Bruce Hobbs

Jockey who won the Grand National at 17 and went on to become a successful trainer


Bruce Robertson Hobbs, jockey and racehorse trainer: born 27 December 1920; married 1945 Betty Winder (one daughter), 1992 Vicki Hibble; died Newmarket, Suffolk 21 November 2005.

A fearless youth, who first sat on a horse as a three-year-old, Bruce Hobbs conquered the Grand National at the age of 17. It was the spring of 1938, less than 12 months before the outbreak of the Second World War, and Hobbs was riding the ominously named Battleship. His record as the youngest jockey to have won the great Aintree steeplechase still stands.

Some 40 years later, Hobbs was still making a mark on the turf. The talented colt he trained for the Greek shipping owner George Cambanis, Tyrnavos, sprang a 25-1 surprise to win the 1980 Irish Derby at the Curragh. If Tyrnavos turned out to be the sole winner of the classic race for Hobbs, it was by no means the single highlight of a training career associated with a number of champion racehorses.

Hobbs enjoyed success with Hotfoot, the champion two-year-old fillies Jacinth, Melchbourne and Cry of Truth, as well as Stilvi and her offspring, among whom were Tachypous, the champion two-year-old Tromos, Tyrnavos and Tolmi.

Bruce Robertson Hobbs was born on Long Island, New York at the start of the prohibition era. At the time, his father, Reg Hobbs, was Master of the Horse to a prominent racehorse owner, the sewing-machine heir Ambrose Clark, whose horse Kellsboro Jack was to win the Grand National in 1933, when Hobbs was 12 years old.

The family moved back to England in 1922 and by the age of 13, Hobbs had taken his first ride in public. His first winner followed at the age of 15, on Amida at Wolverhampton in March, 1936. Then, remarkably, just two years later he had won the Grand National.

Battleship arrived with what might have been regarded as the celebrity connection of the day. The chaser, very small in stature at 15.2 hands, was owned by the American millionairess Marion duPont Scott, wife of the actor Randolph Scott who that year was to appear in The Road to Reno, ironically a movie with a plot centred on horse-riding skills.

Punters took little note of the odd coupling of auspicious connections and young jockey and sent off Battleship at odds of 40-1. Towards the painful climax of the four-and-a-half-mile race, Hobbs and his mount were intact, but engaged in a dour battle with Royal Danieli, from Ireland. Then, after a fight all the way up the long run-in, Battleship gained the verdict by a head.

Hobbs enjoyed further plaudits two weeks later when he won the Welsh Grand National, at the now defunct Cardiff racecourse, riding Timber Wolf, but later that year broke his back in a fall that paralysed him down the left side of his body. He lay on his back in hospital for three months, and was told he would never again ride racehorses.

Undaunted, Hobbs recovered and managed to return to the saddle until called to serve during the Second World War, first with the North Somerset Yeomanry, then the Queen's Own Yorkshire Dragoons. He served with distinction, rising to captain and being awarded the Military Cross.

Too heavy after the war to resume riding to the standard he deemed acceptable, Hobbs turned to training. He began as private trainer to John Rogerson and his wife Eileen, daughter of the diamond magnate Solly Joel, near Wantage, winning the Grand Sefton Chase at Aintree with War Risk in November 1946.

As a newlywed, having married Betty Winder from Wantage, Hobbs found the going sticky when the Rogersons' yard closed. After a spell when resources were at a low ebb, he was appointed assistant to the trainer George Beeby at Compton, Berkshire, in 1951. Two years later he joined the Queen's trainer Cecil Boyd-Rochfort at Freemason Lodge.

By now approaching 40, Hobbs turned briefly to work as a travelling salesman for a saddlery company until his break finally came. In 1964, he gained the position as private trainer to the high-spending television magnate David Robinson and his substantial team at Carlburg Stables in Newmarket. Within a year that relationship ended, but Hobbs had his foothold. Installed into Palace House Stables, he sent out winners from there for the next 20 years.

Hotfoot, his first accomplished product, ran second in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and third in the Irish Champion Stakes. His association with the Cambanis filly Stilvi bore much fruit. She won the Duke of York and King George Stakes then, once retired, she foaled Tachyous, runner-up in the 2,000 Guineas of 1977, the champion two-year-old Tromos, then Tyrnavos and also Tolmi, a very smart two-year-old who won the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot the following summer.

Other important winners included Jacinth, who headed the 1972 Free Handicap. She was the first of three consecutive champion two-year-old fillies for Hobbs. In 1973 followed Melchbourne and, a year on, her half-sister Cry of Truth. Tolmi, in 1980, became a fourth champion in that category for Hobbs.

Winners kept coming until 1985, when Hobbs announced his retirement. It was not long thereafter that his 41-year marriage ended. He subsequently married Vicki Hibble, who had been his stable secretary for 13 years.

Tony Smurthwaite

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