Racing: The great trier finally gives up

As Willie Carson retires from the saddle, Richard Edmondson assesses his career
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The Independent Online
It takes something really exceptional to knock Cheltenham off the racing pages at this time of the year, but yesterday the Festival suddenly seemed inconsequential. The reason: Willie Carson retired.

Thirty-five years of fluctuating fortune, and permanent drama, in the saddle were ended when Wee Willie realised his body was not going to recover sufficiently from the parade-ring injuries he sustained at Newbury in September. "I'm an ex-jockey," the 54-year-old said.

True to his fickle end, Carson's retirement came just at a time when racing's followers were looking forward to his return for the start of the Flat season this month. It had appeared all over when Meshhed kicked Carson into orbit and almost into the nether world last year. His liver was reduced to a jigsaw. However, Carson levered himself from the sick bed and embarked on a regime in the gymnasium to ready himself for yet another campaign. But, just as fitness was being reached, the rider's body, and in particular his back, betrayed him. "Obviously I'm disappointed," he said. "I'm not in pain but I am getting old and my body is wearing out."

It has certainly seen heroic service. Since riding his first winner, Pinkers Pond at Catterick in 1962, Carson added 3,827 to his tally in Britain, including 14 Classics. Among them were four Derbys and an association with horses that will always be remembered, the likes of Dunfermline, Troy and Nashwan.

There were plenty yesterday prepared to volunteer that these horses were made by the talent at the helm. "It is like Lester retiring. Willie was every bit as good in his day," Clive Brittain, the trainer, said.

Brittain's hubris can be excused by the emotion of the moment, but Carson was no Lester Piggott. His was not a talent implanted in the womb, but something reclaimed by grim determination and hard work from a poor Scottish upbringing. He retires with the jockey's obligatory high-performance car, his 190-acre Gloucestershire Stud and a six-seater private jet, but you will not catch him throwing bundles of notes out of the window. "I don't know what I'll do now," he said yesterday. "Perhaps one of these phone calls I've had today will offer to make me a millionaire." Only by stripping the prefix "multi" from his financial description.

It is no surprise to learn that William Hunter Fisher Carson was born in Stirling, on 16 November, 1942. Until he came to England and was christened by a journalist, Willie Carson did not exist. His family and friends all knew him as Billy. The young boy's mother, May, told him: "You have to get pennies made, otherwise you will have nothing." Her son acted on the advice immediately, selling snakes and lizards that emerged from crates at the banana-packing warehouse where his father worked.

The short-trousered businessman supplemented his earnings with a paper round and spent the money on riding lessons. "I was just about the only boy," he once said. "Most of them were posh girls whose parents would drop them off in their big cars."

Carson's resolution meant he was not fazed by having to wait three years for his first win and his doggedness has stood him in good stead. The skins of the fruit in the packing plant have long been around for him, notably when a fall at York in 1983 left him close to losing his life.

It is this fortitude that has promulgated the legend of Wee Willie. He may lie fourth in the all-time list behind the likes of Gordon Richards and Piggott, but he never dominated his contemporaries as they did. Carson instead established himself as the great trier, a man who would give his utmost in pursuit of victory and consequently salvage the punter's pound. This image was enhanced by a riding style, which saw his skullcap pointing through his mounts' ears when he got down into the drive position. This worked as long as Willie was pointing in the right direction.

A mistaken portrait though, largely the product of his guffawing displays at the Question Of Sport captain's table, is of a consistently frolicsome character breezing through life. Carson can, in fact, be a deeply sombre figure (particularly during his recent recuperation), a man given to bouts of awkwardness when the breeze is in the wrong direction.

The Scot's occasional lapse into depression can be partly explained by his position as the monkey on Piggott's organ and partly by a comment he made on the divorce from his first wife. "I wanted to better myself but Carole was happy plodding along," he said. "I had been involved with aristocracy, seen what they did, and I presume I thought that was the way to go." For much of his career Carson kept company with the blue bloods, but misunderstood that they enjoyed him not as a member of their court but rather the dancing jester. His real achievements of durability and endeavour are perhaps better appreciated by those at the other end of the social ladder.

Carson's injuries must be bad if the Classic potential of Bahhare cannot lure him back to the saddle and the jockey says the chances of him returning are 10,000-1. When he is offering a generous price like that, it is probably best to take him at his word.

The racing world rises to acclaim the ability of `a very, very hard man to beat'

DICK HERN

The trainer who provided Carson with several of his most memorable winners, said: "I am very sad he is giving up, but he is probably doing the right thing. He is 54 now and has had some horrific falls. And you don't fall as light at 54 as you do when you are 24. He was very supportive of me when I was in hospital and when I lost the job at West Ilsley, and I shall never forget that. He has finished when he is still at the top of the tree. His nerve is just as good as ever and his riding is as good as ever, and that is the right time to do it."

JOHN DUNLOP

The trainer of Carson's last major winner, Bahhare, said: "He rode 641 winners for me, which is quite amazing. It is about 25% of the winners I have trained. He rode a particularly memorable race on Bahri when he won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, but most remarkable of all was the Derby on Erhaab, when he was last early on but came up the inside rail and won quite easily. He was tremendously popular with racegoers and not just in Britain. In Italy they would cheer `Willie, Willie'."

CLIVE BRITTAIN

The trainer for whom Carson rode before joining Hern, said: "It is like Lester retiring. Willie was every bit as good in his day. To me, Willie is 10ft tall as a man and as a jockey he had a great knack of feeling for a horse and he gave everything, 100%."

WALLY SWINBURN

The former jockey and father of the Derby-winning rider, Walter, recalls the earliest days of Carson's career: "We were apprentices together with Sam Armstrong. He had tremendous ability, and Sam recognised that. He was a very, very hard competitor and a hard man to beat."

STEVE CAUTHEN

The jockey who rode alongside Carson through the 1980s, said: "Willie's a good guy and when you talk about the great riders of the era, you would mention Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery and you would mention Willie."

ANGUS GOLD

The racing manager to Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, by whom Carson was retained, said: " He was a vital part of our team over a long period of time. We were very lucky to have such an experienced jockey and a man with such a good racing brain. I'm very sad he has decided this but I'm delighted that he is in one piece."

FACTFILE

Born: November 16, 1942, in Stirling.

Married: May 5 1982 to Elaine. Three sons, Anthony, Neil and Ross.

First winner: Pinkers Pond, 19 July, 1962, Catterick.

First century: 1971.

Champion jockey: 1972, 1973, 1978, 1980, 1983.

Best season: 1990 (187 winners).

English Classic wins (14): 1,000 Guineas - Salsabil (1990) and Shadayid (1991); 2,000 Guineas High Top (1972), Known Fact (1980), Don't Forget Me (1987), Nashwan (1989); Derby - Troy (1979), Henbit (1980), Nashwan (1989), Erhaab (1994). Oaks - Dunfermline (1977), Bireme (1980), Sun Princess (1983), Salsabil (1990), Shadayid (1991); St Leger- Dunfermline (1977), Sun Princess (1983) Minster Son (1988).

CARSON'S PLACE AMONG THE ALL-TIME GREATS

Jockey Titles Best Career Flat

total winners

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