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Bobby Beasley: Quixotic jockey and trainer

Henry Robert Beasley, jockey and racehorse trainer: born London 26 August 1935; twice married; died Hastings, East Sussex 9 January 2008

In the hefty archive of horseracing's unlikely comebacks, from National Velvet to Aldaniti, the story of the jockey Bobby Beasley was perhaps the most heartwarming of them all. Beasley was a member of one of Ireland's most decorated racing families, the name of which is woven intricately into the history of great races across generations, and the chapters he added were both tragic and euphoric.

Beasley succumbed totally to alcoholism at the pinnacle of his glittering career as a National Hunt jockey. He had never taken a drink until the age of 24, but later recalled that, after winning the Galway Plate steeplechase in 1960, he was persuaded into trying it. "It spiralled from there," he recounted. He lost a wonderful job with one of the all-time great racehorse trainers, Fred Winter. Then he had to watch as the horses he would have ridden continued to accumulate major races.

Jockeyship of a high order was in Bobby Beasley's blood. His great-uncle, Tommy, was twice champion of Ireland, won the Grand National at Aintree three times and beat the legendary Flat jockey Fred Archer in the Irish Derby; Bobby's grandfather Harry trained and rode the 1891 Grand National winner Come Away; his great-uncles Jack and Willie rode in the Grand National; and his father, "HH" Beasley, and uncle Willie both rode Classic winners in England.

Beasley used to recount a near-magical story of how, when his grandfather finally gave in to pressure from his wife and daughter to convert to Catholicism he agreed on one condition – that he would do so on the day he shot a white blackbird. One morning thereafter, he took aim at a white dove from his bedroom window. When his wife went to retrieve the prey, she discovered it was an albino blackbird. The bird was stuffed and displayed at home, "and many's the time I've called it names and cursed it for changing our way of life," Beasley said later.

Prior to his battle with the bottle, Beasley had ridden his way to a tremendous reputation, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the pinnacle of steeplechasing, in 1959 on a horse called Roddy Owen. Records relate that talented as he was, Roddy Owen was quixotic, with his own way of doing things. So it was with Beasley. His skills were readily evident to those watching races in Ireland in the late 1950s.

Beasley took high rank as a three-time champion jockey. His first title, in 1958, came three years after his first success as a professional and was retained in each of the next two seasons. Two years after his Gold Cup win, Beasley took the mount on the grey outsider Nicolaus Silver in the 1961 Grand National. That Beasley was denied in his wish to switch to another runner, Jonjo, and that Nicolaus Silver was targeted by dopers, in the shape of a fragrant French lady visiting the stables of the trainer Fred Rimell, only added to the unlikely nature of the success.

Sandwiched between Roddy Owen and Nicolaus Silver was Another Flash, on which Beasley won another of Cheltenham's flagship races, the Champion Hurdle, in 1960 for his main trainer, Paddy Sleator. That year Beasley married Shirley, a daughter of Arthur Thompson, who had won the Grand National on Sheila's Cottage in 1948 and Teal four years later. But the drink did for Beasley's marriage, as well as his job. He retired as a jockey in 1969.

Only when his friend Nicky Rackard urged him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous was a corner turned. Though winning races would be only one measure of Beasley's recovery, it would show the world that he had the willpower to defeat a pernicious foe. One day at Leopardstown in February 1971, at the age of 35, he stepped in at short notice for the injured Francis Shortt and marked his return with a victory on Norwegian Flag. The following spring, he added the Irish Sweeps Hurdle on Captain Christy and then, in a crowning moment scripted in Hollywood, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for a second time.

Riding Captain Christy for the trainer Pat Taaffe, Beasley ranged alongside Ron Barry on the Dikler only to land steeply over the final fence. His lead was lost, but the old black-and-white footage shows Beasley the more dynamic, natural rider recovering the lost ground to attain victory.

Beasley retired for a second time and turned to training in England with his second wife, Linda, at Lewes and Marlborough. He also ran a pub and worked in a vineyard. He would come down into the pub each morning, look up at the optics and say, "You little bastards, you thought you were going to get me, but you didn't."

Tony Smurthwaite