit and riding as well as ever at the age of 55.
A typically down-to-earth and blunt Tyke, Duffield admits that he has been his own worst enemy at times, not suffering fools gladly and costing himself jobs, bans from stewards and even family relationships by calling a spade a bloody shovel.
But he also has a self-deprecating sense of humour, happily telling of how he was the victim of the usual pranks by senior apprentices at Waugh’s yard. He was sent to an ironmonger for some rubber nails - "and I went!", he confesses.
Journeyman jockey jobs followed before Duffield became stable jockey to Sir Mark Prescott in 1974. The Old Harrovian son of a baronet and the Yorkshire miner’s son have been the most successful Odd Couple in racing ever since, with Prescott’s creed of ‘go anywhere for a winner’ matched only by his jockey’s determination to be first, especially in a tight finish.
Indeed, Duffield is officially the best ‘finisher’ in racing: a recent report by scientific analyst Nick Mordin showed that of all the top jockeys, Duffield has a greater percentage of wins in close finishes - those where the winning margin is a neck or shorter - than any other rider.
"It’s a great compliment," said Duffield. "It’s not something I have ever thought of as a statistic, but I do hate getting beat in photo-finishes. In fact, I just hate finishing second, full-stop."
A renowned late developer - he was 36 before winning his first Group One race (Noalcoholic in the Sussex Stakes) and did not ride his first Classic winner until the age of 45 (User Friendly in the 1992 Epsom Oaks) - Duffield’s memoirs are not a portent of retirement, as he will race nest season. They do, however, display the "authentic G Duffield", as he says.
Nor do they always paint him in a good light. It had long been rumoured that Duffield had once assaulted Sir Peter Savill, the occasionally obstreperous chairman of the British Horseracing Board and a rich and famous owner. Describing the incident , Duffield describes how after a fierce argument Savill had confronted him face to face: "He had pushed me to the limit - and then some. I swung a right-hander and clocked him smack in the kisser."
Duffield acknowledges it was not the smartest of moves to punch such a powerful figure, but also points out that Savill isn’t the most popular of racing’s grandees.
"A lot of people have said to me that they would have liked to have done what I did," said Duffield. "It’s history now but we still don’t talk."
The autobiography, written with racing writer Mick Tanner, is also very honest - he confesses to extra-marital affairs - about the circumstances of Duffield’s acrimonious divorce from his first wife Gill and subsequent marriage to trainer Ann Swinbank after her equally messy divorce from husband Alan.
The couple have now set up home near Middleham in North Yorkshire, and Ann Duffield is fast increasing the number of horses at the stable. She’ll also be seeing a lot more of Duffield from now on.
"My first wife Gill grew up," said Duffield, "but I didn’t - it happens to a lot of marriages. Annie and I became friends rather than lovers first, and things grew from there. We’ve been through a lot but I’m very happy now. I can’t see myself going on riding until I’m 60. It is so much more demanding these days, what with Sunday and evening racing and as many as five or six meetings a day. All the travelling is crucifying me.
"I’m going to ease down a bit next season to try and spend more time with Annie and try to help her get things going at the stable.
"We’ll have about 30 to 35 horses next season, which isn’t bad as 40 is as many as we could take. Some of the younger ones are good-looking, but then it’s not a beauty contest, it’s about running."
Few people know more about how they run than Duffield, who is presently tenth in the all-time list of winning jockeys with nearly 2,500 winners.
Looking back on a career which has really only flourished at the top level in the last dozen seasons - "people forget how many winners I rode before then but a lot of them were in the north and not at the main southern meetings which get more attention" - he recalls the big winners with affection.
"Environment Friend (1991 Eclipse Stakes) was a special horse," said Duffield, "and riding Giant’s Causeway (2000 Eclipse Stakes) to keep up my sequence of Group One wins was great - he was probably the best I’ve ever ridden, but dual Champion Stakes winner Alborada was up there, too. User Friendly won five Group One races and was an exceptional filly."
Duffield’s main supporter throughout his career has been Prescott: "I’ve been with Sir Mark for nearly 30 years and there is no finer man I could have worked for," he said.
Their bookie-bashing exploits with horses such as Quinlan Terry, Wizard King and Pasternak are the stuff of racing legend, and the pair have appeared to specialise in winning the big handicaps. One glaring omission, which Duffield would love to rectify, is the Ayr Gold Cup.
"That’s why I don’t want to pack it in just yet," said Duffield, "because there’s a job still to be done. Mind you, I don’t think I need to prove anything to anybody."
His many Scottish fans will echo those words, because they know that the Avenger of Bannockburn is really Braveheart in silks.