Racing: Tragic waste of a true hero

The Anniversary: Today in 1886, Fred Archer, arguably the greatest jockey of all, shot himself
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The Independent Online
FRED ARCHER was about to become champion jockey for the 13th consecutive time. It had been, as usual, some season. He had ridden 170 winners, including the stupendous colt, Ormonde, in the Derby and St Leger which had brought to 21 his number of Classic victories.

His career record showed that he won one in every three races. He had ridden 200 winners in a season eight times. Only three other jockeys, Gordon Richards, Frankie Dettori and Kieren Fallon, have done that more than once and Fallon made it a quartet only this week. Archer was, by statistical evaluation, general consent and several furlongs the best race rider of the age.

On 29 October, 1886, he guided Blanchland home at Newmarket, on 4 November he partnered Tommy Tittlemouse in the Castle Selling Plate at Lewes. They were to be, respectively, his last winner and his last ride. On 8 November, back in Newmarket, he shot himself dead. He was 29.

The circumstances leading to this tragedy, cutting off in his prime a man who might have set unbreakable records, remain, at the distance of more than a century, ineffably sad. Archer had been born to horsemanship. His father, William, was a jockey who rode Little Charley to victory in the 1858 Grand National.

At the age of 11, Fred was apprenticed to the formidable trainer, Matthew Dawson. Two years later, in 1870, he rode his first winner and his progress thereafter was unstoppable. In nine successive seasons he beat his own previous annual number of winners, bagging his first century at 16, his first championship at 17 and his first double century at 18.

The first Classic winner arrived when he 17 as well, Atlantic in the 2,000 Guineas. Archer had to wait until he was 20 for his first Derby winner, Silvio, but he was to have four others. The trouble was that as his talent burgeoned so did Fred. He grew to a height of 5ft 10in and his natural weight was around 11st. He could do nothing about the height but was resolute in reducing his weight by three stones.

To assist in his permanent wasting regime he used a cathartic which became known as Archer's Mixture. Gradually, the regime began to affect Archer not only physically but also mentally. But his desire and his results somehow stayed intact, and in the Derby of 1880 he produced what was probably his greatest ride.

He was aboard the 2-1 favourite, Bend Or, but the omens were not propitious. A few weeks before, Archer had been seriously hurt after a training gallop when an unruly horse to whom he had given several hard rides (he was not known for his gentility towards his equine charges) extracted revenge by mauling the jockey. Archer suffered a badly injured arm, which put him out of action.

His weight ballooned and he had to shed a stone in four days to take the ride on Bend Or. Thus, he was in a weakened state. Nor was his arm yet cured and he wore a metal brace under his jacket to try to stabilise it. Archer rode a furious race but a quarter of a mile out was still two lengths behind Robert The Devil. Archer went for his whip but his injured arm caused him to drop it. He kept going, positioned the horse perfectly on the run-in and won by a head.

He kept on winning, notably for Lord Falmouth, but his life away from the course, already one of constant self- denial, was to take a worse turn. In 1884 his wife, Nellie, died in childbirth. Archer plunged into deep depression. That and the perpetual need to reduce his bulk took a steadily grim toll. Yet still he managed to ride 246 winners in 1885, a record which was to stand for 62 years. It was no more or no less a triumph of the will against increasing odds.

Matters began to reach a head in October 1886. He wanted to ride St Mirrin in the Cambridgeshire and once more wasted aggressively to make the weight. He put up one pound overweight and the horse was pipped by a head. Archer's condition was growing worse. He insisted on riding, but by now he was in a fever. After his assignment in Lewes he went home for medical treatment but he was becoming irreversibly delirious. It was too late for Fred Archer.

He was, by any standards in any era, a phenomenal jockey. His 8,084 mounts brought him 2,748 winners. Neither before or since has there been a bigger friend to punters.