Fred Winter

Champion jockey and trainer with a feverish will to succeed
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Frederick Thomas Winter, jockey and racehorse trainer: born Andover, Hampshire 20 September 1926; CBE 1963; married 1956 Diana Pearson (three daughters); died Swindon, Wiltshire 5 April 2004.

When, in 1947, Fred Winter embarked on a career as a jumps jockey, no one could have imagined the impact he would make both as a trainer and a jockey in a career spanning 40 years.

Winter failed to make the grade on the Flat, and a series of injuries in his early years as a National Hunt rider meant he spent more time on the sidelines than he did in the saddle. What's more, early on he was a far from enthusiastic rider over obstacles. Yet his determination and refusal to be beaten saw him develop into one of the greatest jumps jockeys British racing can boast. He was champion jockey four times, won the Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup twice and the Champion Hurdle three times.

He then, hesitantly at first, turned his attentions to training, proving equally successful. He was the leading National Hunt trainer in Britain eight times and matched his riding achievement of winning the three major jumps races, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, and the Grand National, the latter twice in his first two seasons.

Winter was a gruff man, often to the point of rudeness. His friends defended that trait as natural shyness, but above all he gained countless admirers through his complete integrity, a characteristic not always prevalent in racing.

He was born in Andover, Hampshire, in 1926, where his father, also called Fred, was in the twilight of a career as a Flat jockey. His father had been a teenage prodigy as a jockey before the First World War, winning the 1911 Oaks aged 16 on Cherimoya. But his career had been stunted by the war years, not helped by four years in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. He started training in Epsom after failing to obtain a licence for Newmarket.

Fred, one of two sons - the other, John, trained successfully on the Flat in Newmarket - was involved with horses from an early age, even riding out his father's horses aged five. He rode in gymkhanas to a high standard as a child. He was a 13-year-old, weighing 5st 7lb, when he had his first public ride at Newbury, on a horse called Tam O'Shanter. He finished ninth of 21.

The first winner came after eight rides at Salisbury on the same horse. Fred Winter left Ewell Castle School in Surrey shortly afterwards to join Henri Jellis, a contemporary of his father's, in Newmarket as an apprentice. It did not prove a success and Winter only rode two winners from 80 rides, troubled increasingly by his rising weight. He left Newmarket to rejoin his family at Southfleet, where his father was now a private trainer after a spell outside racing.

He then spent four years in the Army towards the end of the Second World War. Commissioned in the West Kents, Winter qualified as a parachutist before spending nine months in Palestine. He was demobbed in 1948, aged 22.

A year earlier, on leave, Winter had taken the decision to become a jumps jockey. His first ride was on his father's hurdler Bambino II. He rode that horse as if it was a Flat race, finishing a tired fifth. He only had to wait until the next day for his first jumps winner, though, on the family favourite Carlton. It was the first of 923 winners.

But then he fractured his shoulder in his fifth ride and, a few winners after his comeback, broke three vertebrae when riding Tugboat Minnie in a novices' hurdle at Wye. Although he returned 12 months later, Winter understandably did not appreciate the pain involved in these injuries. It was during this period, when packing it in was considered, that he really showed a feverish will to succeed.

In the 1949/50 season, Winter rode 18 winners from 131 mounts, including two at Cheltenham for Ryan Price, with whom he was to carve a brilliant relationship which lasted until the end of his riding career. Two seasons later, despite some bad injuries, he was second to Tim Molony in the jockeys' championship, with 84 winners.

In only his fourth full season Winter became champion jockey by riding 121 winners, a record which was to last 14 years. His chief trainer Ryan Price himself sent out a record of 176 winners. All four of Winter's championships came in the 1950s, including three successive triumphs from the season starting 1955/56.

Winter also rode one of his first really big winners when Halloween won the 1952 King George VI Chase at Kempton. Halloween won 17 races in all and was placed three times in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Winter probably didn't need it, but, on his first ride of the 1953/54 season, he was reminded of the cruel fickleness of the game when he broke his leg at Newton Abbot.

At this stage Winter, who had been enjoying his status as champion jockey, partying regularly with his close friend and rival Dave Dick, met Diana Pearson, whom he married in 1956. The wedding was the subject of much media publicity, Winter - ironically, considering his private nature - becoming one of the first riders to become a regular feature of newspaper social pages.

By the time he married, Winter had won the first of his Champion Hurdles on Clair Soleil, trained by Ryan Price, as were the other two winners, Fare Time in 1959 (the year he fractured his skull in a fall at Leicester) and Eborneezer in 1961. And, if those victories weren't enough to keep him in the limelight, he won his first Grand National in 1957 on Sundew.

In 1961 Winter added to his expanding list of records by riding the winners of both the Champion Hurdle (Eborneezer) and the Gold Cup (Saffron Tartan) at the Cheltenham Festival. A second Gold Cup came when he partnered Mandarin to win the following year, and for good measure he added his second National to the record books when winning on Kilmore in the same season, 1961/62.

Winter's most sensational performance came on Mandarin at Auteuil later that season in France's biggest steeplechase, the Grand Steeplechase de Paris. The race was in June and Winter had put on weight. He dieted hard for the meeting. Having been violently sick the night before, he showed typical bravery in being able to mount the horse in the parade ring.

But then, at the fourth of 30 fences in the race, Mandarin's bridle broke - the equivalent of driving a sports car with no brakes or proper steering. Somehow, despite Mandarin's breaking down close to home, the pair managed to hold on for one of the most gallant victories ever. While the crowd was praising the performance to the hilt, Winter had practically to be carried into the weighing room. Somehow he managed to ride again half an hour later, winning the French equivalent of the Triumph Hurdle on Beaver.

In the following season, 1962/63, he was appointed CBE and in April 1964 a fall at Chepstow, when he suffered a punctured lung, was more than enough to persuade him to quit.

The brilliant training career that followed was almost a case of serendipity. Winter had called at the Jockey Club's Portman Square headquarters to enquire about a career as a starter, only to be turned down. With little else to fall back on, he started training with five horses at the Uplands stables in Lambourn. Determined to be his own man, Winter turned down the chance to take over at Findon from Ryan Price, who had been banned temporarily by the Jockey Club.

When he started, Winter later admitted, he had "no idea of whether I could train or not". He soon found out that he could, and in pretty unusual circumstances, winning the 1965 Grand National in his first season. The horse was Jay Trump, who was bought especially to race in the National by his American owner Tommy Smith, who was to ride him. Although he arrived in Britain a Maryland Hunt Cup winner, Jay Trump's career had been chequered before Smith bought him. At one point he was on a buyer's blacklist after savaging his lad.

Months of intense preparation worked to perfection, resulting in Jay Trump's memorable three-length Aintree victory. In his first season Winter trained 25 winners, a tally which was to rise each season until 1970/71 when he was champion trainer for the first time. He occupied that position for six of the next seven seasons.

With the Winter yard, it was always a case of quality as much as quantity. That was proved 12 months after Jay Trump's National when the feat was repeated with Anglo, who had been sent to the yard during Price's disqualification.

He dominated Cheltenham just as much as Aintree. There were three Champion Hurdles in four years with Bula (1971 and 1972) and Lanzarote (1974). But there were setbacks. Pendil, who had won two King Georges at Kempton, was twice an odds-on beaten favourite in the Gold Cup, including when short-headed by the Dikler.

Winter also won the Two-Mile Champion Chase with Crisp, a horse much better known for his defeat in the 1973 Grand National when, after making most of the running in exuberant style, he was collared on the long run-in by Red Rum recording the first of his three Aintree victories.

There was also tragedy along the way. Bula was fatally injured in the 1977 Champion Chase, Lanzarote was killed in the same year's Gold Cup, and Killiney, winner of the top novices' chase at Cheltenham, also died on the racecourse, his huge potential never fulfilled.

Winter had endured a long wait before winning the Gold Cup as a jockey. The same happened as a trainer: Midnight Court won the race in April 1978, ridden by John Francome, a rarity in that he was a brilliant enough jockey to be compared to Fred Winter.

Winter was often as skilful with men as horses. While recognising the talent of Francome, he also developed the career of Richard Pitman. And some of Britain's leading trainers, Nicky Henderson, Oliver Sherwood, and Charlie Brooks, had been assistant trainers at Uplands.

It was Brooks who took over the licence from Winter when in August 1987 he fell down the stairs at his home and suffered a stroke which left him unable to speak or write. As a result of the accident he was unable to be at Cheltenham when, later that year, the Uplands horse Celtic Shot won the Champion Hurdle. Brooks was listed as the trainer, but the victory was considered Winter's triumph.

One of Winter's last public appearances came last month when he attended a party for his long-time head lad Brian Delaney. Despite the lasting effects of his stroke, he also regularly went on group overseas holidays organised by the Injured Jockeys' Fund.

Richard Griffiths

Comments