Greville Starkey: Jockey whose many wins in major races were overshadowed by defeat on Dancing Brave

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:00

Greville Starkey was one of Britain's most renowned jockeys for two decades with a litany of major-race successes in a career lasting nearly 35 years. Although he was never champion jockey, Starkey partnered a total of 1,989 winners in Britain, and well over 2,000 when victories abroad are taken into consideration.

Among his most prestigious triumphs were a handful of Classics, most notably the Derby, in 1978 on Shirley Heights. Starkey partnered the same horse to victory in the Irish Derby at The Curragh a few weeks later during an annus mirabilis marked by a memorable "double-double" in which he also partnered Fair Salinia to win the fillies' equivalent, the Oaks, in both countries. Another highlight was an unlikely victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp on the German-trained Star Appeal, an unconsidered 119-1 longshot when taking Europe's premier horserace in Paris in 1975, beating a field including at least two genuine superstars in those flying fillies Allez France and Dahlia.

However, despite such a glittering career, it was Starkey's misfortune that he is always likely to be chiefly remembered for a race he lost – the 1986 Derby on the great colt Dancing Brave, generally regarded one of the best horses of the modern era. After Starkey had ridden him to a fluent victory in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, Dancing Brave went to Epsom as one of the hottest favourites in Derby history. He duly produced a spectacular performance, making a tremendous run up the straight from a long way back.

Too far, as it turned out. Starkey, at his strongest, had produced Shirley Heights from an unpromising position to beat Hawaiian Sound with a daringly opportunistic run up the rail in 1978, but this time Dancing Brave could not catch the Aga Khan's Shahrastani, who beat him by half a length – and Starkey was forced to carry the can for having set his mount an impossible task.

Although Starkey was in the saddle when Dancing Brave embellished his reputation next time out in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, he was replaced by Pat Eddery in later races. Prolonged criticism of his Epsom display overshadowed Starkey's later years and was said to have embittered him to the extent that he refused to discuss the episode. It can have been only cold comfort when Eddery rode Dancing Brave in identical fashion in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe to record one of the most sensational victories ever seen in the Longchamp showpiece, thereby ensuring the horse a lasting place in the equine pantheon.

Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, in 1939, Starkey was the son of a factory worker. His racing career began when he was apprenticed to the Newmarket-based trainer Tom Jones in 1955; he rode his first winner on Russian Gold at Pontefract in June 1956.

Starkey was later retained by John Oxley (1963-89) and Henry Cecil in his formative years before a near-15-year tenure as stable jockey to Dancing Brave's trainer Guy Harwood at Pulborough in West Sussex, where he was an integral part of the operation from 1975 to 1989. He also rode regularly throughout his career for the powerful Michael Stoute team, which he joined as a senior work-rider for a seven-year spell after his retirement.

Starkey won five British Classic races altogether, starting with the 1964 Oaks on Homeward Bound. As well as the Epsom triumphs of Shirley Heights and Fair Salinia, he won the 2,000 Guineas on To-Agori-Mou five years before Dancing Brave collected the same race.

Starkey won nearly all of Britain's most celebrated Flat races, among them Britain's all-aged championship event, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, aboard Kalaglow in 1982. He won both the Ascot Gold Cup and Eclipse Stakes on three occasions and the Sussex Stakes twice, latterly on the French Classic winner Soviet Star in 1987.

Renowned as a practical joker with a mischievous sense of humour somewhat at odds with a deadpan demeanour, Starkey's nickname among his weighing-room peers was "The Barker" on account of his talent for mimicry, his favourite party trick involving a remarkably accurate impression of a Jack Russell terrier. One of his most celebrated japes involved his delaying the departure of a transatlantic jet while cabin staff searched for the barking dog that had evidently stowed away for the flight.

Starkey may have needed to call on his highly attuned sense of the absurd to explain a notorious incident at Royal Ascot in 1988, where his mount, Ile De Chypre, veered suddenly right across the track and unseated his jockey yards from the line when victory had looked assured. A year later, a car dealer accused of drugs-related offences claimed he had caused the incident by using a "stun gun", a sonic weapon disguised as binoculars to emit high-frequency sounds inaudible to human hearing.

The defendant suggested that cocaine-tainted bank notes found in his car had been paid out by bookmakers after his alleged coup at Ascot, and even Starkey himself became tangentially involved when he supplied ponies to test the weapon's efficacy. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the fanciful nature of the defence, the trial ended in the car dealer's conviction for conspiracy to supply.

Starkey was to ride his final winner on Rock Hopper at Newmarket in November 1989, after which he bought a stud, taking in horses and breaking yearlings. In his later years he became a private figure, rarely seen on the racecourse, as he endured an eight-year fight with the cancer that was to claim him.

According to Starkey's friend, the former Sporting Life editor Monty Court, the quondam jockey always missed his former vocation. "While it is true to say that the weighing room was never the same without Starkey," Court said in the Racing Post, "it is also, sadly, true to say that he was never the same without the weighing room."

Nicholas Godfrey

Greville Michael Wilson Starkey, jockey: born Lichfield 21 December 1939; married 1974 Christine Simpson (separated; two daughters), partner to Julie Elliott; died 14 April 2010.

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