Obituary: Charlie Smirke
CHARLIE SMIRKE's four Derby wins, along with his seven other Classic successes, fully entitle him to be bracketed along with Sir Gordon Richards, Harry Wragg, and Lester Piggott as one of the outstanding jockeys of his era.
Smirke's self-confident, almost aggressive personality enabled him to compete with the most gifted of his profession. And a cheerful outlook on life that was near-impossible to subdue, even in hard times, served him well in facing setbacks during a riding career which spanned nearly 40 years, with his first Derby ride, in 1924, separated by 35 years from the last.
This period included a wholly unjust five-year suspension from the Jockey Club at a crucial time when a less durable character's fledgling career might have floundered. In fact, within a season of returning to the saddle, Smirke had won his first Derby and went on to reap the success his natural talent warranted.
Smirke was born in Lambeth, south London, in 1906. he was the son of a fruit merchant and had no previous family involvement with racing to draw on when his diminutive stature raised the possibility of a career in the saddle. Like many other fine riders of his generation, he joined the legendary trainer of the day Stanley Wootton, in 1920, and rode his first winner in a seller at Derby. In 1922, Solomon Joel retained the young apprentice, taking advantage of a frame that was still under seven stone and able to partner the lowest weights in any of the big handicaps of the day.
In 1926, the penultimate year of his apprenticeship, Smirke was retained by the Aga Khan, the beginning of an association that would last, on and off, for the next 30 years. At this point in Smirke's career, when he should have been consolidating his growing popularity with owners, he was the subject of one of the Turf's great injustices. In 1928, he was warned off for five years by the Jockey Club which found him guilty of making no effort to start on a horse called Welcome Gift, an 11-4 on favourite, at the now defunct Gatwick racecourse.
Smirke protested his innocence, and although the horse subsequently repeated the boorish reluctance to race on a number of occasions, the low public standing of jockeys at the time in the eyes of the racing establishment ruled out the possibility of justice on appeal.
His efforts to re-establish his career, having served his suspension, could have floundered - Smirke was reduced to sleeping on the beach in Brighton as he struggled to make ends meet before returning to the plate in 1933 - had he not secured the ride on Windsor Lad in the following year's Derby, his first Classic win.
Two years later, Smirke was re-established as one of his generation's most gifted pilots, and confirmed this status by winning his second Derby. He had already repaid the Aga's loyalty in restoring him to the saddle after suspension by winning the 1935 St Leger on Bahram. The following year at Epsom, he steered the same owner's Mahmoud to victory in the Derby in a record 2 minutes 33.8 seconds, a time since matched only by the present Aga Khan's Khayasi in 1988.
Smirke repeated the success for the same owner on Tulyar in 1952 and for another powerful owner-breeder of the day, Sir Victor Sassoon, in 1958 on Hard Ridden, at the age of 51. Tulyar went on to win the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the St Leger and was probably Smirke's best Derby winner, despite the evidence of the clock which points to Mahmoud.
Before retiring from riding in 1960, Smirke rode in France for the Aga as stable jockey to Alec Head, himself an outstanding horseman. He won the 1,000 Guineas for Head on Rose Royale II in 1957, but was replaced as the retained rider the same year. Although he considered training on his retirement, Smirke kept no professional links with racing and in later years was rarely seen on a racecourse.
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