Racing: Eddery looks forward to life out of the saddle

The Brian Viner Interview: After 36 years as a jockey, the former champion is making plans for his new career running an owners' syndicate
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The Independent Online

My late father, an inveterate gambler and horse-racing nut, opened a betting-shop in Liverpool in the late Sixties, and unwittingly made it his business to disprove the old adage that there's no such thing as a poor bookie. He died not many years later, in 1976. I was 14, lurching awkwardly through adolescence, and it is an enduring regret that I never knew him on man-to-man terms. Perhaps to make up for this, I later formed an enthusiasm for some of the performers he most admired, such as Lester Piggott, Terry Biddlecombe and Peter O'Sullevan. It is a tenuous connection with him, but a satisfying one.

It gives me a particular kick to see those of his enthusiasms that are still going strong. Shirley Bassey, for example, and Fawlty Towers. Forgive me if you've read this before, for I have written it before, but I once had lunch with John Cleese in a Greek taverna in north London, where I told him that the most vivid memory I had of my old man was of him howling with laughter at Fawlty Towers. Cleese - whose experiences in psychoanalysis have doubtless taught him to let rip with his emotions - became instantly moist-eyed. He reached across the table towards me, but whether to hug me or shake my hand I wasn't quite sure, and I don't think he was, either. We ended up doing high fives, so clumsily that I got a blob of taramasalata on my elbow.

Pat Eddery was another man my father admired hugely, and he is another still going strong today. The 1975 Derby, which the little Irishman won on Grundy, was the last the old man saw. I tell Eddery this, across the kitchen table in his large Buckinghamshire farmhouse, but we do not end up performing high fives. And there is no taramasalata to worry about either, indeed no food in evidence at all, which is not surprising. There are people who know Eddery well who say they've never, ever seen him finish a sandwich.

Anyway, I tell him how heart-warming I find it that I am able to back his rides just as my dad was all those years ago, and explain why. He looks at me with bright blue eyes. "Right," he says. The 11-times champion jockey is not a man of great eloquence, except of course in the saddle, where his deeds speak volumes.

But now, he tells us, he is quitting the saddle. For me it is the end of a cherished link with the past, although of course it is remarkable that he has gone on as long as he has. Even more remarkable, however, is that his announcement caused such surprise in Flat-racing circles. At 51 he is as formidably fit, as fit as he ever was, and it had been widely assumed that he would push on to beat the 4,870 winners ridden by the great Sir Gordon Richards. Eddery is second on the all-time list, a little under 300 behind. To put that in perspective, he edges Piggott, with 4,493, into third place. And Piggott, unsurprisingly, is the jockey Eddery admired most.

"l used to look at the horse he'd ridden and think 'why did that win?' He'd ride horses other jockeys couldn't get anything from, and when he was on them they'd sail in. There was another jockey like that, Bill Shoemaker. Horses just loved him."

Of course, Eddery too could - and can - reach the parts many other jockeys cannot reach. And if he wanted it badly enough, he could surely claim the record for himself. "But it would take at least three years for me to get Sir Gordon Richards' record," he says. "And I've already been at it for 36 years."

The prestigious Coral-Eclipse, which unfolds today at Sandown Park, gives a telling indication of Eddery's longevity. He first won it in 1974, on the 33-1 shot Coup De Feu, and would be competing in it again this afternoon except that trainer John Dunlop wants him to ride Time Ahead in the Lancashire Oaks at Haydock. If he wins on Time Ahead, Eddery tells me, the filly will probably be entered for the Irish Oaks. The way he says this makes me think that it is his most devout wish, and I resolve to make a modest investment in the prospect of Time Ahead edging his wins tally a little closer to that of Sir Gordon Richards.

That he does not yearn for the record says a lot about him. Eddery has never been driven by ego, and has always been one of the most popular jockeys in the weighing-room. It is said that he treats the apprentices with as much kindness and respect as he does the elder statesmen, which is a measure of class in any walk of life.

As for his own next walk of life, he is starting an owners' syndicate in which he will buy horses and place them with the trainers he thinks will get the most out of them. "I did some buying and selling last year for the first time and really enjoyed it," he says. "I went to the sales with my friend Grant Pritchard-Gordon, racing manager to Prince Khaled Abdullah, and had a really good time. So that's why I'm retiring. It's nothing to do with fitness." And nothing to do with failing to ride 100 winners last season for the first time in donkey's years (he was left stranded on 99)? "No, it's all about this new venture I'm starting up."

The syndicate members will be getting a lifetime of experience for their money. Eddery's father Jimmy was an accomplished jockey, an Irish Derby winner, so was his mother's father, and he was riding racehorses by the time he was eight. "My future was mapped out for me," he says. "School didn't mean anything. I left when I was 13."

He did a year's apprenticeship with Seamus McGrath near Leopardstown, and was then delivered by his father to Frenchie Nicholson's yard near Cheltenham racecourse. No sooner had they arrived than his father turned tail for Ireland, having signed the forms that would make Nicholson his son's legal guardian for the next five years.

"It wasn't like now, where if an apprentice doesn't like a trainer he can move. In those days you were stuck there for five years. And it was tough. I got 10 shillings a week and lived in not very good digs, and Frenchie Nicholson was very tough, very strict. If you got up to mischief, you got a whack round the ear. And I couldn't ring my father. There was no phone. But he was a good master. I already thought I could ride, but he taught me a hell of a lot. He taught me how to get on with different horses, how to keep them calm. He would ride out with you, and if you did something wrong he'd have his crop and belt you over the head with it."

Eddery laughs merrily. He recalls being given his first proper ride at Aintree, in 1968 (coincidentally at about the time a new bookie's shop was opening up the road), but had 78 rides before he passed the finishing post first, a month after his 17th birthday. "My first winner was a horse called Alvaro who then won six on the bounce, and I was on him all the time. That put me on the map."

He soon consolidated his place on the map, and in 1974 established his star quality beyond doubt, winning not just the Eclipse on the unfancied Coup De Feu but also the Oaks, and clinching the championship for the first time. The following year came the first of his three Derbies, although it was the second, on Golden Fleece in 1982, that remains his pick of the bunch.

"I'd say Golden Fleece was the best horse I ever rode. He was a freak, 17 hands, a great big, highly strung horse. He had so much bean, yet stayed a mile and a half. He wasn't easy to ride, though. He used to pull very hard."

The Derby (in which this year he finished second, giving The Great Gatsby a wonderful ride) is not, he thinks, quite the difficult proposition it was. "You used to get an awful lot of runners years ago, and it was rough. But the stewards have clamped down. The cameras are so much better and they can see any movement... so I have had to improve the way I ride, even in the past year, because in most races now you have to keep straight when you come out of the stalls until you reach these new markers."

He has not, however, changed his distinctive style, standing high in the stirrups. "All the boys now are taught to ride American-style, staying low. But I think why should I change?" Why indeed? But what might he change, I wonder, if someone proclaimed him the overlord, the Bernie Ecclestone, of Flat racing?

"I'd close the course at Brighton. I won't go to Brighton any more. It's a very dangerous track. There's a steep downhill, and two bad roads, and I've seen two people killed there. I hate the place. But the main thing that needs changing is the prize money. We have the best racing in the world, but we're so far behind the rest of the world with our prize money it isn't true. The money doesn't go up, it goes down. A three-year-old maiden worth maybe £2,500 or £3,000... I was going around in the Seventies for that. The money in day-to-day races is rubbish."

He approves mightily of the British Horseracing Board's Summer Triple Crown and Grand Slam initiative, whereby a winner of the Coronation Cup, the Oaks, the Derby or the Prince of Wales's Stakes, who then wins both the Eclipse and the King George, wins the Triple Crown and with it £1,000,000. If the same horse then wins the Juddmonte International Stakes at York on 19 August, the prize money increases to £5,000,000.

Needless to say, Eddery has won all the above races, most of them several times over. And as a past winner of the Arlington Million in America (as well as two Breeders' Cups) he understands the power of six noughts. But otherwise riding in America is no different from here, he says.

"The only difference is that in Florida or California, the quarantined horses are not allowed out until 9 o'clock in the morning, and by then it's too hot. That's why our horses don't do well there. They let all the American horses go round early, and let ours out when it's baking hot, at a time of year when they're getting woolly, getting their coats."

On which subject, it is almost time for me to get my coat. But before I do I ask if I can look at some of the mementoes of a 36-year riding career. The only trophies on display are ones for dressage and eventing won by his daughter, Natasha. Typically, his are in cupboards somewhere, he's not sure where. But there are numerous paintings of him astride his most famous mounts.

"That's Dancing Brave, when we won the Arc [in 1986; unforgettably, Eddery won the Arc de Triomphe three times in four years]. And that's Grundy. My other daughter, Nichola, is an artist. That's a painting she did of Istabraq. And that's El Gran Senor [on which he won the 2,000 Guineas in 1984]."

For a second he looks almost rueful. Might he reconsider his decision to retire, I ask. After all, he wouldn't be the first retired jockey to make a comeback. "No, I've made my decision and that's it," he says flatly. "But I will miss it a lot." At least he might now get to finish the odd sandwich. "That's true," he says.


Born: 18 March 1952, Newbridge, Co Kildare

Married: 13 November, 1978 to Carolyn, daughter of the late jockey Manny Mercer. Three children - Nicola, Natasha and Harry.

Apprenticeship: Seamus McGrath 1966-67; Frenchie Nicholson 1967-72; Champion apprentice 1971.

Retainers: 1973-80 Peter Walwyn; 1981-86 Robert Sangster; 1987-94 Khalid Abdulla; 1995- freelance

First ride in Britain: Dido's Dowry, sixth at Liverpool (30 March, 1968).

First winner: Alvaro, Epsom (24 April, 1969).

First big winner: Sky Rocket, Wokingham Handicap, Royal Ascot (1969).

Winners: 4,585 (second highest in the history of racing, behind Sir Gordon Richards)

Championships: 11 (plus Irish Championship, 1982).

British Classic Winners: 1,000 Guineas: 1996; 2,000 Guineas: 1983, 1984, 1993; Derby: 1975, 1982, 1990; Oaks: 1974, 1979, 1996; St Leger: 1986, 1991, 1994, 1997.

Most remarkable achievement: More century seasons than any other jockey, recording them in every year from 1973 to 2001 (1982 being the exception). Agonisingly recorded 99 in his last full season in 2002. In 1990 he rode 209 winners in one season.

Other sporting interests: His other passion is tennis and he frequently took a fortnight's break to enjoy the action from the All England Club.

Pastimes: In the winter break he busies himself with the breeding of yearlings on his stud farm. These horses are often sired by the very horses he won the classics with. With his retirement he will turn this hobby into a career with his 'Pat Eddery Racing Team'.

He says: "Obviously I am going to miss the riding but I've got to get on with my life and this is something new and exciting." When talking of his new enterprise, demonstrating the zeal which has led to his being held in such esteem.

They say: "Pat is a marvellous jockey, a real gentlemen and a tremendous ambassador for racing - he will not be easily replaced." Henry Cecil, trainer of Bosra Sham, on which Eddery won the 1,000 Guineas.

"There are no frills. He has been a great ambassador and role model. I'd rather have 99 per cent of the jockeys against me in a finish than Pat." Kevin Darley speaking on behalf of his fellow jockeys following Eddery's retirement announcement.

Chris MacDonald