JOHNNIE GILBERT was certainly the finest hurdles rider since the war and probably the second best of all time. In retirement he was an outstandingly dedicated instructor at the British Racing School in Newmarket.
The trainer and Grand National-winning jockey Bruce Hobbs, an exact contemporary, said: '(Gilbert) was unquestionably the best hurdles jockey I ever saw or rode against, a cheerful, polite, genuine star, a natural with tremendous style, panache and personality. He stood out among the other jockeys. He had an air about him . . . Johnnie . . . was a perfectionist workaholic. At the racing school he made himself entirely responsible for cutting all the grass and keeping the place neat and tidy.'
Gilbert, born a northerner in 1920, served his apprenticeship at Epsom with Stanley Wootton, the greatest master trainer of young jockeys. He rode successfully on the Flat and, after war service, graduated to hurdles, becoming the most sought after jockey by leading trainers such as Fulke Walwyn and Tom Jones, for whom he rode as stable jockey for 14 seasons.
He rode winners on 10 successive mounts in September 1959 and, concentrating only on hurdles, scored 38 victories in the 1959-60 season, finishing sixth in the Jockey's Table. His many wins included the Triumph Hurdle on Amazon's Choice; the Lancashire Hurdle, on Agramante, French Flyer, and Rosati; the Imperial Cup, on Anglesey and Secret Service; the Liverpool Hurdle, on Rahsas; and the Cheltenham Hurdle, on Avec Toi.
In 1973 Gilbert was appointed Racing Instructor to the Joint Racing Board Apprentice Training Scheme at the National Equestrian Centre, Stoneleigh. Two years later it was resited at Goodwood before being named the British Racing School and moved to its present purpose-built premises at Newmarket in 1984. As senior instructor, Gilbert stood no nonsense. Michael Pope, a former committee member of the British Racing School, said: 'He was one of the old school, called a spade a spade and if he thought a youngster's attitude was not right or they were the wrong shape for racing, he would soon boot them out. But he was absolutely dedicated to getting the right people through the courses.'
The leading National Hunt trainer David Nicholson, who also rode against Gilbert, said: 'He was a wonderful jockey. Hard but very fair. Tremendously conscientious, he would always walk the course and map out his route, even selecting the hurdles he would jump because, if possible, he always liked to make the running.'
And Brigadier Roscoe Harvey, the former amateur rider who controlled the discipline of British racing for 28 years, said yesterday: 'I reckon that Gilbert was the second best hurdles jockey of all time. Having seen the lot and ridden against many of them, there is only one whom I put above him, the legendary George Duller, who was, of course, riding just before and after the First World War.'
Gilbert is survived by his wife, Meg, his daughter, Anne, a successful horsewoman married to one of the leading Flat jockeys, Ray Cochrane, and his son, Andrew, who acts as Cochrane's agent.